Murder and Death in "Trifles" by Susan Glaspell and "A Raisin in the Sun" by Lorraine Hansberry
Society has a great influence on people and their way of life, and can either liberate or oppress them, depending on the accepted standards of the time. Societies which believe in total male superiority cause women to be oppressed and unsatisfied with their lives. The wives in Trifles and A Raisin in the Sun are alienated from their husbands as a result of societal beliefs which dictate complete female submission, male dominance in marriage, and the need for material goods to ensure a happy marriage.
These beliefs create problems in the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Wright in Trifles, a play by Susan Glaspell. Mr. Wright suppressed and dominated his wife, who consequently “kept to herself” (Glaspell 981) and was unable to take part in society as she would have liked, “She didn’t even belong to the Ladies’ Aid” (981). In fact, John Wright had a reputation of caring little what his wife thought or wished, “I said to Harry that I didn’t know as what his wife wanted made much difference to John—” (978). This suppression and indifference on the part of Mr. Wright can be seen as the possible motivation for Mrs. Wright when she is later accused of murdering her husband in his sleep.
The County Attorney, who arrives to investigate the scene of the crime, shares the same views of male dominance and female inferiority as Mr. Wright had shown his wife. When the subject of Mr. Wright’s shortcomings as a husband is brought up by Mrs. Hale, the wife of the man to arrive first upon the scene of the crime, the County Attorney dismissively replies, “I’d like to talk more of that a little later” (980). This is the second time he has avoided the topic of Mr. Wright's wrong-doings. He also ignored Mr. Hale when he voiced a similar opinion. By these actions it can be inferred that the law finds spousal abuse by a husband to be legal and justified. Men are seen as being superior to women, who are considered foolish and “used to worrying over trifles” (980).
Similar beliefs exist in the play A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry. Walter Lee, a main character in the play, states, “we one group of men tied to a race of women with small minds” (Hansberry 994), reflecting a sense of male intellectual superiority. Walter tells his aspiring sister Beneatha to abandon her dreams of becoming a doctor and “go be a nurse like other women—or just get married and be quiet” (995), conveying the opinion that a woman’s role in life should be to settle down and be submissive and yield to her husbands demands. In marriage Beneatha would be expected to have a limited social position, not that of a doctor, but that of a silent and obedient housewife.
Most women appear to accept the prejudices of men, as does Mrs. Peters from Trifles when she claims, “It’s no more than their duty” (Glaspell 981) for men to criticize and demean women. Women identify completely with their roles as obedient housewives, as shown by Mrs. Wright herself, when she requests her apron to be brought to her in jail. Mrs. Peter’s believes the reason behind this request is, “just to make her feel more natural” (982). Her apron is a part of her identity, and she requests its presence as a means to find comfort in an unfamiliar and uncomforting jail cell. Mrs. Wright also worries over the fate of her canned preserves, still fitting society’s expectations of a worried housewife despite her arrest for having rebelled against these same expectations.
In A Raisin in the Sun, Mama, Walter Lee’s mother, also follows the dictations of society by accepting the harshness and unfairness of men as part of their innate character. She speaks of her late husband as “hard-headed, mean, kind of wild with women—plenty wrong with him” (Hansberry 998), and yet despite these traits she remembers him fondly as “a fine man” (999), suggesting that a man is permitted to be unkind and promiscuous and still be thought of as “a good man” (999). Furthermore, women themselves believe that only men should be in charge and have total control over their families. Walter’s mother tells her son, as she gives him all the money in her possession, “It ain’t much, but it’s all I got in the world and I’m putting it in your hands. I’m telling you to be the head of this family from now on like you supposed to be” (1022). Mama has previously been in charge of all the financial affairs and led the family through tough times, but she relinquishes this authority to her son, although she knows him to have “almost lost his mind thinking ‘bout money all the time” (1002) and to act irrational when it comes to financial affairs. She lets him take charge only because he is a man and is therefore supposed to be the figure of authority.
However, women sometimes act out against these sexist ideas. Mrs. Peters, the wife of the sheriff, rebels against the condescending County Attorney when he asserts that she would never break the law and “doesn’t need supervising. For that matter a sheriff’s wife is married to the law” (Glaspell 986), meaning that a wife will unquestioningly follow and obey her husband, and since Mrs. Peter's husband is the law, that she will by extension unquestioningly follow and obey the law. However, in their narrow-minded viewpoints, neither foresees Mrs. Peters’ decision to conceal the one existing piece of concrete evidence, by hiding the pet canary that Mr. Wright had murdered.
The dead bird provides a motive behind the murder, which evaded the County Attorney and the sheriff. The bird represents Mrs. Wright, who “was kind of like a bird herself” (984), confined in a cage of Mr. Wright’s making. Just as her husband murdered her pet canary, he also killed Mrs. Wright’s spirit, “she felt she couldn’t do her part, and then you don’t enjoy things when you feel shabby” (981). With the death of her bird and last comfort in life, Mrs. Wright finally reacts against the confines and oppression of her marriage by killing her husband using the same means that he used to kill her bird.
Like Mrs. Wright, Ruth is also alienated from her husband Walter, who says that Ruth fails in her duties as a wife by not doing as colored women should do: “building their men up and making ‘em feel like they somebody” (Hansberry 993). Ruth senses that there is something preventing them from living happy lives, “Mama, something is happening between Walter and me. I don’t know what it is” (997). When Ruth later becomes pregnant, she considers aborting her child for fear that it will make the situation between herself and her husband even worse. Like Mrs. Wright, Ruth wants to act against her husband through a murder, the killing of her unborn child, all to end the alienation and suppression they feel in their marriages.
Perhaps this alienation is also the result of the men sharing society’s fixation on the material aspects of life. The County Attorney and lawyer from Trifles never discover the solution to the murder of Mr. Wright, as the men never explore the emotional aspects of the case. The only problems they see in the Wright household are the dirty dishes, as shown by the County Attorney’s comment, when Mrs. Wright claims the house “never seemed a very cheerful place” (Glaspell 980) that “it’s not very cheerful. I shouldn’t say she had the homemaking instinct” (981). For women cheerfulness is an emotional and spiritual thing while men feel that it is materialistic in nature and can be achieved through clean towels and washed dishes. Men perceive cheerfulness and happiness to have nothing to do with the actual relationship between a married couple, but solely with the fulfilling of the duties that society dictates. Mr. Wright probably assumed that all his wife needed was to stay inside the house and clean, and thought nothing of the possibility that to be truly happy she needed a social life and a means of expressing herself.
The men’s attitude impedes the investigation when they search for clues to the motive behind the murder. The County Attorney continually ignores the topic of matrimonial disharmony, saying “I’d like to talk more of that a little later. I want to get the lay of things upstairs now” (981). In his quest for concrete clues on the scene of the murder, the County Attorney ignores the emotional aspects of the case which lead to the ultimate motive. The women, who he criticizes as “worrying over trifles” (980), are the ones who, through their emotional awareness and sensitivity to the needs and desires of their gender, discover the bird and solve the mystery.
The characters in A Raisin in the Sun also emphasize the importance of material goods. At the beginning of the play we get a sense of Walter’s obsession with money when his first words to his wife are about the insurance check his mother is going to receive in the mail, and Ruth tells him “I hopes to God you ain’t going to get up here first thing this morning and start talking to me ‘bout no money—‘cause I ‘bout don’t want to hear it” (Hansberry 990). Later that day Walter barges in on a conversation between his wife and mother, asking only if the check had come yet, and his mother asks him, “Can’t you give people a Christian greeting before you start asking about money?”(1009). Walter appears to be accustomed to speaking often and only about money.
When his mother questions why he always talks and thinks about money, Walter replies “Because it is life, Mama!” (1010). Walter believes that without money he cannot truly live, and therefore without money that he cannot be happy. It is for this reason that he cannot be content in his present life, working at his present job, and living with Ruth and their son in their old apartment. The absence of money in his life is, as his mother tells him, “eating you up like a crazy man” (1010). However, it is not only Walter who believes in the importance of money. His wife Ruth exclaims “Shallow—what do you mean he’s shallow? He’s rich!” (1000) to Beneatha when she complains about a man’s personality. In context, Ruth seems to be saying that a faulty personality is of no consequence when a man has a lot of money. It is both Ruth and Walter’s preoccupation with money that make them unsatisfied with their lives and unable to appreciate the many gifts they do have.
The characters from both Trifles and A Raisin in the Sun show how discrimination and an obsession with material goods cause problems in marriages, and may destroy the love between husbands and wives. The plays show the need of both partners to be treated with respect and consideration, while appreciating life and all it has to offer, not just the monetary and superficial elements. Without such understanding, they will never experience true happiness, and may instead become bitter and hateful, willing to destroy that which has taken the joy out of life.