by Steven Reynolds
In the perfect world, men respect their wives; women honor their husbands, and everyone lives happily ever after. Unfortunately, however, the gap between marital utopia and reality is often quite wide. In Susan Glaspell’s Trifles, for example, Mrs. Wright has for years been controlled by her oppressive husband. Theirs is undoubtedly a marriage in which respect and honor are in short supply. Eventually, Mrs. Wright puts an end to her husband’s emotional abuse the only way she knows how–by killing him. Her actions may seem extreme, but the amounts of disrespect, dishonor, and abuse a person can handle are finite; when pushed to the breaking point, one’s mind will revert to natural instincts and enter self-preservation mode, often ignoring accepted moral and legal standards. Her subconscious, seeing no other way out of her soul-crushing situation, takes over and writes its own laws. She simply has no choice in the matter.
Presumably, up to the point of slipping a rope around her husband’s neck, Mrs. Wright has been a good wife. She has cleaned and baked and caned and sewn, performed all the duties expected of a wife in the early twentieth century. She is by all accounts a good and kindhearted woman, grown up from a happy, full-of-life girl. Her neighbor, Mrs. Hale, initially cannot envision the former choir doll as a murderer. After all, the new widow, even as she sits in a jail cell, doesn’t seem terribly concerned about her current legal situation. “I don’t think she did [it]”, Mrs. Hale proclaims to the sheriff’s wife, Mrs. Peters. “Asking for an apron and her little shawl. Worrying about her fruit” (1072). As is often true in cases of temporary insanity, however, the unwitting vigilante is not one who has previously shown any signs of violence or ill intent toward anyone; she is perhaps not even capable of violence under normal circumstances. But, in the instance of Mrs. Wright, being bound to a man who hates all things cheerful–the man who finally goes so far as to kill her little bird, the one bright spot in the woman’s life–can hardly be considered normal circumstances.
Of course, Glaspell did not invent the temporary insanity defense. The first real-life trial in which the plea was given takes place in 1859. Daniel Sickles, a young U.S. congressman, confesses to gunning down his wife’s not-so-secret lover in a D.C. street (Sassaman). Whether it is the sting of his wife’s infidelity, or his looking like a fool to the world, something causes the man’s brain to temporarily adopt a new set of rules. Sickles yells when he confronts his nemesis, “You have dishonored my house–you must die” (qtd. in Sassaman). Such a statement (not to mention the ensuing action) seems totally irrational coming from a man of Sickles’s social and political stature, but again, the congressman isn’t making decisions based on society’s logic. His mind identifies the situation as one of great danger. Honor is everything to him, and the loss of it would be no less harmful than death itself. In essence, killing his wife’s lover–salvaging some shred of honor–is, to Sickles’s subconscious mind, purely self-defense. Sickles has very little, if any, control over his savage actions.
A more obvious case of self-defense takes place in 1977, when Francine Hughes assertively puts an end to the years of physical abuse administered by her live-in ex-husband. Time after time, she has called the police, made reports–everything one is supposed to do, and time after time, the system has failed her. As Janis Kelly reports, “[the police] only quelled the immediate disturbance and refused to ‘interfere’ further.” On the long list of possible methods of removing a threat from one’s life, pouring gasoline around the bed in which that threat is sleeping and then lighting the mess probably doesn’t rank among the most reasonable, but that’s exactly what Hughes does. Self preservation isn’t about reason or legality; it’s about a person doing what has to be done, at least in his or her own mind. This woman, mentally affected by nearly perpetual physical abuse, sees no other way out of her desperate situation. She does what she has to do.
Of course, skeptics (and prosecutors) will argue that in all of these cases, the accused are people who have simply let their emotions get the best of them–people who, with blatant disrespect for the law, have become their enemies’ judges, juries, and executioners. Many also worry that if acquittals in such cases become more commonplace, there will be a rise in vigilante “justice”, not every instance of which will be anywhere near justified. While these are valid concerns, the courts absolutely cannot ignore the circumstances leading up to the act for which the accused is on trial. Although the written law is obviously the backbone of any legal system, judges and juries must realize that it is their responsibility to not only interpret those laws, but also to contribute to the legal process the human elements of understanding, compassion and sympathy–elements that are essential to a civilized justice system, elements that not even the most thoroughly composed written law can offer.
In Trifles, Mrs. Wright is fortunate enough to find sympathy among the two women who quite literally hold her fate (in the form of the damning evidence of her guilt) in their hands. Similarly, Daniel Sickles’s plight is understood by a jury, as after deliberating for little more than an hour they deliver a verdict of not guilty (Sassaman). Francine Hughes is also set free after she and her attorney successfully argue that she has been pushed to the edge of sanity by her abusive ex-husband (Kelly). In each of these cases, the peers of the accused realize that there are limits to what a person can handle, that with enough stress, enough abuse, anyone is liable to loose control. It is understood that the mind has a way of solving problems. When a person is too frightened, too upset, too suppressed to find a rational, legal way out of a dire situation, primal instincts take over. In a court of law it’s called temporary insanity. In reality, however, nothing could be more sane.
Glaspell, Susan. Trifles. The Compact Guide to American Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. 9th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012. 1068-1077. Print.
Kelly, Janis. “Francine Hughes Freed.” Off Our Backs 7.10 (1977): 5. Proquest. Web. 19 Oct. 2012.
Sassaman, Richard. “The Washington Tragedy.” American History 33.4 (1998): 44-52. Proquest. Web. 19 Oct. 2012