Feminism in the play
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In the late twentieth century, feminists rediscovered and reinterpreted Trifles as a feminist work because it dealt with the themes of patriarchal oppression and female ability in the domestic arena. Although the men fail to recognize this search to understand female psychology, the events of the murder shock Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters into a new appreciation of their gender and of the need to support each other. Because she begins the play with a greater awareness of these issues, Mrs. Hale is first to articulate the commonality of the Midwestern female existence. She accepts partial responsibility for having driven Minnie Wright to the crisis that results in murder, and, in the climax of the play, she convinces Mrs. Peters to ally with her in spite of the law.
Of the two women, Mrs. Peters faces the larger paradigm shift when evaluating her role in the murder investigation. She never knew Minnie Foster as an unmarried girl, and as Henderson accurately notes, she is in a sense "married to the law." However, over the course of the play we learn that to identify Mrs. Peters solely by her husband's vocation is to misunderstand her life and her motivations, and, in the end, she indeed chooses to protect Mrs. Wright and forgo her husband's duty in favor of her role as a woman. She consistently modulates Mrs. Hale's resentful statements by apologizing for the men as doing what the law requires them to do, but the turning point in her thinking occurs when they realize that the messy stitching on one section of the quilt and the angrily half-wiped kitchen must have been a response to the canary's death. In twin moments of clarity, she admits aloud that she understands both the need for revenge and the power of loneliness, and she chooses to hide the bird.
Glaspell adapted Trifles into a short story entitled "A Jury of Her Peers," and accordingly Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters judge her murder of her husband and choose to forgive her rather than convict. Their choice implies that they find justice in Minnie Wright's decision to enact a suitable retribution on her husband for his strangling first of her life and then of her canary. Because of the women, we come to question the facts of the case, and our conclusion differs from that of the men. Nevertheless, the play does not describe the ultimate fate of Minnie Wright, and the possibility remains that the jury will still condemn her, even though she is a battered woman who has suffered immensely from her marriage. Similarly, we may choose not to consider her justified in her actions.
By the time the men return, they have found no worthy evidence and in addition have come no closer to the revelations made by Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale. Henderson has an intuitive sense for the evidence, as shown in his references to the quilt and the birdcage, but because he only looks at external rather than internal clues he fails to ascribe significance to the correct factor. He says, "It's all perfectly clear except a reason for doing it," suggesting that a panel of males, such as a contemporary jury, will never comprehend Mrs. Wright's motives, although they are by now clear to the audience. In a continued show of gender unity, the men jokingly patronize the women's involvement in the investigation; this time, the women prevail specifically because they are devalued and can therefore hide the evidence without questions from the men. They say the cat got the bird, a possible reference to the question "Cat got your tongue?" This phrase implies silence, but in this case, their silence reflects their refusal to speak rather than their verbal disempowerment at the hands of the men. The play ends on the pun "Knot it," which suggests that the women are "not it" and will not be pinned for murder because they have knotted away their knowledge - a reference to the bonds tying them together.
Theme of Female Identity
When speaking to the female characters in Trifles, Henderson and the other men make a key mistake in their assumption that the women derive their identity solely from their relationship to men, the dominant gender. For example, Henderson tells Mrs. Peters that because she is married to the sheriff, she is married to the law and therefore is a reliable follower of the law. Mrs. Peters' response is "Not--just that way," suggesting that over the course of the play, she has rediscovered a different aspect of her identity that ties more closely to her experience as a woman than to her marriage to Henry Peters. As Mrs. Hale concludes, women "all go through the same things--it's all just a different kind of the same thing." For Mrs. Hale, Minnie Wright's murder of her husband is the ultimate rejection of her husband's imposed identity in favor of the memory of the person Minnie Foster used to be.