"The law is the law": an analysis of law and justice in Antigone and Trifles “Objection! ” The lawyer acts quickly in an attempt to disallow a certain piece of evidence. He or she considers the evidence unjust and opposes its use. The lawyer’s opposition may bear fruit in the form of a rejection to said piece of evidence. Much like a lawyer opposes an unjust piece of evidence, the protagonists in Sophocles’s Antigone and Susan Glaspell’s Trifles oppose the law, since they consider it unjust. Their opposition bears fruit as well: the characters end up breaking the law.
Yet while their actions are crystal clear, the characters’ motivations are somewhat foggy. Why do they consider the law unjust? What determines the justice of a law? Both Sophocles' Antigone and Susan Glaspell's Trifles coincide: the characters feel the law is unjust because it goes against tradition and unwritten law, and/or takes away something they cannot recover. If the concepts of justice and law are to be explored, it is only logical that base definitions be established for these concepts. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, justice is :
2. a : the quality of being just, impartial, or fair b (1) : the principle or ideal of just dealing or right action (2) : conformity to this principle or ideal : righteousness c : the quality of conforming to law 3. conformity to truth, fact, or reason Based on this definition, justice will be interpreted as the ideal of righteousness or right action, based on truth, fact or reason. The concept of justice has been defined, but what about law? Once again, the Merriam-Webster dictionary will serve as a guiding light.
According to said dictionary, law is: 1. a (1) : a binding custom or practice of a community : a rule of conduct or action prescribed or formally recognized as binding or enforced by a controlling authority (2) : the whole body of such customs, practices, or rules. Hence, the concept of law will refer to a tradition or practice recognized as binding or enforced by a dominating authority. Two fundamental concepts have been established, but how are these concepts perceived in the pieces? Obviously, the concept of law is related to authority.
This relationship is very clear in Antigone, as it is Creon (the current king) who proclaims, whilst discussing Polyneices: " none shall grace him with sepulture or lament, but leave him unburied, a corpse for birds and dogs to eat, a ghastly sight of shame" (6 [online source]). The law (Creon) had established that the corpse of Polyneices was to be left unburied; this was to be a lesson to all enemies of Thebes. Yet, was this law just? Antigone clearly believes it is not. She decides that she must bury her brother no matter what the consequences. Are her actions just?
As previously established, justice refers to righteous action that conforms to truth, fact, or reason. Interestingly enough, while attempting to persuade Ismene to help her, Antigone tells her (Ismene) that if she will not help her (Antigone) bury their brother , she (Ismene) will " be guilty of dishonouring laws which the gods have stablished in honour" (3 [online source]). Based on this statement, it would seem that the unwritten laws of ancient Greek tradition and religion demanded that the body be buried. Clearly, Antigone has truth and fact on her side, so to speak.
In order to truly be just, however, Antigone also needs to conform to reason. Does she meet this final requirement? To have reason usually means to have a "rational ground or motive", according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. In her discussion with Creon, Antigone declares: For it was not Zeus that had published me that edict; not such are the laws set among men by the justice who dwells with the gods below; nor deemed I that thy decrees were of such force, that a mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven. For their life is not of to-day or yesterday, but from all time, and no man knows when they were first put forth. (12 [online source])
Antigone explains that the edicts of man cannot override those of the gods: a reasonable argument. But there is more to Antigone's reason. Throughout the entire piece, Antigone continues referencing her love towards her brothers, showing the incredible importance she places on family relationships. Her brother has already passed away, yet, if Creon allowed Antigone to bury his brother she would be able to preserve her connection to her brother, even in death.
Had Antigone followed Creon's edict, she might have completely lost her connection to her brother. Faced with a law that contradicts previously established traditions and threatens to take away her relationship with her brother, Antigone clearly believes that Creon's edict is unfair and that her actions are just. The women in Trifles face the same type of situation as Antigone. In Trifles, the law states the obvious, the murder of Mr. Wright was unlawful. Furthermore, concealing any evidence that might lead to the conviction of a suspected murderer is also unlawful. In this case, the women find evidence linking Mrs.
Wright to the murder, but choose to break the law by concealing said evidence. Were the women's actions just? Once more this determination must be based on our previously defined concepts. The fact that the women in Trifles begin to grow closer to each other and to Mrs. Wright as the story progresses is worthy of notice. They bond, and begin to empathize with Mrs. Wright. They begin to develop a defensive attitude towards the men almost instantly: COUNTY ATTORNEY. Dirty towels! (Kicks his foot against the pans under the sink. ) Not much of a housekeeper, would you say, ladies?
MRS. HALE (stiffly). There's a great deal of work to be done on a farm. (4 [online source]) Also, their conversation seems to suggest that Mrs. Wright was abused. For example, Mrs. Hale refers to Mr. Wright as "a hard man", and goes on to say: "Just to pass the time of day with him. (Shivers. ) Like a raw wind that gets to the bone" (10 [online source]). The women also discuss the radical change in Minnie Wright, as Mrs. Hale states: "She–come to think of it, she was kind of like a bird herself–real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and–fluttery. How–she–did–change.
" (5 [online source]) The women's words suggest Mrs. Wright was a victim. Mr. Wright had changed her, destroyed who she used to be: " Wright wouldn't like the bird–a thing that sang. She used to sing. He killed that, too. " (12 [online source]) It is almost as if Mr. Wright was draining the life from this woman, so to speak. This could have led the women to perceive the murder of as an act of self-defense–which, incidentally, might have made Mrs. Wright's actions lawful, under the right circumstances. Nevertheless, Mrs. Wright's situation leads the women to justify her actions: MRS. PETERS.
I know what stillness is. (Pulling herself back). The law has got to punish crime, Mrs. Hale. MRS. HALE (not as if answering that). I wish you'd seen Minnie Foster when she wore a white dress with blue ribbons and stood up there in the choir and sang. (A look around the room). Oh, I wish I'd come over here once in a while! That was a crime! That was a crime! Who's going to punish that? (13 [online source]) But where is the women's logical standing, the conformity to reason that makes their actions just? The women perceived that Mrs. Wright was abused, if not physically, at least emotionally.
Mr. Wright was slowly destroying Minnie Foster. It wasn't just Mrs. Wright's life that was in danger, it was who she was: her very identity. Mrs. Wright found an outlet: a bird, or as Mrs. Hale describes it: "a thing that sang [… ] She used to sing. " (12 [online source]) Birds are associated with flight, and usually represent freedom. When Mr. Wright kills the bird, it may be interpreted he is killing Mrs. Wright's freedom. Minnie takes action as an act of self defense, or perhaps a desperate escape. As the women get involved in the trifles around the house, they begin to piece this picture together.
By the time they find the bird, they understand that Minnie Foster did not kill her husband out of spite. Rather she was protecting her life and her identity, the very things that make a person human. As has been shown, in both cases the characters feel the law is unjust and that, thus, their acts of opposition to the law are just. In Sophocles's Antigone, Antigone feels Creon's law cannot override the unwritten law of the Gods. Furthermore, she realizes that following said law would make her lose her only chance at keeping her familial connection with her brother, which she would never be able to recover.
On the other hand, in Susan Glaspell's Trifles the women feel the law is unjust because Mr. Wright's abuse made Minnie Foster's actions justified. Also, they perceive that following the law would imply taking away Minnie's freedom, and hence, the very things that made her who she was. In effect, the women feel that following the law, like the abuse she suffered, would destroy her identity, something she would not be able to recover. Clearly, these characters feel the law is not absolute, and can, under special circumstances, be broken. The validity and practicality of this belief, however, remains questionable at best.