When getting ready to teach Susan Glaspell’s Trifles (1916) last week, I found myself looking through the anthology I am using for some poems to go along with the play. I found a couple by Amy Lowell and Edna St. Vincent Millay that would have possibly worked; however, none of them captured the spirit of Minnie Wright’s confinement and pain quite like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Housewife” which appeared in her collection Suffrage Songs and Verses (1911). Today, I want to briefly look at the ways we can use Gilman’s “The Housewife” when discussing Glaspell’s Trifles.
This post could cover all of Gilman’s poem; however, I am only going to focus on two stanzas, dissecting them then showing how they relate to Trifles. The first stanza presents the house that the narrator lives and works within as a “cradle” then as a structure that “enclos[es]” her in a sense of confinement even though her “lord” and “children dear” occupy the structure. In the second stanza, the oppressive nature of the house becomes even more evident, and the language that Gilman deploys recalls the language of nineteenth century authors like Lydia Maria Child, the Grimké sisters , and others in the words that describe the narrator’s role in the house as one of bondage.
Here for the hours of the day and the hours of the night;
Bound with the bands of Duty, rivetted tight;
Duty older than Adam — Duty that saw
Acceptance utter and hopeless in the eyes of the serving squaw.
In the second line, the image of confinement and bondage appear with “Bound with bands” and “rivetted tight” as if the narrator cannot escape the position she occupies. She exists within this position, of course, because of “Duty,” a word that is capitalized and appears three times in two lines, driving home its role in keeping her in place. Thinking back to the nineteenth century idea of the Cult of True Womanhood, this “Duty” calls upon the narrator to remain submissive to her husband and to maintain a home that will help her family grow and succeed. Even though the narrator accepts this “Duty,” she remains “hopeless.”
The third stanza breaks down what the narrator’s “Duty” actually entails in the maintenance of the household. Here, Gilman drives home the repetitive nature of the narrator’s existence in her daily “duties.”
Food and the serving of food — that is my daylong care;
What and when we shall eat, what and how we shall wear;
Soiling and cleaning of things — that is my task in the main —
Soil them and clean them and soil them — soil them and clean them again.
The narrator serves the family food all day, dresses them, and continually cleans their clothes. The last two lines, through variations of “soil,” creates a repetition that causes the reader to think about the monotony of being confined to the house without the ability to move outside of it. The narrator expands on this at the start of the third stanza: “To work at my trade by the dozen and never a trade to know.” Even though she works a trade (housewife), she will never know a trade outside of the home, and this becomes exceedingly clear in the final stanza when she intones that her “mind is trodden in circles, tiresome, narrow and hard,/ Useful, commonplace, private.”
From the very beginning of Glaspell’s play, the role of the women becomes clearly defined, even though they are the focal point of the narrative and discover the motive for Minnie Wright killing her husband. For one, the play takes place entirely in the Wrights’ kitchen, Minnie Wright’s space. As the actors enter, the stage direction reads:
At the rear the outer door opens and the Sheriff comes in followed by the County Attorney and Hale. The Sheriff and Hale are men in middle life, the County Attorney is a young man; all are much bundled up and go at once to the stove. They are followed by the two women—the Sheriff’s wife first; she is a slight wiry woman, a thin nervous face. Mrs. Hale is larger and would ordinarily be called more comfortable looking, but she is disturbed now and looks fearfully about as she enters. The women have come in slowly, and stand close together near the door.
The men enter the room first, heading straight for the fire to warm themselves after being outside in the cold. The women “follow,” not going towards the fire but remaining close together near the door. In this way, the lines between the men and the women (the professionals and the housewives) gets drawn before the audience hears any of the characters speak. (Note the staging in the image below from the first performance of the play.)
As the play progresses, the women discover various items in Minnie’s kitchen that lead them to figure out why she killed her husband in his sleep. They discover the bird, the frantic stitching of the quilt, the dishes, the bread, and other items. To the men, these items hold no importance to their inquiry, and in fact, Hale, at one point, tells the attorney, “Well, women are used to worrying over trifles.” The women move closer together at this moment. For the men, the day-to-day work of Minnie means nothing; however, the women know and understand the full time work that goes into being a housewife like Minnie. When the attorney asks Mrs. Hale whether she liked Minnie or ever visited her, Mrs. Hale replies, “Farmers’ wives have their hands full, Mr Henderson.”
In their own ways, both “The Housewife” and Trifles subvert the Cult of True Womanhood that continued to persist.Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters subvert it by discovering Minnie’s motive for killing her husband then by refusing to give the information up to the authorities who are their husbands. Gilman subverts the cult in the last line of her poem: “I cover the earth with my children — each with a housewife’s brain.” In this line, Gilman highlights that the housewife educated the children she birthed, leading them out into the world, this countering the stereotype that being a housewife does not equate to having a job.
There is more that could be said here, of course. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham