9 July 2013
When Morally Just is Superior to Legally Just in Glaspell’s Trifles
A bird’s life for a man’s life seems like a terrible way of justifying the taking of a human being’s existence. Susan Glaspell’s play, Trifles, however, demonstrates why a dead bird can push a wife to killing her husband. With Mr. Wright’s home, specifically the kitchen, as the setting, Glaspell reveals two approaches to finding the truth and serving justice. Two groups want to know if Minnie Foster Wright killed her husband, John Wright. On the one hand, County Attorney George Henderson, Sheriff Henry Peters, and neighboring farmer Lewis Hale search the bedroom and the barn for clues. On the other hand, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale do their own informal investigation. Did Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale do what is right by keeping evidence from the County Attorney? Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale have chosen what is morally just, not what is legally just, and their decision to do so is justified because Minnie experienced serious psychological abuse, Minnie represents the victims of the patriarchal society, and their society’s framework of justice overlooks the moral injustice that Mrs. Wright gravely went through.
The play shows the difference between moral justice and legal justice. Suzy Clarkson Holstein, Associate Professor of English in Carroll College, Waukesha, explores the theme of justice in Trifles. She argues that the play shows that sometimes, moral justice is not exactly the same as legal justice, wherein Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale pursue moral justice by including “the ethic of care” in making their decision about the evidence they have discovered. Holstein stresses: “The ethic of care, the notion of responsibility within relationships especially, takes precedence in such a construction over strict formulations of justice based on precise reciprocity” (288). Legally, Minnie should be imprisoned if she killed her husband. Mrs. Peters initially lacks empathy for Mrs. Wright. While Mrs. Hale seems to justify what happened to Mr. Wright because of how he treated his wife, Mrs. Peters answers: “The law has got to punish crime, Mrs. Hale” (Glaspell 27). A black-and-white morality is present in legal justice, where one action leads to only one kind of consequence. Mariticide, or the killing of one’s husband, can be punished with death penalty or life imprisonment, depending on state laws. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, however, use moral justice in their investigation. Their moral justice answers not only the question of who killed John, but why he is killed. Mrs. Hale judges Mr. Wright’s character and says: “Just to pass the time of day with him. Like a raw wind that gets to the bone” (Glaspell 21). She provides her perception of what kind of a man Mr. Wright is because it helps understand what happened to him too. Holstein demonstrates the importance of context to the female characters’ investigation: “Their perspective impels them imaginatively to relive her entire married life rather than simply to research one violent moment” (286). From here, these women go around the kitchen, both preparing things for Mrs. Wright and unnoticeably going though their investigation. Their process emphasizes the contextual basis of moral justice.
Legal justice, on the contrary, has a masculine orientation, where masculine values and norms are emphasized. The County Attorney is the lead investigator and he represents legal justice through his rational investigation approach. His method for finding out the truth is based on what is visible to him, so he prioritizes keeping the criminal scene in order, such as ensuring that nothing has been moved in the house and preferring that someone has been left behind to guard it (Glaspell 4). All he sees is what is in front of him, without uncovering the deeper context of the crime. Furthermore, the County Attorney focuses on the masculine spaces of the house. While the female characters stay in the kitchen, he and the others see it as a place of trifles, and they proceed to the barn and the bedroom. The Sheriff confirms the high value placed on masculine places by saying that in the kitchen, there is “[n]othing here but kitchen things” (Glaspell 8). They do not even consider the possibility that the kitchen would reveal something significant about the case, only because it is a woman’s place. Moreover, the County Attorney judges Mrs. Wright according to patriarchal norms and values. He shows disgust over the dirty towel in the kitchen: “Dirty towels! Not much of a housekeeper, would you say, ladies?” (Glaspell 9). He treats a dirty house as a sufficient measure of Mrs. Wright’s character. His statement reveals that he judges people using masculine norms, where female stereotypes are esteemed. Legal justice in the play is severely biased against women and does not respect the context of the crime.
After defining the difference between moral and legal justice, the essay argues that Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale did what is right because Minnie experienced severe psychological abuse, which justifies her inhumane action against her husband. First, John emotionally abuses his wife by imprisoning her in their home. Mrs. Hale feels bad that she did not visit Mrs. Wright as often as she would have wanted: “I could’ve come. I stayed away because it weren’t cheerful — and that’s why I ought to have come. I — I’ve never liked this place” (Glaspell 21). If Mrs. Hale cannot come to Minnie, Minnie should have visited her, but since she has not, it means that John does not allow her to go to the neighbors and to have friends. He does not allow her to mingle with other women and families, thereby physically and socially alienating her. Second, John controls his wife by making all the decisions in the family. Mrs. Hale knows Mrs. Wright when she was still Minnie Foster and she thinks that John killed her singing and everything that makes her happy: “No, Wright wouldn’t like the bird — a thing that sang. She used to sing. He killed that, too” (Glaspell 25). He does not allow her to continue her usual social activities, such as singing and dancing, even when these practices are normal for both single and married women. As a result, he has taken away her autonomy, and she must have felt both miserable and powerless. Third, John does not allow Minnie to be happy at all. Mrs. Hale describes him as a “hard man” (Glaspell 22). On the outside, he might seem like a good person, but inside, he is a bad person. He kills his wife’s bird, the only source of companionship for Minnie. Mrs. Hale puts herself in Minnie’s shoes: “If there’d been years and years of nothing, then a bird to sing to you, it would be awful — still, after the bird was still” (Glaspell 26). She realizes that Minnie has experienced intense emotional trauma that pushes her to kill her husband. John is a sociopath. He does not deserve to be killed, but Minnie could not help but defend herself against the harmful emotional controls of her husband. After knowing why he is killed, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale realize that Minnie is only defending herself from the emotionally destructive life she endures.
Aside from the psychological abuse defense, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale did what is right because they know what it feels to be under a patriarchal yoke that is so heavy and widespread that the whole womankind carries and endures it. First, Mrs. Peters have experienced patriarchy through the dominance of men in her life. She talks about the boys who took and hurt her cat and says: “If they hadn’t held me back I would have — hurt him” (Glaspell 25). She cannot do anything because as a woman, she has been physically and emotionally held back. Second, Mrs. Hale feels underappreciated as a wife and as a woman. She tells Mrs. Peters: “I know how things can be — for women. I tell you, it’s queer, Mrs. Peters. We live close together and we live far apart” (Glaspell 27). She knows how it is to work so hard to prove her worth and yet feel like a trifle in her husband’s life. Third, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale realize that Minnie had it worst because John took all her freedoms as a human being. Mrs. Hale convinces Mrs. Peters to stay quiet about their discovered evidence: “Oh, I wish I’d come over here once in a while! That was a crime! That was a crime! Who’s going to punish that?” (Glaspell 27). Her suffering began when she married John. Her suffering ended when she killed John. What Minnie suffered, other women suffer too, but she got the worst end than most.
Apart from the patriarchal burdens justification, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale did what is right because their society’s justice framework is severely male-rationality bound, which does not consider moral justice. First, their criminal justice system will not consider Minnie’s distinctive circumstances because of its black-and-white rationality. The County Attorney is looking for “something definite” that could convince the jury that Minnie killed her husband (Glaspell 28). His thinking shows that one piece of evidence can secure Minnie’s punishment because the jury most likely will not care about the context of the crime. Second, male judges and juries will favor the harshest punishment without understanding that Minnie is a victim too. Mrs. Hale knows that the dead canary may convince the jury that Minnie is a senseless killer (Glaspell 28). She is aware that the justice system does not analyze cases deeply enough to understand why Minnie killed John. Third, legal justice breaches moral justice in this case because of its loss of gender values. The County Attorney does not think that it is necessary to search Mrs. Peters: “No, Mrs. Peters doesn’t need supervising. For that matter, a sheriff’s wife is married to the law” (Glaspell 29). The County Attorney talks about the law and its strict boundaries that include women underneath it. Legal justice is limited with its male-centered rationality, while moral justice is more holistic and comprehensive in its analysis of facts and emotions.
Is it right to kill another person? No, this is not justified. However, given Mrs. Wright’s special and general circumstances, she has been pushed to kill her husband. Mrs. Wright is a long-term victim of emotional trauma, which has wrecked her morality and insanity. Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale did what they know is right, which is right for Minnie in particular and for women in general. John does not have to be killed, but he has emotionally abused his wife so completely that he has murdered her humanity. By removing her freedoms, John socially, emotionally, and morally alienated his wife. His wife kills him because she has lost her ability to think and to act like a human being. Thus, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale support moral justice over legal justice. Tying a knot around their silence gives moral justice to Minnie’s history of severe emotional abuse.
Glaspell, Susan. Trifles: A Play in One Act. 1920. Web. 2 July 2013.
Holstein, Suzy Clarkson. “Silent Justice in a Different Key: Glaspell’s ‘Trifles’.” The Midwest
Quarterly 44.3 (2003): 282-290. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 2 July 2013.