Food is often very closely tied to familial and cultural experiences; time spent cooking food, making food, and sitting around the dinner table reveals much about a family dynamic, as well as the connective tissue that combines all of our experiences. The preparation of food is a nearly-universal cultural experience, and every family, every culture has their own unique ways of behaving and working in the kitchen. However, historically the role of primary food preparer and slave to the kitchen has been women; different women react to this role in different ways, which is a subject often explored in literature. Susan Glaspell's play Trifles shows the kitchen as symbolic of the belabored woman trapped in a domestic hell, which builds until she takes dramatic action.
In Susan Glaspell's Trifles, the roles of men and women in society take center stage, as the play revolves around the murder mystery of farmer John Wright, potentially by his quiet, depressed and put-upon wife Minnie Wright. This tale of murder and intrigue takes place mostly within the kitchen of the Wright household, as the sheriff, the sheriff's wife, the Hales, and the county attorney all walk around the house, attempting to figure out what happened. With this cast of characters, we quickly learn the ins and outs of how men and women both react to a murder perpetrated by a woman, as well as how to behave within a kitchen setting. From a feminist criticism standpoint, the play quickly and easily posits to the audience that the women, understanding both marriage and the kitchen better than the men, are able to ascertain exactly how the murder occurred and why.
The description of the kitchen itself at the beginning of Trifles - describing it as "gloomy," and "left without having been put in order" notes the kitchen as synonymous with the grisly nature of the lives that were lived in the house (Glaspell). As we learn later, the Wrights had a terrible, contentious marriage, which was what drove Minnie to homicide. Here, the kitchen is shown to be disheveled - "Unwashed pans under the sink, a loaf of bread outside the bread-box, a dish-towel on the table - other signs of incompleted work" (Glaspell).
With these details, the kitchen is shown to not be a safe or comfortable place, something not normally associated with this room in the home. The reaction of the men and women to the kitchen are different, and at once inform the reader of how men and women relate to it - the men seem to not necessarily notice the disheveled nature of the kitchen, running toward the fire. However, the women are disturbed by the state of it, and immediately seem to notice something is wrong (Lin, 2009). "Mrs. Haleis disturbed now and looks fearfully about as she enters," and the women "come in slowly, and stand close together near the door" (Glaspell). Mrs. Peters, after being prompted to join the fire by the men, replies that "I'm notcold," a subtle indicator of her familiarity with the kitchen and its role in the family (Glaspell).
The men constantly criticize Mrs. Wright's abilities as a housekeeper, due to the state of the house - in this way, they mark her as being a bad woman and a bad wife. The women, however, notice something much more than that; Minnie and Joe Wright's marriage was in shambles. Instead of looking for forensic evidence to solve the crime, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters instead see the bleakness that Minnie Wright's life had become; the men, too busy looking for blood, weapons, scuff marks, etc., ignore the significance of the general mess Minnie had made of the place. They posit that Minnie was frustrated at not having a child: “Not having children makes less work – but it makes a quiet house" (Glaspell).
The unseen Minnie Wright's home life is revealed to be equally messy and without order or calm: "She was kind of like a bird herself – real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and – fluttery. How – she – did – change" (Glaspell). By using this 'rapport talk,' and relating to Mrs. Wright's predicament, they identify her specifically as being a woman who was forced to murder in order to end the dreary circumstances of her life. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters do not necessarily recognize this; they are merely discussing how sad her life must been. However, the audience manages to pick up on these hints, revealing a profoundly sad life that Minnie felt she must escape by any means necessary. The men are dismissive and cruel about her in discussion, which is due to their fear of a woman who would step outside of the societal norms set up for women: "Women who kill evoke fear because they challenge societal constructs of femininity - passivity, restraint, and nurture; thus the rush to isolate and label the female offender, to cauterize the act" (Ben-Zvi 141).
The attitudes of both men and women toward the prospect of a female murderer - the men with fear, the women with understanding - reveals the primary differences between the genders in reacting to this kind of upending of the patriarchal social order. In this kitchen, Minnie Wright stood up for herself and took dramatic action to save herself and stand up for her own womanhood; Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters illustrate this, though they do not necessarily fully understand it themselves. The kitchen is a microcosm for this struggle; the center of domesticity, ravaged by time and lack of care, reveals the desire for a young, trapped woman to escape her abusive marriage through her own lack of interest in taking care of the house.
In Trifles, there are two different groups of women being explored - Minnie Wright and Mrs. Peters/Mrs. Hale. Peters and Hale manage to look into the decrepit kitchen of Minnie and see her sad, lonely life, something that is missed with the dull, straightforward reporting of the men. Minnie's kitchen is a mess, something indicative of her need to escape the horrifyingly abusive, childless marriage that she murdered to get out of. The kitchen, being the place where she was expected to spend the most time, is given the same level of care her marriage was, and provides a metaphor for the mess that was her life.
Ben-Zvi, Linda. "'Murder, She Wrote': The Genesis of Susan Glaspell's 'Trifles'". Theatre Journal 44.2: 141-162. May 1992. Print.
Glaspell, Susan. Trifles.
Lin, Chen. "On the Gender-Related Difference in Conversational Behavior in Susan Glaspell's Trifles." Foreign Literature 2, 2009. Print.