The opening line in Susan Glaspell's 1916 one-act play Trifles offers a window into the current election cycle.
My AP Lit and Comp students examined Trifles in a lively discussion on the day Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton faced off in the first presidential debate. I contemplated my students' observations about the murder of John Wright and our discussion about whether or not Mrs. Wright had reason to kill her husband.
Together, we looked at the textual evidence supporting a justifiable homicide as well as passages that gave us pause about the murder.
- Did Mrs. Wright fear for her life after discovering her husband had killed her canary?
- Was Mr. Wright both physically as well as emotionally abusive to his wife?
- Why did Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters withhold information about Mrs. Wright's quilting from their husbands?
- What clues does Glaspell reveal through both stage directions and dialogue?
Together we examined evidence so that we could unravel the mystery of what drove Mrs. Wright to kill her husband as he lay in their bed with her sleeping on the inside.
I asked students if they know the significance of a canary in the mining industry. I shared with them the legal concept of imminent danger and how we see this working in the defense of police officers who shoot and kill unarmed African American men.
Monday morning I had read an article in The Atlantic titled "Donal Trump's Cruel Streak" that resonated with me both in the context of Trifles as well as in concert with Trump's claim that he has the best temperament, an assertion he reiterated during the debate. Prior to offering a menagerie of Trump's cruel acts and comments and inviting us to "judge for yourself" the cruelty of Donald Trump, Condor Friedersdorf announces his thesis:
Donald J. Trump has a cruel streak. He willfully causes pain and distress to others. And he repeats this public behavior so frequently that it’s fair to call it a character trait. Any single example would be off-putting but forgivable. Being shown many examples across many years should make any decent person recoil in disgust.
I wondered how Mr. John Wright would describe himself were he to have that opportunity. At one point in Trifles, Hale characterizes Mr. Wright as a man who wants only peace and quiet. In contrast, at first the audience is led to think Mrs. Wright fails as a wife given the unkempt state of her home.
Many have written about Donald Trump's tone deafness to women's issues. In this sense, he's like Mr. Wright about whom Hale remarks: "I didn't know as what his wife wanted made much difference to John." Images of cold underpin this observation throughout the play.
Similarly, Hillary Clinton's powerful political ad "Mirrors" captures that paradigm, that tone of cruelty evident in Trump's treatment of women:
This election Donald Trump invites us to "come up to the fire." But as Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale reject the idea of incriminating Mrs. Wright by offering evidence that she had reason to murder her cruel husband, as a demographic group college-educated women have denounced Trump's offer to warm ourselves by his dangerous, misogynistic rhetoric.
We see through the window from which Trump views us. And through that window, we look into a mirror reflecting our future in a Trump presidency and know many of his supporters don't understand our "getting all stirred up over a little thing like a--dead canary."
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