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Trifles | Summary and Analysis

Analysis of Trifles by Susan Glaspell

Trifles, one-act play by Susan Glaspell is an insightful social commentary on the state of women under patriarchy. Written during the first wave of feminist movement, the play revolves around how two ladies, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, come to understand the motive behind Minnie’s killing her husband, and what their understanding of the crime entails. 

Trifles was first performed in 1916 by the Provincetown Players. Glaspell played the role of Mrs. Hale in this production.   

Trifles | Summary

The events occur in the ‘now abandoned’ farmhouse of the late John Wright. Wright has been murdered in his sleep and his wife has been taken into custody. Sheriff Henry Peters and the county attorney George Henderson are in the farmhouse in order to investigate and find the motive behind the murder. Lewis Hale, a neighboring farmer, is also here to recreate the crime scene as he was the first outsider to witness it. Apart from these three, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are also here. The kitchen is gloomy, and there are lots of incomplete works around the house when the aforementioned characters enter.

The sheriff asks Hale to describe to Mr. Henderson the crime scene as he discovered it. The attorney wants to know from the sheriff if anything from the crime scene has been moved. The sheriff replies in the negative, only adding that Frank visited the place that morning in order to set up a fire. 

Hale starts narrating the story of how he came to find out about the murder. He intended to see John Wright and convince him about getting a telephone connection. Hale thought it was better to broach the subject to John in front of his wife, though he added that the wife’s opinions did not matter much to John. Hale keeps reporting that when he entered the house, Minnie, John’s wife looked and behaved in a strange manner. She mysteriously stated that Hale could not see John because the latter was dead of a rope around his neck. Hale went up to the bedroom above with his friend Harry and they did not touch any evidence. When downstairs, they were incredulous to hear that Minnie had not woken up when such a crime happened to her husband beside her on the bed.

As Hale concludes his report, Henderson asks Peters if the latter thinks there is anything downstairs that could provide a clue about the motive of the crime. Peters dismisses that possibility saying that there are only kitchen things there. Henderson here discovers that Minnie’s jars of fruits have gone bad, and Mrs. Peters is sorry for it. However, the men find much amusement in this, with Hale commenting, “Well, women are used to worrying over trifles”. Here, Henderson criticizes Minnie saying that she is a poor housekeeper. Mrs. Hale comes to Minnie’s defense, remarking how hard it is to maintain a farmhouse for a single person. Here Henderson and Mrs. Hale exchange a slight repartee at the end of which Mrs. Hale reveals that though they are neighbors, she has not visited Minnie in a long time because she has never found this house cheerful. Anyway, the sheriff secures permission from the attorney for Mrs. Peters to take some things from here to Minnie, and then the men move upstairs in their hunt for the motive. 

After the men have left, Mrs. Hale expresses her sympathy for Minnie. As the two ladies move across downstairs examining objects randomly, Mrs. Hale deduces that John was a miser and perhaps this is why Minnie never participated in any of the activities with the other women of the place. At this point, Mrs. Hale remarks how Minnie used to be a cheerful and vivacious person thirty years ago. Mrs. Hale asks Mrs. Peters if she thinks Minnie killed John. The latter replies that things are not looking good for Minnie, and all Henderson and the others are looking for now is a solid motive. We here get further evidence of Mrs. Hale’s protective attitude towards the absent Minnie who is the prime suspect in the murder case.

At this point, the ladies find out a quilt and they wonder if Minnie is going to ‘quilt or just knot it’. The men come downstairs and find the women wondering about this, and make fun of it. Mrs. Hale takes offense at this. Mrs. Hale, however, discovers a block of the quilt where the sewing is uneven, unlike in the rest of the piece. She realizes that this bit of the sewing, which was done only recently, shows something about her mental state of Minnie when she was doing it. Mrs. Hale goes on to undo the sewing of that part and redo it in order to make it even, to Mrs. Peters’s astonishment. 

Mrs. Peters now discovers a birdcage. By the by, it is realized that the door of the birdcage was roughly opened. Mrs. Hale remarks on how shabby this place is. Now she starts blaming herself for not having visited the lonely and unhappy Minnie more often when she could. The conversation now turns towards John. Mrs. Peters says that she has heard that John was a good man. Mrs. Hale, however, says that he was a hard man to live with. 

It is now discovered that someone wrung the bird’s neck. Mrs. Peters shares how she once had a pet of her own and how one day a boy killed it, and that she would hurt him if nobody stopped her. Mrs. Hale here indicates that John Wright was the one to kill Minnie’s bird. Here she also implies that it was alright for Minnie to kill John after all, since it was an abusive marriage. Mrs. Peters, however, is more cautious. She trusts the process of law too much to allow any crime to pass just like that but Mrs. Hale retorts by saying that not all crimes are punished. Here, Mrs. Hale’s sympathy extends not just to Minnie but to all women.

Here the men come downstairs again. The attorney is still looking for a motive. When Mr. Peters asks if the attorney would like to check the contents of what his wife is taking to Minnie in prison, the attorney condescendingly replies that he trusts Mrs. Peters since a sheriff’s wife is ‘married to the law’. Here, as the men go to an adjacent room for further checking, the two ladies hide the incriminating evidence of the dead bird and the birdcage, which is the motive. 

Trifles | Analysis

Two historical backgrounds are to be considered while reading this play. As a journalist, Susan Glaspell reported on the murder of John Hossack in which his wife Margaret was the prime suspect. At first, Glaspell portrayed Margate as a cold-blooded killer but as she investigated further, she became sympathetic to Margaret. This case is a clear inspiration for the play. The other historical background is of course the first wave of feminism newly seen in America. The first wave of feminism sought to tackle basic inequalities between men and women and address how women were represented in the political and legal systems. This provides context to the feminism seen in the play.

Trifles | THEMES

It can be argued that there are two parallel plots running throughout the play. And the division between them is sharply demarcated by the differential gender roles of men and women: downstairs, the women are supposed to do nothing and discuss trifles whereas upstairs, the men are supposed to investigate and solve the mysteries behind the crime. The irony is that it is the women, variously mocked and looked down upon by the men in the play, who are able to spot the missing pieces of the puzzle that the men dismiss as being mere matters of domestic concern.  

The differential gender roles highlight the sexism that this play clearly portrays. Henderson, the boisterous county attorney, is forever dismissive of the merit of women. His sarcastic remarks (to take one example: ‘And yet, for all their worries, what would we do without the ladies?) betray the deep misogyny and patriarchal condescension that feminism has always tried to critique. And it is also to be noted that women are not merely dismissed as unintelligent simpletons here, they are also oppressed. Minnie’s abusive marriage is but one of the many ghastly treatments women undergo. Consider the lines uttered by Mrs. Hale towards the end of the play:

I know how things can be—for women. I tell you, it’s queer, Mrs. Peters. We live close together and we live far apart. We all go through the same things—it’s all just a different kind of the same thing. (Brushes her eyes, noticing the bottle of fruit, reaches out for it.) If I was you, I wouldn’t tell her her fruit was gone. Tell her it ain’t. Tell her it’s all right. Take this in to prove it to her. She—she may never know whether it was broke or not.

The added emphases in this poignant speech show how women in general are victims of a host of atrocities in society, meted out by the system of patriarchy. Also, this very speech highlights another key thematic concern of the play: the solidarity between women. It is not the ironic solidarity Henderson refers to (he taunts Mrs. Hale with ‘Ah, loyal to your sex, I see’ at one point) but a very necessary one that must become the tool for women to fight patriarchy or at least survive under it. This solidarity is seen throughout in the case of Mrs. Hale but it is fully realized when Mrs. Peters, who has shown her utmost faith in the law and its workings, decides to join Mrs. Hale in hiding decisive evidence against Minnie at the end of the play. 

Is this particular instance of solidarity, then, an unlawful one? Not quite. Mrs. Peter’s and Mrs. Hale’s hiding of the evidence is surely against the law but the play evokes two kinds of justiceone institutional and the other moral. The institutional law would punish Minnie but the two women deem it fair to exercise their own morality in potentially preventing it here because the law does not acknowledge all crimes, much less the ones against women. Incidentally, when this play was written, women were not allowed to be members of the jury. Against this legal discrimination, among others, Mrs. Hale’s and Mrs. Peters’s intervention seems less unlawful and more just. This is a more moral justice, as it were, and a radical justice.

Abusive marriages and how these kill women’s inner selves and their dreams are others themes of the story. The lively Minnie changes into a quiet, unhappy lady after she is married. This theme would again be highlighted decades later by another feminist author Adrienne Rich in her poem ‘Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law’.

Against the sexism of the men in the play, the true potential of the women is highlighted in the play. The women play the actual detectives in the story who uncover the mysteries of the crime while the men, against their vociferous arguments about the inferiority of women, ironically fail to do so. The silence and the diminished role of women in society are sharply contrasted here by the intellect and pathos of Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale.

Trifles | CHARACTERS IN THE PLAY

 

George Henderson: county attorney. Boisterous, and dismissive of women, Henderson is a self-important man whose misogyny becomes rather comic, and definitely ironic, when set against his failure to see his own incompetence.

Henry Peters: sheriff. He assists the attorney in investigating the case upstairs.

Lewis Hale: a neighboring farmer who discovered the murder. Another voice of misogyny in the play. 

Mrs. Peters: wife to the sheriff. At first, she is reluctant to intrude upon the case using her personal assessments but in the end, she does help Mrs. Hale.

Mrs. Hale: bold, sympathetic, and intelligent. She stands up to Henderson whenever he insults womankind and she is the principal voice of female solidarity in the play.  

 

Trifles | SYMBOLS IN THE PLAY

The quilt: the quilt is an important motif in the play and the women are mocked by the men when they discuss it. It turns out that the sewing of the quilt is an important hint, and the ‘knot’ the women talk about also symbolizes the knot Minnie probably used while tying the noose around Wright’s neck. The men miss both the hint and the cryptic remark.

The bird: the bird stands for Minnie’s pent-up aspirations and dreams. Its murder by Wright symbolizes how Minnie has had to let go of her personality and hopes in this abusive marriage.

Upstairs and downstairs: upstairs represents the male domain and vice versa. While the seemingly serious and important male domain and business yield no clues to the mystery, the seemingly trivial female domain unearths the clues and dispenses its own kind of justice on the case.

 

 

 

 

 

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