Trifles by Susan Glaspell
This is a one-act play that revolves around investigations into the murder of a farmer named John Wright. He was strangled while he slept and his wife Mrs. Minnie Wright is being held in custody as a suspect. The sheriff (Mr. Henry Peters) and the prosecutor (George Henderson) are leading the investigation. They go to the Wrights’ house accompanied by Mr. Hale, the neighbor who first discovered the murder, to try and look for clues. They are accompanied by two women; Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters who are not really expected to contribute in any way to the investigation. Mr. and Mrs. Wright do not actually appear in the play but we learn about them from the other characters especially the two women when left on their own. The center stage is Mrs. Wright’s kitchen and this where the story unfolds.
I noticed that the author, Susan Glaspell has used a lot of symbolism in the play and to good effect. We never get to meet Minnie Wright but the canary perfectly represents her life in this story. Mrs. Hale says this of her before she was married – “She used to wear pretty clothes and be lively, when she was Minnie Foster, one of the town girls singing in the choir.” In comparison to the canary Mrs. Hale says that Minnie “used to sing real pretty herself.” More to the point, she says further that “she was kind of like a bird herself, real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and- fluttery. How she did change.” The women find the cage where the canary used to be kept, rather symbolic of Minnie’s marital years as Mrs. Wright, a time in which she was “caged” herself. The two women notice the door to the cage had been broken, and when they find the dead bird with its neck wrung, they conclude that Mr. Wright must have killed it. Mrs. Hale says; “Wright wouldn’t like the bird- a thing that sang. She used to sing. He killed that too.” This implies that Mr. Wright “killed” the lively spirit of Minnie Foster due to his mistreatment of her in the marriage.
There are also other aspects of symbolism used in the play. The use of the title “Trifles” is very symbolic. It represents the little things that the women are worried about. The play is about a murder investigation and it turns out all the clues are in the “trifles” which the male investigators ignore. The cold and gloomy weather also symbolizes the life led by Mrs. Wright while she was married to Mr. Wright. The setting of the play in the kitchen reflects the position of women in the society at that time. Furthermore, Mrs. Wright asks to be brought for her apron in jail, and Mrs. Peters says “I suppose just to make her feel more natural.” The “natural’ position of women at that time was that of housewife and home-maker.
One major external conflict in the book is the position of women in the society. Glaspell was not just out to highlight the gender roles in society, but to make the reader question how it is we understand others and their stories. I believe the author wrote this play to highlight the plight of women during that time. Women were starting to question their traditional roles in society and Mrs. Glaspell tries to justify their reason for doing so. Even though Mrs. Wright murdered her husband, the author still tries to portray her as the victim and succinctly justifies her crime. First, Mr. Wright is portrayed as a cruel cold-hearted man who has made his wife’s life miserable. Mrs. Wright’s only ray of hope is her canary and when Mr. Wright kills it, Mrs. Wright just cannot stand the cruelty any longer and kills him in the process. The author also makes the male characters look incompetent as they fail to solve the murder. Instead, it is the women who unravel the mystery. This is in line with the feminist ideology that was taking root at that time. Mrs. Glaspell is trying to push that women were capable of taking up other roles apart from home-making. Their opinions and ideas were worth taking note of.
I would give the book a rating of four out of five. The use of different literary terms like setting, symbolism, and irony makes the story in a powerful, awesome way. As we read, we are made to think at the same time. The author does not use many words in a bid to tell everything. Instead, she paints a vivid picture of the circumstances in a way that readers can easily identify with. The author has used the element of setting to cover time, location and events surrounding the murder. The setting here not only supports the main background of the story but also justifies the props used in the play. The play was written in 1916 at a time when women had started questioning the traditional roles thrust upon them by a highly patriarchic society. Their roles were more or less that of homemakers and even most issues touching directly on their welfare were decided by men. Women had started to realize they were oppressed and it was up to them to speak out for their welfare. Feminism was well on the rise albeit slowly. In the play we see the men trivialize the women’s concerns in typical chauvinistic approach to things. The women are too timid to speak out their minds freely, but we see them bonding and joining forces to protect their own. One other important aspect is that it sets the tone of the story.
The whole play is full of irony in its various forms; verbal, situational and dramatic. An example of verbal irony is seen when the county attorney asks the sheriff; “You are convinced that there is nothing important here- nothing that would point to any motive?” and the sheriff replies- “Nothing but kitchen things.” Little do they know that the clues they are looking for are in those kitchen things! Furthermore, we expect that this team of male investigators comprising of the sheriff, the county attorney, and Mr. Hale would be the ones to solve the case yet, in the end, it is the women who do so, even though they don’t reveal so. The plot and use of stylistic devices are very good to warrant a rating of four out of five.
The ending of the book really surprised me because it came so abruptly. The official murder investigation is being conducted by the sheriff and the county attorney. The story ends before they conclude their investigations, even though the women have already solved the mystery. We don’t know whether the men went on to solve the murder at the end of their investigations or not. Perhaps they just could not figure things out and were forced to give up. We also don’t get to know the final fate of Minnie Foster Wright. Was she finally brought to justice, or was she released due to lack of evidence?
The play ends with the women having decided to side with their own and keep quiet about their findings. Will they manage to keep it that way in the face of on-going investigations, especially Mrs. Peters who is “married to the law”? We are also left to wonder if they will ever reveal what they know to Minnie Foster Wright herself. The author leaves us with so many questions unanswered and I think this was on purpose so that the readers themselves can be the judges.
If the book had another chapter at the end, it would most probably continue with its main feministic theme. The whole story seems designed not only to make the reader sympathize with the situation women find themselves in but also to raise their stature as important members of the society. When the county attorney asks Mrs. Hale why she never visited Minnie frequently, she says; “Farmer’s wives have their hands full”. The men, on the other hand, have been portrayed as chauvinistic and sloppy. When the county attorney asks the sheriff; “You are convinced that there is nothing important here- nothing that would point to any motive?” and the sheriff replies- “Nothing but kitchen things.” The sheriff says; “Well you can’t beat women! Held for murder and worrying about her preserves.” With such an attitude, there is no way they were going to get to the bottom of things in their investigations. Mr. Hale adds; “Women are used to worrying about trifles.”
An additional chapter would most probably see the men going round in circles in their investigations until they give in to their frustrations. It is highly unlikely that they will enlist the help of the women. The men walk into the women’s conversation and the sheriff says;”They wonder if she was going to quilt it or just knot it” (and the men laugh while the women look abashed). As the men come down from their inspection upstairs, the county attorney asks “Well ladies have you decided whether she was going to quilt it or knot it?” and Mrs. Peters replies “We think she was going to knot it.” His assumption is that they are talking about Mrs. Wright’s sewing only, yet the ladies had already decided that Mrs. Wright actually strangled her husband. The men regard the women’s concerns as unimportant, not only in this investigation but life in general. The book would have most likely ended with Minnie Foster being released for lack of evidence.