Winter Elliott is an Associate Professor of English at Brenau University, an institution composed of an historic women’s college and a coeducational undergraduate college. She teaches courses in composition and British lit, and enjoys the saucier side of literature — murder, mayhem, monsters, and the war between the sexes.
At first it seems like a clear cut case of right and wrong: a husband is murdered in his sleep, strangled to death by a rope around his neck. His wife, who appears all “done up” to the man who discovers the victim, pleats her apron and laughs crazily. Her alibi, if it can be called that, is so asinine as to be ludicrous: she didn’t wake up from a sound sleep while the deed was done, and in modern parlance, some other dude did it!
While the facts of the murder seem obvious, two decent, otherwise law-abiding housewives eventually decide to hide the evidence of the wife’s motive – and whether or not justice will be done is left unclear. This murder mystery is the subject of Susan Glaspell’s 1916 play Trifles, which she renamed “A Jury of Her Peers,” when she published it a year later as a short story. In some ways, the title of the short story better indicates Glaspell’s point. Even the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 did not immediately give women the universal right to serve on juries.
Thus, Glaspell implies that the two housewives in the play or short story are more truly the “peers” of the murderer, Minnie Wright, than would be an all-male jury. Consequently, as Mrs. Wright’s peers, the two women, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, uncover evidence of Minnie’s long-term abuse and decide to hide the strangled canary that both represents Minnie herself and provides evidence of her motive – she strangled her husband as both she and her pet had been, figuratively and literally, strangled by him.
A one-act play, simple in terms of plot, characterization, and symbolism, Trifles is a frequent inclusion in college literature anthologies and on syllabi of writing about literature courses. In this context, my students encounter the ethical dilemma suggested by the play. As students at a women’s college, one might expect, as one of my students herself put it, that all or most of the young women would immediately side with Minnie Wright and her female supporters in the play. This is not the case. Students who read Trifles for the first time usually position themselves alongside the male representatives of “law and order” in the play, the sheriff and country attorney. Like these men, students first encountering the play don’t really care why Minnie Wright killed her husband; they perceive only a crime that must be punished – regardless of the status of either the victim or the murderer.
However, because Glaspell positions the play’s larger audience as a “jury,” students reading the play must delve deeper into questions of motive and murky areas of right and wrong. Students do not find this exploration at all comfortable, since it means that they must challenge a callow faith in law itself as a representation of moral order. For first-year college students, the idea of an “unjust law” is more of an oxymoron than a legitimate possibility.
Still, some students reluctantly agree that perhaps the women’s obfuscation of Minnie’s motive might have been the right thing to do, given the impossibility of a truly fair trial by her “peers.” Others argue passionately on the side of law and order – because a law is a law, it must not only be obeyed, but also be correct. Generally, almost all students agree that while there might be some unjust laws in 1916, the problem has generally been fixed now, in 2010. Indeed, they suggest, anyone tried for murder in 2010 should receive a fair trial – juries are truly composed of everyone’s peers these days, and laws – at least “big” laws like those governing murder – are good ones.
Statistics reveal that my students’ faith in the justice system is undeserved. The American prison system has grown dramatically in the last few decades, but an explosion of punishment does not necessarily equate to a greater justice served – indeed, it suggests rather the opposite. Haney justifiably calls the United States the “international leader in imprisonment” and describes “incarceration rates [that] are up to ten times higher than those in Europe.” While the total population of inmates has risen, racial disparity has persisted, and “blacks are currently six times more likely than whites to have ever been imprisoned.” Clearly, justice is not being served in the prison system – although plenty of punishment appears to be meted out.
Ultimately, the play Trifles isn’t really interested in murder at all; instead, it points out that laws which punish the disenfranchised and the voiceless are necessarily unjust laws. This concept strikes my students the hardest, challenging their view of the law as something inviolate and infallible. In the fictional context of the play, they’d much rather convict Minnie Wright and be done with the entire mess. Sooner or later, though, my students will themselves affect law through their votes and jury service, and I wonder which they will remember then – law alone, or more complex justice?
References (Also found by clicking on the above links):
Ritter, Gretchen. “Jury Service and Women’s Citizenship before and after the Nineteenth Amendment”. Law and History Review 20.3 (2002): 75 pars. 4 Mar. 2010. <http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/lhr/20.3/ritter.html>.
Haney, Lynn. “Introduction: Gender, Welfare, and States of Punishment.” Social Politics 11.3 (2004): 333-362.
Schlesinger, Traci. “Equality at the Price of Justice.” NWSA Journal 20.2 (2008): 27-47.
Scene Design and Model for “Trifles” (image above) by Charles Murdock Lucas