The Negative and Destructive Effects of Male-Female Relationships Portrayed in the Writings of Susan Glaspell Susan Glaspell, born in 1882 in Iowa, is a name commonly unknown amongst the popular group; however, it is a name that was once very popular and now it has become virtually forgotten. Many feminist critics including Linda Ben-Zvi have taken up the role of bringing Glaspell’s work back into the main stream. Over the career of Glaspell, she wrote nine novels, more than fifty short stories, and published fourteen plays including a 1931 Pulitzer Prize she won for her play “Alison’s House” (Glaspell 891).
Her most famous writings include the short story “A Jury of her Peers” and the play Trifles which either one of the two “may be found in almost every anthology introducing college students to literature”(Carpentier 92). Because of these two works, Christine Dymkowski, another well known feminist critic has considered Glaspell as “one of the two most accomplished playwrights of the twentieth-century America” (Carpentier 92).
Glaspell’s work has a strong topic of feminist ideas which is why “the stories [Trifles and “A Jury of her Peers”] have enjoyed a surge of popularity since feminist scholars rediscovered it in the early 1970’s…Recently [Trifles and “A Jury of her Peers”] have been republished in collections of works by female authors depicting women’s experiences” (Bryan 1294). Glaspell wrote Trifles in 1916 in a mere ten days and the following year she adapted the play as a short story called “A Jury of her Peers. The two stories are very similar in nature, the only difference being that Trifles includes stage directions since it is written in the form of a drama. Susan Glaspell normally “focuses on the negative and destructive effects that male-female relationships have on women, but she also stresses the ways in which women cope with their circumstances” (Glaspell 891). These ideas are commonly shared between Glaspell’s play Trifles in 1916 and her short story “A Jury of her Peers” in 1917. These two works are based on the real life trial of The John Hossack Murder in 1900.
Glaspell was fresh out of Drake University as a twenty-four year old reporter working for the Des Moines Daily News when she was assigned to cover the case of the “foul” and “revolting” murder of a fifty-nine year old farmer (Bryan 1313). As the case goes, the well to do farmer John Hossack was found dead in his bed with two blunt blows to the head with an axe. When the police came and questioned the wife, Margaret Hossack of thirty three years of marriage, she responded that she was asleep in the bed beside John and only awoke when she heard the stair well door closing (Ben-Zvi 144).
Glaspell reported on this case all the way to the end of the trial where the jury found the wife guilty. This would be Glaspell’s last story as a reporter for the newspaper. Shortly after resigning from the Des Moines Daily News she returned to her hometown and took up writing fictional short stories, and in 1913 she married George Cram Cook which resulted in a major turning point in her career (Carpentier 92). The concept of male dominance was not only apparent in her stories but also in her real life.
Glaspell always considered herself to be a writer of fiction but when she married Cook he made her write plays for the Provincetown Theater. It was not till after the death of cook in 1924 that she returned to write fiction (Carpentier 93). “Trifles is a feminist document because it sympathetically explores the lives of women who would normally be minor figures in a play” (Stephens 53). At the time Glaspell wrote Trifles she was living in a neighborhood that was not afraid of defending the concept of feminism (Ben-Zvi 160).
As Glaspell wrote the play Trifles she recalled many experiences of her work that she did while covering the case of John Hossack, “I never forgot going into the kitchen of a woman locked up in town” (Ben-Zvi 143). This memory stuck around with Glaspell for 16 years, so when she tried to think of a setting for the play Trifles it was natural for her to locate the play in a kitchen. Glaspell knew that all good theater stories incorporated a murder story “therefore, it is not surprising that contemporary dramatists should turn to murder—to murder by women—as sources for plays” (Ben-Zvi 141).
The stories Trifles and “A Jury of her Peers” incorporate many of the experiences Glaspell had as a reporter covering the Hossack murder. The stories tell an experience that two women had while going with their husbands to a house where a murder had taken place. The reason for the women going was to get a few things together for Mrs. Wright who has been put in jail for the murder of her husband Mr. Wright. The tone of the play starts out very serious. Only the men are talking and the two women remain together in the corner away from the men. The women do not have any lines until the topic of the irty kitchen is brought up by the County Attorney: “Here’s a nice mess. ” [The women draw nearer. ] “Oh, her fruit; it did freeze. She worried about that when it turned so cold. She said the fire’d go out and her jars would break” “Well, can you beat the women! Held for murder and worryin’ about her preserves. ” “I guess before we’re through she may have something more serious than preserves to worry about. ” “Well, women are used to worrying over trifles” (Trifles 895). What is ironic about this brief dialogue is drastically important to the tone of the whole play.
While the men take off on their wild goose egg hunt to try and find any clue that could lead to evidence against the murderer, the women are left in the kitchen to clean up the mess that was left behind. As the men leave, the following is said about the women being left behind in the kitchen: As the men make their way upstairs, the sheriff asks if there is anything his wife should not touch while she prepares the items she has promised to take to Mrs. Wright in the prison. Mr. Henderson says that Mrs. Peters is one of them, and urges the women condescendingly to look for clues.
Mr. Hale chimes in that the women would not know a clue if they came upon it. (“Jury” 265-266) The women by pure womanly nature stumble upon the very evidence that the men are so looking for and not only do they solve the cause and motive behind the murder they also cover the tracks of Minnie Wright so that the men will not find the evidence. “In the short story, Glaspell contrasts the approaches of the men and the women in their investigation and comprehension of a crime, revealing differences in how they discover and decode clues at the crime scene” (Bryan 1306).
Even if the men had stayed in the kitchen and only looked for clues there, the case still would have gone unsolved, because the men would not of been so quick to catch on to the same clues in the way the two women did. What is more interesting is that the women are strangers to each other. Both of them where brought up in completely different surroundings and the two’s unfriendliness was very obvious in the beginning of “A Jury of her Peers” as the two loaded up into the buggy that will take them all to the scene of the murder, “The woman sitting next to her on the back seat of the buggy is Mrs.
Peters, the sheriff’s wife, whom Martha has met once and decidedly dislikes (“Jury” 256). However, the climate of the situation brought the two of them together. The women really have no choice in sticking together and getting rid of the evidence, because the way that Glaspell sets up the story it is virtually the men against the women. Each time the men come through the kitchen they continually ridicule the women on how innocent they are to the nature of the crime that has recently happened in the house. “The men laugh condescendingly at this triviality, and at the ways of women” (“Jury” 271).
During the length of the story the two women find plenty of evidence linking a motive to why Mrs. Minnie Wright killed her husband: “the absence of a telephone, interrupted work, much-patched clothes, a quilt stitched in a disturbed pattern and a canary with a broken neck, lovingly wrapped for burial” (Gubar 788). Susan Gubar and Anne Hedin both two critical analysts of Glaspell’s work linked the objects found in the kitchen to the final melting point in a long history of abuse to Minnie Foster Wright; “All point to the physical, social, and spiritual loneliness of a women who married Mr. W)right, only to find herself wronged” (788). Glaspell in her talented form of explaining the events is able to make the audience knowledgeable to Minnie Foster Wright’s “frustration, isolation, and difficult life with her husband” and therefore creating a consensus to the two women to help out a fellow farmer’s wife and cover her tracks (Stephens 52). The two women were able to read the signs in the kitchen that were left behind by Minnie. Being able to read the signs was not only important to the women in the story but also to the reader as one would read Trifles or “A Jury of her Peers. This was only possible through the creativity of Susan Glaspell and is present in many other plays and stories wrote by Glaspell. Glaspell is most famously known for her outlook on the different roles of genders. This has a great deal to do with the time in which she was born. The feminist movement in the United States was still fighting for basic rights that we now take for advantage in our time such as the right to vote. Women were not aloud to have a voice and the only place where they were able to keep secrets from others was in the kitchen.
Such was the case with the Hossack murder and Glaspell was able to portray that through her story of Minnie Foster Wright in Trifles and “A Jury of her Peers. ” While Glaspell was a reporter she might have felt sympathy for Margaret Hossack especially when she visited the house where the murder was taken place and she sat in the same kitchen that Margaret Hossack slaved in for thirty-three years; however, in that time in history she could not express those thoughts in her newspaper reports, especially with herself being a women.
Fortunately, times changed and in 1916 she was able to express her feelings on the case and she did so through Trifles and “A Jury of her Peers” (Ben-Zvi 160). Judy L. Stephens defines the concept of gender roles best in the works of Susan Glaspell: Gender refers to the words, gestures, appearances, ideas and behavior that dominant culture understands as indices of feminine or masculine identity. When spectators ‘see’ gender they are seeing (and reproducing) the cultural signs of gender and by implication, the gender ideology of a culture. 54) Although the culture of America was not prepared for Glaspell’s thoughts in 1901, by 1916 the society of the United States had changed and was accepting Glaspell’s work and was preparing to pass the nineteenth amendment giving women the right to vote (Ben-Zvi 160). In conclusion, Susan Glaspell’s two works Trifles and “A Jury of her Peers” were based on the real life murder of John Hossack and both “do more than rework a tale of murder; they reveal in the telling the lineaments of the society that spawned the crime” (Ben-Zvi 142).
These two works are prime examples of women having to adjust to the circumstances of every moment and that although the very men that they bore children to are ridiculing and harassing them they always stay firm and true to themselves. Glaspell’s works are meant to be read and interpreted by each reader’s own perception and “whether Margaret Hossack or Minnie Wright committed murder is moot; what is incontrovertible is the brutality of their lives, the lack of options they had to redress grievances or to escape abusive husbands…” (Ben-Zvi 157).
Works Cited Ben-Zvi, Linda. “’Murder, She Wrote’: The Genesis of Susan Glaspell’s Trifles. Theatre Journal 44. 2 (May, 1992): 141-162. JSTOR. Web. 13 April 2010. Bryan, Patricia L. “Stories in Fiction and in Fact: Susan Glaspell’s A Jury of Her Peers and the 1901 Murder Trial of Margaret Hossack. ” Stanford Law Review 49. 6 (Jul. , 1997) 1293- 1363. JSTOR. Web. 13 April 2010. Carpentier, Martha C. “Susan Glaspell’s Fiction: Fidelity as American Romance. ” Twentieth Century Literature 40. 1 (Spring, 1994): 92-113. JSTOR. Web. 13 April 2010. Glaspell, Susan. “A Jury of her Peers. ” The Best Short Stories of 1917 and The Yearbook of The American Short Story. Ed. Edward J. O’Brien. The Boston Transcript Company: Small Maynard ; Company Inc. , 1917, 256-282. Glaspell, Susan. Trifles. Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. Ed. Edgar V. Roberts. 4th Compact Ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2009, 891-902. Gubar, Susan and Anne Hedin. “A Jury of Our Peers: Teaching and Learning in the Indiana Women’s Prison. ” College English 43. 8 (Dec. , 1981): 779-789. JSTOR. Web. 13 April 2010. Stephens, Judith l. “Gender Ideology and Dramatic Convention in Progressive Era Plays, 1890- 1920. ” Theatre Journal 41. 1 (Mar. 1989): 45-55. JSTOR. Web. 13 April 2010.