American Univesity of Beirut

Literary Mapping and Gender: Susan Glaspell as a Feminist Geographer

​​​​​​​Ali Malli 

One of my favorite quotes is Heraclitus’s saying, “The only constant in life is change”. It has always made me perceive change as a temporal phenomenon. In other words, time is what brings turbulence to life.​ Otherwise, space – to me – is static. We are nothing more than spatial coordinates on a map moving in linear pathways with time as a driving force for change. We grow older and move around, knowing that the place where we grew up still exists at the exact same coordinate. 

Nevertheless, my perception of space has been recently altered after listening to Doreen Massey’s talk on space in “Social Science Bites”. If space is fixed, our milieu is limited to a cluster of buildings and surroundings deprived of any sense of meaning or attachment. Hence, once social relationships and human emotions are factored into the equation, space becomes dynamic through a bond between the land and who occupies it. This notion of space is evident in drama; the stage setting dictates how the audience perceives the characters and the overall atmosphere of the play. On a larger scale, space could be defined as the niche in which a writer moves and that , directly or indirectly, influences the content of their work. 

To further elucidate the role of space in drama, a spatial analysis of playwrights’ lives and their plays is needed. This could be achieved through literary mapping. In fact, the technique permits the analysis of gender in drama through investigating gendered spaces. For instance, mapping women’s life paths and understanding the geographical contexts of their day-to-day activities may help us unveil conclusions about gender. To test that, I conducted a spatiotemporal analysis on the life and works of Susan Glaspell using literary mapping. Glaspell was an American playwright known for being “The Mother of American Drama.” 
A picture containing text, person, wall, person    Description automatically generated

Figure 1 - Susan Glaspell by Marcia Noe is licensed in the public domain

First, I used StoryMaps JS to create a visual journey of Glaspell’s life. This platform allows for the spatiotemporal mapping of Glaspell’s movements by adding layers to the map and describesher activities in a particular place at a specific point in time. Glaspell grew up in Davensport, Iowa and stayed in the Midwest up until the early stages of her career. Once she got married to George Cram Cook, she started moving around New England and occasionally visited  Europe. This could be a preliminary insight on gender in the humanities using spatiotemporal analysis. In other words, it could be that place attachment is more “female” while travelling around is more “male”.

Upon a closer reading of her  plays, it seemed like the Midwest heavily influenced Glaspell’s work. For instance, Trifles (1916) is set in a gloomy messy kitchen of a rural farmhouse in Iowa despite the fact that Glaspell wrote the one-act play once she settled in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Moreover, she worked as a reporter in Des Moines, Iowa where she covered the murder of John Hossak by his wife. Trifles (1916) is loosely based on this incident where Mr. Wright is allegedly murdered by his wife, Mrs. Wright.

However, space in Trifles (1916) goes beyond a mere stage description. The static Midwest that Glaspell described from her residence in Massachusetts becomes a place of conflict. The location that Glaspell tries to depict is made meaningful by the social relationships constructed based on power and emotional appeal. To elaborate, Trifles (1916) opens up with three men occupying the kitchen standing next to the fire. Ironically, while the kitchen is typically a private space associated with women, the women in that scene are standing at the door, away from the fire. The notion of power is manifested through the occupation of the kitchen, similar to land occupation. Moreover, it falls in line with Charles Dicken’s fireplace pose where men stand with their back to the fire in order to signify power (Figure 3). Building up on the concept of public versus private spaces, John Wright, the murdered man in the play, was known to be a good man in town. However, Minnie, his wife, never left her house and barely went out. Hence, another insight about gender emerges when investigating space: public spaces are deemed masculine while private spaces are considered feminine. Finally, to reflect on emotional appeal, the men in the play overlooked the trifles whereas the women focused on the little things in the kitchen which allowed them to figure out the motive behind the murder. 

Corpus Linguistics in Action: The Fireplace Pose in 19th Century Fiction |  Programming Historian

Figure 3 - A man with his back to the fire in a Charles Dicken's novel licensed in the public domain

Recirculating back to the big picture, the presence of a woman murderer in Trifles (1916) challenges the gender norms in the Midwest. The latter no longer remains static as Glaspell tends to shake its stereotypes and pushes towards the reconstruction of gender roles. 

To conclude, despite the fact that Glaspell left the Midwest later on in her career, she was capable of highlighting gender issues in the region through drama. To do that, she defined space as a social construct rather than a descriptive element devoid of meaning. Through mapping, I was able to extract the real-life incidents in Glaspell’s life that influenced her literary work. Moreover, the effect of space on gender was nuanced by the social interactions of the characters occupying that space. As mapping techniques are advancing at a fast pace, mapping fictional spaces is already possible. It would be interesting to visualize the movements of the characters in fictional spaces in order to draw additional conclusions about gender. 

Article cover Image: Author's Property found at:
Page image: Oxana V @arttraveling found at:​

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