‘Stubborn Husband, Stubborn Wife’ – Traditional Persian Tale
‘The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses’ – Bessie Head
An Interpretative Analysis
These three texts differ greatly in many ways. The dates of their composition are separated by many years and the social context in which they were written is greatly different. Trifles might be said to be a proto-feminist work in the way it describes the marriage of John and Minnie Wright, and in the way that Mrs Hale and Mrs. Peters understand why Minnie Wright killed her husband and conspire to keep the truth from the police in sisterly solidarity with Minnie Wright. ‘The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses’ is set in South Africa during the period of apartheid, and of necessity deals with the racism that was part of that evil system. By contrast, ‘Stubborn Husband, Stubborn Wife’ is essentially light-hearted and seems to have the quality of a fable – a story designed to teach its readers a lesson. Despite these huge differences in time and context, some human characteristics could be argued to be universal and timeless. After a careful examination of this play and the two stories, it can be said that any social structure can be made to work if the individual humans in that society support each other.
All three texts show individuals who have power and authority over others. In ‘The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses’ the wardens have authority over the prisoners because of the situation of a prison filled with political prisoners in South Africa, especially because the new warder, Hannetjie, is new and determined not to turn a blind eye to any wrong-doing. Brille senses this straightaway and tells the other members of his work team, “We’re in for trouble this time, comrades!” In Trifles John Wright has had authority over his wife and it has lead her to murder him, because of his treatment of her over many years, but the co-operative principle is shown in the play by the way Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters work together to outwit the Sherriff and help to protect Minnie Wright’s reputation in death. In ‘Stubborn Husband, Stubborn Wife’ the husband has authority over his wife, but, like Brill and Hannetjie, they learn from their differences and end the story on a happy, non-confrontational note: in these two short stories the authority figure is forced to change their ways and become more accommodating to the oppressed – Brille and the Stubborn Wife.
In all three texts the nature of authority does not change: the change comes about through individual change. The apartheid system is not challenged or changed by the relationship between Brille and Hannetjie, but their relationship does change. Despite the system that ostracizes them, Brille and Hannetjie, as men are similar and have similar domestic problems. It is Hannetjie who breaks the deadlock of antagonism between them when he says, “This thing between me and you must end. You may not know it but I have a wife and children and you’re driving me to suicide.” It is the recognition of their similar situations as family members that breaks down the racial barriers between them. Hannetjie’s transformation is complete when, towards the end of the story, Brill tells his work gang, “I saw Hannetjie in the shed today. I caught him in the act of stealing five bags of fertilizer and he bribed me to keep my mouth shut.” Hannetjie, who as a new warder was such a stickler for the rules, has learnt to be more relaxed. He may be committing theft, but this indicates that he will in future turn a blind eye when the prisoners commit some minor misdemeanor. In ‘Stubborn Husband, Stubborn Wife’ the husband retains his authority over his wife – she is still condemned to do doing work suitable for women, but they have come to a friendly agreement about the division of labour and laugh together about their earlier stubbornness. In Trifles, there is the least change. The men’s attitude to Minnie Wright’s death remains facile and facetious, but a change takes place in the attitude of the sheriff’s wife and Mrs. Hale, and together they work together to preserve the truth form the men – the truth being that Minnie killed John Wright because he wrung the neck of her canary. Although there was no change in Trifles, in the two stories the authority structure did not change, but the people involved in implementing it did change, thus showing that basic human nature can overcome social structures that are oppressive and restrictive.
In each of the three texts, the structure of society gave one group power and dominance over another. This is clearest in ‘The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses’ because the laws of South Africa enshrined the power of whites over black people. In Trifles and ‘Stubborn Husband, Stubborn Wife' the millennia-old domination of women by men is displayed. Furthermore, the texts show that when that authority is used badly, unwisely or inhumanly, then both parties suffer. For example, in Trifles John Wright made his wife unhappy, but also succeeded in ostracizing himself from the rest of society, to the extent that neighbors stopped visiting them. For example, Mrs Hale tells us that, “Wright was close. I think that’s maybe why she kept so much to herself. She didn’t even belong to the Ladies’ Aid. I suppose she felt she couldn’t do her part, and then you don’t enjoy things when you feel shabby,” and she later admits, “I could’ve come, I stayed away because it weren’t cheerful – and that’s why I ought to have come.” The Stubborn Husband used his power to excuse his laziness, but is then humiliated on the day of their vow of silence. Similarly, Hannetjie used his authority to mistreat prisoners who had done nothing wrong and this demeans himself as a human being.
In all three texts when the authority figures abused their authority their victims found ways to defy and challenge that authority. Brille manipulates Hannetjie’s insecurity and his petty theft to ensure that the men of his work group receive favorable treatment in the future. The Stubborn Wife leaves her husband because of his laziness, but shows her true value and loyalty to him (as well as her cleverness) in stealing back all the couple’s valuable possessions and returning with them, having thus earned, as it were, the right to be treated better by her husband. In Trifles Minnie has bought a canary to listen to, so oppressive is her life with John Wright. The canary is clearly symbolic of Minnie; we are told several times that when she was younger and before she was married, as the unmarried Minnie Foster she herself sang beautifully in the local choir, and the fate of the canary mirrors, figuratively, the fate of Minnie herself. Her husband wrings the canary’s neck to stop it singing; his isolation and truculence have effectively silenced his wife through the stifling domestic life she lived with him. Of course, Minnie is forced to the ultimate act of challenge by killing her oppressor.
In situations where the authority figure uses their authority oppressively or excessively, the situation will become worse. John Wright’s behavior leads his wife to kill him. However, the stubborn husband did realize that his stubbornness had caused him to lose everything importnat to him, and so he reaches a mutual agreement with his wife to share the work they have to do. When the wife returns from rescuing the couple’s possessions she finds him hanging out the washing, having tidied the house. Hannetjie allows the prisoners tiny privileges like digging in the cabbage patch for extra food and even supplying them with some food himself.
In conclusion it can be seen that in these three texts, societies are represented which accord power to privileged groups – whites over blacks in Bessie Head’s story, men over woman in the other two texts. All three texts show that authority beimg used unwisely or unjustly. However, the texts also demonstrate that when human beings choose to support each other mutually, the authority structure loses its importance and power. All three texts show human beings showing concern for the oppressed group and, through natural human sympathy, protecting the oppressed – just as in Trifles Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters conspire to protect Minnie Wright from the men investigating her husband’s murder.
Anonymous. ‘Stubborn Husband, Stubborn Wife.’ Date not known. Web.
Glaspell, Susan. Trifles. I916. Web.
Head, Bessie. ‘The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses.’ 1989. Web.