The male-dominated society of the early 1900’s was thriving during the time that Susan Glaspell was writing ‘Trifles’, her one-act play. Women did not have the right to vote and had severely limited opportunities in the professional arena. They were expected to remain autonomous, subservient to their husbands, and bear children. In many ways, men viewed women as objects with no personal goals, interests, original thoughts or intellectual freedom. One of the major themes that Susan Glaspell touches on in ‘Trifles’ is the legitimacy of a woman’s fight for her personal freedom. From the murder of John Wright to the decision to withhold information from law enforcement, the actions and dialogue of the play’s female characters embody the theme of effective female empowerment. Minnie Wright’s decision to murder her husband represents the consequential and unyielding nature of a woman’s desire for liberation. We learn that Minnie, whose maiden name is Foster, was a lively and fun choir singer who cherished her singing pet canary before her marriage to John Wright. However, her overprotective husband abruptly put a stop to all the activities that made Minnie happy, making her feel trapped in a loveless, oppressive union. Her extreme actions show her ultimate rejection of the lifestyle her husband imposes upon her. Minnie’s desire to be free of her patriarchal chains override her concern about the consequences of her actions. In Chapter 8 ‘Writing About Literature’, Edgar Roberts asserts that “characters and their actions can often be equated with certain ideas and values” (127). This is true in the case of Minnie Wright’s battle for her independence. Deciding to take fate into her own hands, she kills her husband in the same way he killed her adored bird: strangulation. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, when speaking of Mrs. Wright, ruminate about the conditions that may have influenced her drastic decision to murder her husband. MRS. PETERS. […] I’ve seen [John Wright] in town. They say he was a good man. MRS. HALE. Yes-good; he didn’t drink. And kept his word as well as most, I guess, and paid his debts. But he was a hard man, Mrs. Peters. Just to pass the time of day with him-Like a raw wind that gets to the bone (397-398). It is through this dialogue that the audience gets a true sense of how John Wright’s cold, callous character emboldened Minnie’s desire for liberation, turning it into an impressive force. Although Minnie does not ever appear in the play, the audience gets a sense of how utterly miserable and desperate she was in her marriage after her husband took away her independence and identity. In the character of Mrs. Wright, Glaspell creates a radical and inspired female rebel who best exemplifies the play’s theme. The female desire to gain freedom and independence can manifest into an unstoppable, and in this case, deadly, force, especially if a woman is intensely oppressed. The conversations between Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters support ‘Trifles” overriding theme: a woman’s fight for her independence. Throughout the play, these two characters consistently express sympathy towards Minnie Wright. At first, they express this sympathy lazily as they pore over her possessions and even try to help sew her quilt. However, the more the two women continue their conversations, the stronger their loyalties towards Minnie become as they realize the true value of women banding together to achieve independence from men. One conversation comes shortly after Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters discover Minnie’s birdcage:MRS. HALE. …But I tell you what I do wish, Mrs. Peters. I wish I had come over sometimes when she was here. I-I-wish I had.MRS. PETERS. But of course you were awful busy, Mrs. Hale-your house and your children.MRS. HALE. I could’ve come. I stayed away because it weren’t cheerful- and that’s why I ought to have come. […] I wish I had come over to see Minnie Foster sometimes. I can see now-MRS. PETERS. Well, you mustn’t reproach yourself, Mrs. Hale. Somehow we just don’t see how it is with other folks until-something comes up (397).Both women regret that they did not do enough to help their fellow woman, who was struggling to find peace of mind in her marriage before her situation became unfixable. They feel that they have somehow betrayed their own gender by not taking the initiative to break free themselves, and also realize that by doing nothing, they have succumbed to the male-dominated society. Their own marriages are similar Minne’s, which clearly drove her over the edge. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters regret that they could not save Minnie from her life of oppression and isolation, and they resolve to atone for the lapse by helping her now.In compensation for their neglect, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters withhold the evidence of the play’s central murder mystery from the Sheriff and County Attorney. This is the ultimate display of the female empowerment against a patriarchal society. Throughout the play, the Sheriff and County Attorney pride themselves on their powers of detection and logical reasoning to solve the crime that has brought them to the Wright house. However, it is the two women who discover the “smoking gun”: a dead canary in a box that the two men had dismissed as a trifling distraction. From this clue, Mrs. Hale and Mrs Peters deduce that Minnie Wright was likely fully responsible for her husband’s murder, the crime the men are trying to solve. However, because the Sheriff and County Attorney are consistently disrespectful and misogynistic towards them, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters become reluctant to reveal the crucial evidence they find. MRS. PETERS. My, it’s a good thing the men couldn’t hear us. Wouldn’t they just laugh! Getting all stirred up over a little thing like a – dead canary. As if that could have anything to do with-with-wouldn’t they laugh! MRS. HALE. [Under her breath] Maybe they would-maybe they wouldn’t (399). Mrs. Hale realizes that appropriate justice in this case would entail punishing everyone who had neglected and isolated Minnie Wright, including the men of the law. In a time when law and order were crucial to the functioning of 20th Century society, withholding information from the authorities would have been rather far-fetched, especially in a case where a woman was the culprit. When Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters realize that their alliance with Minnie is more important than the concept of patriarchal duty and justice, Mrs. Hale puts the box with the dead canary in her pocket, hiding the indicting evidence from the overbearing men. The Sheriff and County Attorney are searching Minnie’s house to search for clues to solve the murder, and without any evidence, they will fail to serve their precious justice. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters’ decision is the “nail in the coffin” of this case, because Minnie cannot be indicted without the evidence. Their actions prove the power of a woman’s quest for liberation.From the dialogue between Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters to the implied actions of the play’s female protagonist, Glaspell suggests that when a woman feels the slightest bit of hope for liberation from an oppressive society or individual, she is capable of wielding unstoppable force. Minnie Wright struggled to maintain a sense of peace and happiness in her marriage to John Wright, and was ultimately faced with an extreme decision. She took action despite what society expected of her. Minnie’s quest for liberation bubbles over in the cold-blooded murder of her spouse. Meanwhile, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters’ rebellion manifests itself in their methodical and strategic decision to withhold crucial evidence. Glaspell’s play presents the idea that when women discover the possibility of liberation from the institutionalized male superiority, it can turn into a consequential force of nature.
In 1916, Susan Glaspell chose to publish a controversial play entitled Trifles. The play investigates the murder of a man with the main suspect being his wife. This piece of literature, like others at the time, was ridiculed for its feminism. What makes the play bold is that it shows how women are overlooked by a male-dominated society and capable of fulfilling a purpose outside of the home environment.Susan Glaspell was a journalist, novelist, and playwright who lived from 1876 until 1948. Unlike many women of her time, Glaspell was able to attain a college degree and hold a constant job outside the home. She was an active citizen in the early 1900s, when the women’s rights movement was at its peak and society was constantly changing. Glaspell was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her writing, and her writings were both unique and influential. Glaspell, though not directly a member of the women’s rights movement, did her part to support their cause. After being assigned a job to report on the murder of a man whose wife of 32 years murdered him with an axe, Glaspell wrote Trifles. Her writings are a clear defense to women and a plea for equality in a time where it did not exist. Glaspell was a woman ahead of her time, as she did not fit the housewife image that defined women then. She said and wrote what was on her mind no matter the outrage it might evoke in some.The text of Trifles introduces the reader to five characters, three men and two women. As the men search for evidence to prove that Mrs. Wright killed her husband, one remarks that “women are used to worrying over trifles.” The “trifles” indicated here, some fruit preserves that have gone bad, help the women to discover evidence that the men are in search of. Additionally, the male characters assume that nothing in the kitchen could possibly point to the murder. The kitchen is the place of the woman; they retreat to “places of man,” the barn and bedroom. Another key piece of evidence that the women discover, an undone piece of quilting, is mocked by the men in the play. They make jokes about the silliness of women and the simplicity of a woman’s mind in the face of important work. Again, this article proves to be a crucial indicator of the happenings leading up to the death of John Wright. Upon discovering the final clue, a dead canary wrapped in silk, the women choose to hide all of the information they discovered from the men, who have reached a baffled halt in their search for evidence to convict Mrs. Wright. The women come to understand the motives of their comrade and agree collectively that it is not the men’s right to hold her responsible for murder when the circumstances motivating that murder are ones that afflict all women oppressed in a society defined by their male counterparts.The original audience of this text would have been men and women in 1916, when the National Women’s Party was created and a presidential election was held. These two instances cultivated an audience for the play that was surrounded by the ideas of feminism, gender equality, and women as a voice in the law. Suffragists would have taken a liking to the play, while many men and anti-suffragist women may have been appalled at further advertisement of these ideals. This play, like other feminist writings, disappeared for many years following the height of the women’s rights movement. In the past thirty years this play has resurfaced as a defense of feminism and an article of women’s studies. The audiences that read the work today are not unlike those in 1916. Women and men read and enjoy Trifles as they participate in a culture that constantly searches to equalize its long-standing faults in society. Those that use it as a piece of women’s studies are educated individuals that can critique and recognize the sentiments that Glaspell suggests, while still being full participants in a world that remains divided by inequalities between genders. Some people recognize this fault in the world, while others deny it. This aspect of the audience holds true in both 1916 and today.The male-dominated society present in the lives of the audience and author is reflected in the text of the play. Glaspell expertly conveys sentiments of a need for equality by highlighting the importance and ability of women and their undervaluation by men. Glaspell herself was a testament to women’s empowerment through her education and career at a time when women were thought to be no more than housewives and mothers. Her play presents two women who use their intellect to find what the men assumed they could not. The audience is constantly split between members of a society that see a need to fight for equality and those who promote the static gender roles that neatly categorize men and women. Trifles recognizes the assumptions made by men concerning the inferiority of women and the opposing capability of women to act as integral parts of society outside of the home.
Susan Glaspell was only twenty-four-years-old when she covered the Hossack murder in Indianola, Iowa as a journalist. It would be many years before Glaspell would write her breakout play Trifles, a play that bears remarkable similarities to the real-life murder of farmer John Hossack. Inside the wooden doors of the Indianola courthouse, young Glaspell had witnessed an event that would influence the rest of her life. To the residents of Warren County, the event that took place inside that courthouse was a trial to determine a woman’s innocence; to Glaspell, it was a testament of American injustice towards women in society. When she sat down to write Trifles, there is no doubt that it was modeled on the events that took place during that Hossack trial. The line is drawn as Glaspell the journalist becomes Glaspell the artist, and she makes careful omissions and additions to her work. Trifles is not simply a retelling; instead, to better exaggerate her concern about sexism, Susan Glaspell made several changes for her play. The addition of Mrs. Hale, the dirty roller towel, and the canary emphasizes Glaspell’s focus on the injustice of men’s feelings toward women and their work. Glaspell first departs from the real Hossack story with the introduction of Mrs. Hale. In the play, Mrs. Hale is the stern wife of Mr. Hale, the man who inadvertently discovers the scene of the crime. When the men rummage through the house belittling Minnie Wright, Mrs. Hale is the one to retort. She is the voice of reason, “loyal to her sex” (Glaspell 5). Although aware of the men’s sarcastic remarks, she never does much more than mutter under her breath. No parallel to Mrs. Hale appeared in the real Hossack murder case, in which very few women were called upon to testify. Mrs. Hale represents Glaspell herself – the only female journalist, who quickly noted the unequal treatment women received in the courtroom. When women began to give their opinions in court, they were quickly silenced immediately, on grounds such as the claim that “She [the witness, Mrs. Keller] wasn’t answering the question that had been asked” (Bryan and Wolf 146). The end of Trifles recalls the silence that Glaspell observed; however, “their refusal to speak rings with the power of intention and choice” (Holstein 284). Like Mrs. Keller, they are not answering the question that was asked, but in this case the conscious choice to be silent suggests that contrary to men’s opinions, the women actually have something important to say. Another change Glaspell made to her play is the addition of the dirty roller towel. This seemingly inconsequential detail does much to advance the story’s preoccupation with sexism. The roller towel creates the opportunity for the County Attorney to make the condescending remark, “not much of a housekeeper, would you say, ladies?” (Glaspell 4). This remark expresses the County Attorney’s expectation for all women to serve as housekeepers. Of course, there were not any dirty roller towels in the real-life Hossack farmhouse, for John Hossack was a stern man who was often susceptible to fits of rage, the worst of which he would threaten Margaret with “physical harm,” calling her “bitch” and “whore” (Bryan and Wolf 114). Possibly intimidated by these tantrums, Margaret Hossack had to carry her weight in performing her house chores. Glaspell changed this aspect of Margaret when she created Minnie Wright, and she did so without sacrificing anything significant from the overall plot. By adding something as trivial as a dirty roller towel, Susan Glaspell created the opportunity for the audience to briefly see inside the mind of the County Attorney, who ironically “at the end of the play [knows] no more than at the beginning” (Holstein 283). Glaspell purposely makes the men pay for their ignorance by allowing the women, not the men, to discover the motive first. Lastly, the dead canary further emphasizes Glaspell’s message by revealing the tension between Minnie and John Wright. The audience is led to assume that the canary died in John’s forceful hand, and instantly feels the couple’s strife and anger. In the words of Linda Ben-Zvi, John doesn’t just kill the canary, Minnie’s only comfort, but he also kills her “bird-like spirit” as well (153). Glaspell builds the imagery so beautifully that the audience can literally feel the years of abuse inflicted upon Minnie. A similar experience can be found in the Hossack case. There was no dead canary to illustrate feelings of abuse; however, there were many neighboring farmers who testified during the trial that John Hossack’s anger frequently drove Margaret out of the house. For instance, local farmer Frank Keller testified that “there was no peace in [the Hossack] family” (Bryan and Wolf 42). Susan Glaspell could not put every fact of the Hossack case into her play. She had to create something that not only could be produced on stage, but was also a work of art that conveyed her message – that “women’s voices are to be heard not as difference but as equally registered” (Ben-Zvi 162). Glaspell’s inclusion of Mrs. Hale, a dirty roller towel, and the dead canary support that message well. They help Glaspell translate the irony she observed in the courtroom – the absence of women’s voices to defend another, abused woman – to a play that reaches far beyond Indianola. Works Cited Ben-Zvi, Linda. “‘Murder, She Wrote’: The Genesis of Susan Glaspell’s ‘Trifles’.” Theatre Journal, Vol. 44, No. 2, American Scenes. (May, 1992): pp. 141-162. JSTOR. Montgomery County Community College., Brendlinger Lib. 24 April 2007.
Layers of Significance in Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles” Susan Glaspell’s decision to change the title from “Trifles” to “A Jury of Her Peers” when converting it from stage play to short story ironically robs readers of a metaphor that not only mirrors the female characters’ use of coded words and symbols (Lanser 414-15), but further highlights the gender mindsets of pre-1920’s men and women, the dually interpreted setting, and the role of the canary as both a companion and a symbol. When Mr. Hale accuses women as “used to worrying over trifles,” he is referring, literally, to the multi-layered dessert, but a second definition of “trifles” as matters of trivial importance is equally important to the play’s interpretation. The multiple layers of a trifle represent the women’s dialogue and actions that contain much more information than is recognized by the men, who never look below the surface, while the second definition refers to the insignificance the men associate with the tasks, minds, and needs of their wives. The women of “Trifles” operate on multi-dimensional levels of thought, observation, and speech. They discover meaning beneath trivial details overlooked by their husbands, and communicate with each other with coded verbal and non-verbal language that goes undetected by their husbands (Lanser 414-15). When the women, for example, discover the irregular ends of Mrs. Wright’s quilt, they interpret it as a sign of distress, while the men see only matter for jokes and evidence of poor housekeeping; the same is true for the dirty towels and unorganized kitchenware. What the men dismiss as trivial proves to be of great importance; if the household were a trifle, the men would only see the frosting, while the women would be acutely aware of every layer down to the dish. Verbal clues slip by the men’s notice just as easily. When Mr. Hale mockingly asks the ladies to remind him what it is they found, he is unaware that his wife’s answer refers to the method of murder, not the quilt. The title also contributes to Glaspell’s portrayal of the gender mindsets of the early 1900’s; the three males investigating the crime believe that the women, who actually solve it, should deal exclusively with matters of the kitchen – which would include the baking of trifles. The title also helps relay the mindsets of the time when interpreted as pertaining to trivial matters rather than dessert, for the men believe matters of the kitchen to be trivial when compared with the tasks men are meant to perform. “Trifles” is also an ironic title because it is the trifles, objects such as the quilt and the birdcage to which the men assign no importance, that lead the women to discover the motive. Because the men believe that women should concern themselves only with trivial matters of the kitchen, it is only fitting that the play is set in a kitchen. Unfortunately for the men, the insignificant “trifles” such as quilting, bread making, and cleaning turn out to be very significant in terms of finding the motive, and the men have never paid enough attention to these tasks to realize, as the women do, that the state of the house reveals Mrs. Wright’s intense loneliness, motive, and several sudden knots in the monotonous pattern that has become her life. Had the men paid any attention to the work of their wives that they had automatically dismissed as trivial – or compromised their egos enough to consult their wives about these matters – they would have found the clues they came in search of. Instead they learn nothing of the motive, and remain completely aloof to the momentous world that lies beneath the surface. The Wright kitchen is gloomy, covered with faded wallpaper and equipped with an almost malicious uncurtained window to the outside world, the view from which no doubt haunts Mrs. Wright as much as it draws her in. The rocker facing the window was likely her only escape from her mundane and suppressed life, but there is still a catch: the house is located in a hollow, obstructed from the road – a constant reminder of Mrs. Wright’s permanent seclusion. It is these reasons that make her canary such an important companion. It was the only thing that kept her alive, that broke the silence of her lonesome days and reminded her of the woman she used to be before her husband slowly robbed her of her individuality. To Mr. Wright, however, the canary was trivial enough to kill. A man with this mentality must never have given any thought to his wife’s feelings, to her needs, or to the stillness of her days. Mr. Wright saw his wife as a trifle; she was insignificant as a woman with needs and feelings, significant only as a wife. She was, like all of us, made up of complex layers that required more than just food and water, but Mr. Wright only cared to see the surface. He killed Minnie, as Mrs. Hale states, but he did not do so out of hatred, for he would have had to know her to hate her; he killed her though his misogynistic failure to ever truly see her. She was a plant that he had taken for granted, but lacking understanding, had pulled out of the sun and crushed its last source of nourishment.Works CitedLanser, Susan S. Radner, Joan N. “The Feminist Voice: Strategies of Coding in Folklore and Literature.” The Journal of American Folklore 100.398 (1987): 412-425.
Although published three years before Sigmund Freud’s “The Uncanny,” Susan Glaspell’s play “Trifles” is a literary embodiment of Freudian techniques. The dramatic tension in “Trifles” is marked by an acute sense of the unheimlich, or uncanny, which Freud defines as: “uneasy, eerie, blood-curdling… everything that is unheimlich ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light.” In this play, the three principle female characters — Mrs. Peters, Mrs. Wright, and Mrs. Hale — can be understood as personifications of Freud’s ego, id, and superego. The symbolic unconscious appears in the text as the absent Minnie Wright, whose enigmatic presence is ingeniously presented as a lack of presence, as something not yet manifest. The unheimlich makes itself felt through Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peter’s eventual realization that they are deeply resentful of men and, from their anger, capable of justifying murder. Their realization coincides with the ego’s realization of the repressed id, which creates an atmosphere of the uncanny in the text. “Trifles” is the story of women; it paints a picture of the female condition seen through female consciousness. The mind of Glaspell’s play, its ego, superego, and id, belong to women, and men are intentionally excluded from understanding its metaphoric language. The text of the play and the events that unfold can be seen as emblematic of the linguistic system of the female mind.The character of Mrs. Peters functions as the play’s symbolic ego. She is highly self-conscious, cautious to a fault because she distrusts herself, nervous, hesitant, and, until the end of the play, consistently uncertain. She wavers between defending Minnie Wright and defending the patriarchal law, appearing to have no concept of what she desires and no stable conscience or conviction when it comes to Minnie Wright. When Mrs. Hale asks if she believes Minnie Wright killed her husband, Mrs. Peters answers in a frightened voice, “Oh, I don’t know” (40). Mrs. Hale, however, is quick to judge: “Well, I don’t think she did. Asking for her apron and her little shawl. Worrying about her fruit” (40). Mrs. Hale can be interpreted as the play’s superego. She is ruled by her principles and convictions and, throughout the play, often speaks of her conscience. Reflecting on Minnie Wright, Mrs. Hale says mournfully, “I wish I had come over sometimes when she was here… I stayed away because it weren’t cheerful — and that’s why I ought to have come” (42). Later on in the play, Mrs. Hale cries, “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” (44)? As the play’s symbolic superego, Mrs. Hale is also speaks directly to Mrs. Peters and urges her to think with a conscience: “I might have known she needed help! 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” (44).When the ego uncovers the unheimlich in the id, the uncanny is realized. It is the moment when the unconscious elements surface and materialize into a form recognizable to the individual consciousness. In “Trifles,” the unheimlich is uncovered when Mrs. Peters, the play’s ego, decides that Mr. Wright’s murder is acceptable. Her dawning realization comes after she finds the dead canary, Minnie’s cathexis, and recognizes the shape of Minnie’s anger: “When I was a girl — my kitten — there was a boy took a hatchet, and before my eyes — and before I could get there… If they hadn’t held me back I would have… hurt him” (43). Transference is at work here; through self-reference, the character Minnie becomes comprehendible. Freud postulates that this sense of doubleness or duality is inherent in the uncanny and describes it as “transferring mental processes from the one person to the other… so that the one possesses knowledge, feeling and experience in common with the other… so his self becomes confounded, or the foreign self is substituted for his own — in other words, by doubling, dividing and interchanging the self.” The uncanny appears when the ego recognizes aspects of the id that it never knew existed. The concept of recognition is significant, because it implies pre-established acquaintance and a certain level of inherence. Glaspell implies that all women share anger at their male oppressors, and if carried to an extreme, all women are capable of sharing Minnie’s murderous rage.”Trifles” comes from Mr. Hale’s line, “Well, women are used to worrying over trifles” (38). It is a feminist play about men’s unwillingness to understand the female condition; it is about how women are disenfranchised, dismissed, and displaced by men in the social order. This calls to mind the Freudian notion of “penis envy.” According to Freud, women enter the Oedipal phase when they discover their lack of a penis and blame the mother, turning to the father as a love object. However, far from supporting this notion of penis envy, Glaspell’s play denies it completely. According to Glaspell, men fear the power of women, to an extent that they constantly belittle their female counterparts to assure themselves of their own domination. Instead of blaming other women for their lack of a penis, the women in “Trifles” bond over shared femininity. When Mr. Henderson demeans Minnie Wright by proclaiming that she is a poor housekeeper, Mrs. Hale defends her by saying, “Those towels get dirty awful quick. Men’s hands aren’t always as clean as they might be” (38). The blame is transferred from the woman to the man; it is not her dirty towels that are to be blamed, but rather his dirty hands.The play’s linguistic metonymy is based on the world of women. The central metaphors of the play — the preserves, the birdcage, the quilt, and the knot — all inhabit a world that men derogate, but in “Trifles” these are the only objects that speak the truth. By examining these objects, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters solve the mystery of Mr. Wright’s death and protect Minnie Wright by keeping their knowledge secret, which simultaneously empowers their femininity and diminishes patriarchic control. The women become the ones with the power to exclude. Withholding their knowledge of the crime from the men is, in a sense, castration, because it renders them impotent to connect Minnie Wright to the murder of her husband. “Trifles” as a whole is uncanny, because it speaks for the minds of women, and assumes in Mrs. Hale’s line, “We all go through the same things” that all women have repress the same things, that all women — even if they do not realize it — harbor the same dangerous resentment at their male oppressors (44). The play closes when Mr. Henderson asks the women jokingly if they think Mrs. Wright intended to sew or knot her unfinished quilt. Mrs. Hale’s sarcastic reply sums up in a sentence the doubleness, the uncanny, of this feminine language: “We call it — knot it, Mr. Henderson” (45). The castrating power of female withholding, the knot, the reference to the void, is the foundation of the play’s unheimlich.—Works CitedBigsby, C. W. E., Ed. Plays by Susan Glaspell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Looking over the course of time, women in every society have been expected to maintain the household living up to the old adage that they, like children, should be seen and not heard. In the play “Trifles” written by Susan Glaspell, this is clearly expressed. It takes place in a rural abandoned farmhouse where the reader is shown the abusive society women were forced to encounter on a daily basis. The reader is presented with the main characters of the play such as the court attorney, sheriff, Mrs. Peters, and Mrs. Hale. The setting presents a somber tone leading to some grisly discoveries as the sheriff arrives at the farmhouse. Finding the house in total disarray, they soon discover a dead bird, a dead man, and a distraught woman who had a story to tell. The importance in the setting is the rural scene that sets the stage for an unseen drama that might lead one to commit heinous acts against humanity. The solemnity of the countryside and feelings of loneliness tend to impact the behaviors of those who live alone, separated from the rest of the world. This leads the reader to decide who is to blame for the murder of John Wright. Susan Glaspell demonstrates her setting by focusing on the Wright’s kitchen, birdcage, and the bird. The three objects support and provide evidence of what exactly happened the night of John Wright’s death.
The play, “Trifles,” has an elaborate setting that takes place in the early 1900’s. The play revolves around the kitchen of the Wright’s farmhouse. In this society, the kitchen is viewed as a woman’s place. The consistent problem in “Trifles” is trying to grasp an understanding of the timeline of events. A statement that is relevant to the setting that connects back into the title is when it is stated that “Well, women are used to worrying over trifles” (636). In this era, the issues of women were viewed as “trifles” hence the title of the play. The play begins when the main characters of the play arrive at John & Minnie Wright’s farmhouse where they discover the kitchen is a complete chaos. The sheriff and the court attorney discuss possibilities of what may have occurred the night of John Wright’s death. The kitchen plays a significant role in the play since the kitchen is a disaster. The disarray leads the men to snoop, looking for clues and criticize the mess. For instance, the court attorney says to others that Minnie Wright was not much of a housekeeper simply because the roller towels in the kitchen were dirty and in need of a replacement (637). The men viewed the towels as an indication that she was a dirty housewife. Minnie, like so many other women of her time, were seen as objects for a specific purpose. To Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, her uncleanness was viewed as evidence. Minnie may not have been aware of the state of the kitchen because of the preoccupation with the murder of her husband. Other than signs of “incomplete work” such as the filthy dishes in the sink, bread left on the counter, and the dirty towels. An important aspect of the play is how dismissive the sheriff and court attorney are presented. For example, the sheriff says “Nothing here but kitchen things” (636). The irony of this statement is that they are investigating a crime committed by a woman. The court attorney and the sheriff are inattentive to the “kitchen things.”
An important aspect of the setting is the broken birdcage that represents her marriage. Due to the geographic isolation of the farmhouse, it led Minnie to believe that her own home symbolizes a cage. Another feature of the birdcage is that it represents the male-dominated society that Minnie and many other women were forced to live in. Leonard Mustazza states “the change in Minnie Foster Wright – the change from a singing bird to a muted caged bird” (494). The broken birdcage is the stifling life Minnie received after she got married to John Wright. This also helps establish how Minnie’s character was once delightful. Due to her neglectful marriage, it transformed Minnie into a lonely and depressed woman. Mrs. Peters says, “Seems funny to think of a bird here. But she must have had one, or why would she have a cage?” (641). The farmhouse is displayed as a gloomy place that a cheerful canary appears to be out of place. As Mrs. Hale begins to examine the cage she cries, “someone must have been rough with the cage” (641) due to the door of the cage being broken. This evidence proves the violent way Minnie Wright escaped her cage that symbolized her marriage.
The last defining object that increases the probability that Minnie murdered her husband is the dead bird. The bird signifies how cheerful and lively Minnie’s character was before she married John Wright. While Mrs. Hale was searching for scissors in a sewing basket, she discovers a box with the dead bird wrapped inside with a piece of silk. Mrs. Hale says, “She liked the bird. She was going to bury it in that pretty box” (643). The reader can conclude that the bird was special to Minnie by how she placed it in the box to represent as a casket for the canary. In the beginning, the bird is presumed to have died from old age but as Mrs. Hale takes a closer look, she jumps up and says “But, Mrs. Peters- look at it! Its neck! Look at its neck! It’s all – other side to” (642). Mrs. Hale confesses that the person behind the canary’s strangling had to be Mr. Wright. He was the only person who despised anything that brought joy. The significance of the bird being strangled leads the reader to make the connection that Minnie Wright had a motive to strangle her husband. In the beginning of the play, it is stated that “there was a gun in the house” (639). Thus, the killer could have shot Mr. Wright instead of strangling him in the same manner the canary was killed.
The Wrights’ kitchen, birdcage, and the bird are three key details that provide a sufficient amount of evidence that reveal the murderer of John Wright and what exactly occurred the night of his death. The kitchen plays a significant role in the play since the kitchen was a disaster. Due to the filthy dishes in the sink, bread left on the counter, and the dirty towels Minnie was viewed as a dirty housewife. All of these small aspects were overlooked but in reality had hidden clues. The broken birdcage and the dead canary, both are two objects in the setting that represent the joy that John Wright stifled in Minnie and the terrible act that followed his killing the one thing she treasured.
Glaspell, Susan. Trifles. Backpack Literature: An introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing, edited by X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, Pearson, 2016, pp. 633-645
Mustazza, Leonard. “Generic Translation and Thematic Shift in Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles” and “A Jury of Her Peers.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 26, no. 4, Fall89, pp. 489-496. EBSCOhost, db05.linccweb.org/login?url=http;//search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx direct=true&db=a9h&AN=7135797&site=ehost-live.
Protest is defined as “a statement or action expressing disapproval of or objection to someone or something.” On first instinct, most consider a protest to be a physical act, like marching through the streets towards a noble goal. A monumental event, such as the women’s suffrage movement, is the archetypal protest for most people. Susan Glaspell, author of the play Trifles and the short story “A Jury of Her Peers,” proves that a protest can be something as simple as asserting one’s own importance within the confines of the home. Being one of the few progressive authors during the early 20th century, Glaspell’s works reached many women who had been too afraid to speak upon the abuse they had been enduring. Mrs. Hale, the progressivist, and Mrs. Peters, the traditionalist, are perfect examples as to how contrasting views are shaped by life at home. Women like Mrs. Peters had almost no voice left at all, but with the help of a progressive friend for encouragement, Mrs. Peters was able to break away from the status quo and form her own opinions. Glaspell outlines the progression of Mrs. Peters from an oppressed housewife to a free-thinker to give 20th century women a model for withstanding the subjugation of domestic abuse.
Being married to a man of authority, Mrs. Peters had never thought of herself as anything more than a housekeeper, representative of the traditionalist women of this time. Immediately, we see the authority that the men possess over the women, simply by how they address them. The sheriff, Mr. Peters, refers to Mrs. Peters by her full name, never “my wife” or even by her first name. A descriptor so concrete and unfeeling makes men’s position of dominance very firm. Mrs. Peters will never be seen as anything more than married to a man of authority, something she had never before thought to question. Accepting her position as nothing more than the sheriff’s wife, Mrs. Peters embodies the qualities required for the role: she is meek, subdued, and unprotesting. She became so embroiled in defending her husband’s job that she hadn’t considered what he actually does. Even though undeserving people end up behind bars, Mrs. Peters feels she must agree that “‘the law is the law’” (par. 145). The entirety of Glaspell’s works takes place in a kitchen setting, the “women’s place,” where Mrs. Peters brings up the tragedy of Mrs. Wright’s preserves being destroyed by the cold. Mrs. Peters, being a housewife herself, knows how much labor goes into making and storing these fruit preserves: “‘Oh — her fruit,’ she said….Mrs. Peters’s husband broke into a laugh. ‘Well, can you beat the woman!’” (pg 1036). This interaction describes the lack of consideration Mr. Peters has for his wife and all the hard work she puts into her “wifely duties.” This absence of acknowledgment plays directly into why Mrs. Peters’s voice is disregarded. Mrs. Peters is established as a traditionalist not by choice, but by necessity. Through her lifestyle of trailing behind her husband and forgoing the duties of motherhood, this sheriff’s wife has not been challenged in her thought process until she steps onto the scene of John Wright’s “tragic” death.
By being exposed to a progressive mindset, Mrs. Peters is able to empathize with Mrs. Wright, and she begins to question her blind acceptance of the law. Throughout the story, it becomes very clear that Mrs. Peters has two sides that appear when men are or are not in the room. This distinction begins to spark a curiosity in the reader that there may be more to this “sheriff’s wife” than she has let on. She must not have always been this hushed woman, and this persona slowly fades as the mystery of Mr. John Wright’s murder unravels. In Trifles, the stage notes initially describe Mrs. Peters as “quiet” or “nervous,” a subtle way of expressing her forced introversion. The longer she is away from her husband and the more she empathizes with Mrs. Wright’s lifestyle, readers begin to see her use a “rising voice,” or have “something within her speaking” (pg 9). Furthermore, “A Jury of Her Peers” sheds a more detailed light on Mrs. Peters thoughts, allowing readers to witness her transition as a dynamic character. Although she “had that shrinking manner” found in many traditionalists of this time period, she has started to develop something found in progressives: “her eyes looked as if they could see a long way into things” (par. 124). She is able to look past the customs and routines she has subserviently followed for so long, and she sees through the cookie-cutter mold society forces upon women. As Mrs. Peters’s is challenged to form her own opinions through the conversation with Mrs. Hale, the transformation from unexpressed discontentment to full-fledged indignation is evident.
Despite her circumstances and beliefs, it is ultimately Mrs. Peters’s decision to put the dead canary in her pocket, defying everything she has ever known. Upon finding the bird with its neck wrung, Mrs. Peters is struck with an overwhelming sense of empathy towards the suffering Mrs. Wright has endured. “…my kitten — there was a boy took a hatchet, and before my eyes…..If they hadn’t held me back I would have — hurt him” (pg 1042). Mrs. Peters connects to her own past experiences of losing not only a pet, but also a child, seeing that Mrs. Wright had none. A wife’s sole purpose during this time period was to be a mother, and having that “right” taken away from her, killing her bird was the last straw. Mrs. Peters had never felt so isolated and alone in her life, but for the first time, she fully understood Mrs. Wright’s actions. Once this connection is made, Mrs. Peters is compelled to save Mrs. Wright from another jail cell outside of her home. “…throws back quilt pieces and tries to put the box in the handbag she is carrying….[she] starts to take bird out, cannot touch it, goes to pieces.” By hiding the incriminating evidence, Mrs. Peters hinders the male-centric justice system and exonerates her neighbor. Her eyes have been opened and her mind has been changed; she can now be considered a free-thinker. Although Mrs. Peters can start to hide the evidence, she cannot carry out the full action, however. She needs help from Mrs. Hale, a woman who has the experience and mindset far beyond former traditionalists. Protests can be started by those who are new to the fight, but they can not be sustained without seasoned warriors.
Mrs. Hale asserts that “‘the law is the law — and a bad stove is a bad stove’” (par. 148). Being the foil character to Mrs. Peters, Mrs. Hale challenges the common line of thinking and asserts that things don’t have to stay this way. Although Mrs. Peters has been enlightened to this notion, these women aren’t able to foresee that society cannot and will not change for decades to come. “There was a laugh for the ways of women, a warming of hands over the broken stove” (par. 159). Since the broken stove is a representation of the biased law, women are too powerless to change it. Can anyone truly warm their hands to feel relief from the cold of a broken stove? Glaspell’s purpose in this story is to give courage to traditionalist women of this era by showing them that they don’t have to succumb to this abuse. Mrs. Wright was isolated in every way possible, leading her to end her own suffering in the only way she knew how: a cold-blooded kill. There is more to this life than what these women have experienced within their homes; Mrs. Wright’s marriage was proof that women need each other to unite against oppression. We must build one another up if we are able to stand at all.
In the one-act play “Trifles,” there are countless examples of symbolism and characterization through the use of strong female roles. By showcasing the women as leads in this play, it was able to take on a more feministic essence to it, which is something the readers might not have experienced had the play been written from the view of a man. Susan Glaspell was able to display an abundance of character development for a short play using strong symbolism and the prevalent idea of the point of view and roles between men and women because after all “women are used to worrying about trifles” (Glaspell).
Firstly, “Trifles” by Susan Glaspell is a one-act play originally performed in August 1916. This is a time period, as many know, where women are seen as lesser than men. At this time, women did not even have suffrage yet. The play starts off with the discovery of John Wright being strangled to death in his home. The county attorney and Sheriff Peters find Mrs. Minnie Wright to be the main suspect in this murder. Although these two men are investigating the murder, it turns out that Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale are the ones who are actually going to solve the crime. Of course, the men did not think anything of the women, they merely made remarks about the women worrying only about “trifles.” The men implied that the women are lesser when talking about how women only care about trivial things. Regardless, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale solved the case when they came upon Mrs. Wright’s dead bird, wrung by its neck. They realized that Mr. Wright killed Minnie’s bird and that it was the last straw. The women knew how poorly Mr. Wright treated Mrs. Wright during their abusive marriage. It became clear that Minnie murdered Mr. Wright as the final revenge of her dead bird. The women decide to stick together for Minnie’s sake and hide the evidence of the bird. They know how Minnie is feeling because they two have felt it in this oppressed lifestyle. The play ends with the case unsolved.
Moreover, symbolism is discovered in many parts of the play. For instance, the dead bird found during the play is symbolic for the marriage between Mr. and Mrs. Wright. It can be inferred that they were involved in a domestic abuse relationship. In the beginning, just like Minnie, the bird was exuberant and full of life. In fact, she was even compared to a bird by another character in the play. “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” (Glaspell). This type of symbolism may very well be considered to be “2 by 4 symbolism” because of how evident the second meaning is. At the end of the play, it was revealed that Mr. Wright killed Minnie’s bird. Readers can infer that this was just the final nail on the coffin and it is why Minnie decided to murder her husband. The dead bird makes it obvious to the readers that it stands for Minnie and her marriage. Mr. Wright had been chipping pieces of her away with his abuse. The dead bird means that it is the end. Another thing that stuck out to the readers is that the women were rarely called by their first names. They were all called “Mrs.” This means that the women are simply seen as property to their husbands. It shows that society thinks nothing of the women, they think that the women are all a part of their husbands. Without their husbands, the women are nothing.
Similarly, characterization was developed with Mrs. Minnie Wright’s character early on in the play through the point of the view of the men. In the beginning, it was described to the audience that she was extremely worried about her jars of fruit and the other chores around the house. This shows society’s role of the women at this time in 1916. She is concerned about her household duties. The men made comments about Mrs. Wright’s worry about the preserves, saying “‘well! Can you beat the women! Held for murder and worryin’ about her preserves’” (Glaspell). As seen in this example, the men think that they are far more superior than the women. They think that all the women are good for is cooking, cleaning, and bearing children. The idea of women in this one-act play can be compared to the idea of women in the short story “Doll House.” At the end of “Doll House,” the main woman of the story states that her husband sees her as nothing more than a doll. The situation is similar in the play “Trifles.” The men in this play see all of the women as mere objects. Both “Trifles” and “Doll House” were written in the early 1900’s so it makes sense that the view of the women was the same in both pieces of literature. Had either one of these plays been written from the main point of view of the male leads, these works may have been very different. It would be possible that the readers would get a glimpse of even more oppression of the women. Even written from a mostly feminine point of view, “Trifles” still manages to show that the men reduced the women into objects whose main job was to worry about household chores.
Overall, Susan Glaspell developed the men and women in this play through exuberant use of characterization. Every character was symbolic for something else in one way or another. The characterization of Mrs. Minnie Wright was primarily formed from the observations and thoughts of other characters. This also shows how women were seen in this time period. “Trifles” was a feministic piece that showed the oppression of the women through the clear point of view from the men and obvious symbolism.
The Criminal Psychology of Mrs. Wright Murder in human history dates back to the biblical story of Cain and Abel, the first descendants of Adam and Eve. Cain killed Abel out of jealousy, and since then countless amounts of feuds have lead to the extreme action of murder as a resolve to the dispute. Killings have become so common that some can now be viewed as justified, which appears to be the popular perception of Mrs. Wright’s murder of her husband in Susan Glaspell’s play Trifles. Aside from self-defence and military soldiers serving to protect the innocent, there is never a case in which murder can be justified, especially in the situation on Mrs. Wright. Although Glaspell gives clues of a psychologically abusive marital relationship, this does not give Mrs. Wright justification for murder. In fact, the way she goes about the act very much calculated and sociopathic. Uncovering clues throughout Susan Glaspell’s Trifles will reveal a calculated murder which gives Mrs. Wright the title of a sociopath.
One of the great rights provided to Americans is the ability to always stand a trial, regardless of the crime, this way even the defendant has a chance to plead their case of innocence. However, many times loopholes in the law are exploited by lawyers to get their client out of trouble, or at least minimize the penalty. The same can be said for playing to the jury’s emotion, which would most likely be Mrs. Wright’s defense tactic if Susan Glaspell were to have continued Trifles to her trial. However, this would not have been necessary due to the clues Glaspell presents, which makes it seem obvious to the reader that it was Mrs. Wright who killed her husband. Yet even with these clues, many feel as if Mrs. Wright acted in a justified way because of the psychological abuse she received from Mr. Wright. According to Mrs. Hale’s description of Mrs. Wright before her marriage, “[Mrs. Wright] Used to wear pretty clothes and be lively when she was Minnie Foster, one of the town girls singing in the choir.” (Glaspell, 605). This prior characterization of Mrs. Wright reveals how she has changed as a result of the marriage. Mrs. Hale also goes on to describe the home as not a very cheerful place with Mr. Wright living in it.
In Darlene Oakley’s article entitled “Emotional Abuse: The Invisible Marriage Killer” men are typically the abuser due to the need to be in control. Oakley blames this on the possibility of lack of a father figure, or seeing this same abuse first hand. These abusers “self-referenced” which means the only perspective they have is their own and anything contrary is what fuels the abuse, which is why the woman feels the need to always be obedient. Oakley also provides the profile of the emotionally abused woman who has low self- esteem even if she appears to be in control of her situation and loss of trust in the relationship. Without any trust she is left to emotionally detach herself from the situation just to survive which comes at the cost of her soul and spirit. (Oakley). Therefore, the reader can feel sympathy for Mrs. Wright since her husband is presented as the one who ruined her life, but this does not give Mrs. Wright the excuse to murder Mr. Wright, it only gives her a motive. It is rare in history to find a woman killer, however there have been enough in history for trends to be formed.
In Sophie Davison’s book Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health she discusses the rare female serial killers and where their motives lie. According to Davison, Mrs. Wright would be classified as a “Black Widow”, one who kills her family members. Mrs. Wright can also fit the description of a “Revenge Killer” since it was Mr. Wright who metaphorically took away her life, therefore she literally took his out of revenge. (Davison). Now with a motive, Mrs. Wright began her planning to get rid of her husband for the 30 years of psychological abuse she had to endure. A sociopath is defined as a person with a personality disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior and a lack of conscience. What is discovered by Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters uncovering what the men of the play consider to be “trifle” details, is actually Glaspell’s presenting evidence of the progression of Mrs. Wright becoming a sociopathic killer. Glaspell begins by giving us Mr. Hale’s description of his conversation with Mrs. Wright. “Well, she looked as if she didn’t know what she was going to do next. And kind of done up.” (Glaspell, 602). Mr. Hale goes on to describe Mrs. Wright’s actions as strange, as if she had no intention to care that her husband was just killed. This can be excused as a strange reaction to distress, yet it also gives the feeling of Mrs. Wright showing no remorse and as apathetic to the situation. Glaspell then continues by having the women find strange sewing patterns in Mrs. Wright’s apron. As the women conclude, the method Mrs. Wright used in the sewing is called “knotting”. This is not only ironic, but presents a clue and the second part of the killer progression that Mrs. Wright was actually practicing the knot she would tie to use to kill her husband.
Another hint of irony used is in this situation is that when a couple gets married it is called “tying the knot” which Mrs. Wright is also doing to end this marriage. The third clue that Glaspell gives is a bit of a mystery to the women of the play, yet would make sense in order to continue the progression of Mrs. Wright evolving into a killer. As the women continue to search through Mrs. Wright’s things they discover an empty bird cage. Mrs. Hale goes on to gives more insight of Mrs. Wright’s life before her marriage, “She was like a bird herself- real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and fluttery” (Glaspell, 608). The two women eventually find the dead bird in Mrs. Wright’s sewing kit with a knot tied around its neck, similar to how Mr. Wright was strangled.
Now there are two theories as to who is responsible for the death of the bird, the first being that it was Mr. Wright. There is some credibility to this theory when Mrs. Hale’s description of Mrs. Wright as a bird is considered. Obviously, Mr. Wright was not fond of a lively lifestyle which would be why he killed the bird the same way he took away Mrs. Wright’s free spirit. However, this would mean that killing the bird was a trigger to Mrs. Wright’s emotion, making her murder of her husband a violent reaction which does not fit her profile of the obedient abused wife. This theory would also give no significance to the knots in the apron. Rather it is the theory that provides Mrs. Wright as the bird killer that has more correlation to the other clues. There is much more evidence to support the Mrs. Wright theory, which leads one to believe that this is how Susan Glaspell intended for Trifles to progress. The first piece of evidence is that this is the third part of Mrs. Wright’s progression to a sociopath. This step is the first time she actually causes any kind of physical harm, in this case to an animal. According to The Humane Society of America, “65% of those arrested for animal abuse have also been arrested for assault and battery of others and of 36 questioned convicted murderers, about half admitted to harming animals.” This data shows a direct correlation between animal abuse and actual harm to others. With this information and by how the bird was strangled with the same knots used in the sewing of the apron there is certainly enough evidence to support the Mrs. Wright theory.
Yet another piece of evidence to support this theory will prove Mrs. Wright to be a sociopathic killer, and even have serial killer tendencies. Authors Ross Bartles and Ceri Parsons write about the social constructions of a serial killer in their book Feminism and Psychology. Their work analyzes the nature of these serial crimes and find that many serial killers are motivated by an emotion similar to that of a sexual fantasy. Once the ideal image appears in their mind they cannot stop killing until that fantasy becomes a reality, and therefore they can relive this image. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to recreate a fantasy perfectly, which is why these killers need to keep killing. (Bartles, Parsons). Therefore, it is possible that Mrs. Wright’s fantasy was put in her head while she was sewing and killing the bird was simply practice carrying out that fantasy. Killing the bird serves as the connection from fantasy to reality of killing her husband, which is why the Mrs. Wright theory makes the most sense and proves her to be sociopathic killer.
Murder has always been a part of human history and has been used as the end result of countless feuds. Some people are of the opinion that killings can be justified, which appears to be the popular perception of Mrs. Wright’s murder of her husband in Susan Glaspell’s play Trifles. However, the evidence provided by Glaspell proves that there murder in the case between Mr. and Mrs. Wright cannot be justified. Although Glaspell gives clues of a psychologically abusive marital relationship, this does not give Mrs. Wright the right to resort to murder as a resolution to the situation. The way Mrs. Wright goes about killing her husband is actually calculated and can be seen as sociopathic. The sociopath profile fits Mrs. Wright through hints given by Glaspell. Uncovering clues throughout Susan Glaspell’s Trifles will reveal a calculated murder which gives Mrs. Wright the title of a sociopath.
“Animal Cruelty and Human Violence.” RSS. The Humane Society of the United States. 25 Apr. 2011. Web. 14 Apr. 2016.
Bartles, Ross and Ceri Parsons. “The Social Construction of a Serial Killer.” Feminism and Psychology. November 1, 2012. 267- 280. Web.
Davison, Sophie. “Murder most rare: The female serial killer.” Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health : CBMH, 11(1), 2. 2001. Web.
Glaspell, Susan. Trifles. Literature To Go. 2nd ed. Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2014. 601-611. Print.
Oakley, Darlene “Emotional Abuse: The Invisible Marriage Killer – Page 2.” EmpowHER. Web. 14 Apr. 2016.
The play Trifles by Susan Glaspell depicts the repressed roles of women in 1916 and holds underlying tones of the feminist movement shown through the two female lead characters, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale. This play paved the way for female writers in many areas, especially in journalism and playwriting. Performed at the turn of the century, Glaspell’s work depicted the events that were still going on at the time, and was used at a feminist tool by Glaspell to show the repression that was still so prevalent.
Glaspell refused to go with the societal grain that people held for women of her time, which is shown by her life’s journey. Susan Glaspell, born in 1876 in Davenport, Iowa, was a woman who rebelled at most societal expectations of her time (Ozieblo). She graduated from Drake University in 1899 and then continued on to work for her local newspaper the Des Moines Daily News. Glaspell married her husband just three years before the play was performed. Unlike most women of her time, who were repressed by society, Glaspell was not restricted to household duties. She was discovered as a writer when she covered a case about a woman who murdered her husband, the Hossack Case. She then went on to write the play Trifles, which is loosely based on this trial. This became what she was most known for as a writer, even today, and Glaspell also turned the work into a short story, “A Jury of Her Peers” (Ozieblo). She became a respected author with many articles published in sophisticated magazines, a number of short stories, and a novel that was published in 1909 (Ozieblo). Because of her status as a well-known and respected author, Susan Glaspell was able to portray her feminist feelings through her writing so it would actually be seen and heard by the public.
Glaspell, using the trial that she covered during her stint as a journalist, was able to write the play through feminist lenses. This case, known as the Hossack case, was a very large case and the newspaper published more than two dozen articles about it from December 1900 to April 1901 (Bryan). This case involved a woman who allegedly killed her husband in cold blood. Because of the repression that was still going on for women at the time, Mrs. Hossack, the wife and alleged murderer, did not receive much, if any, support from the outside. The article “Goes to the Grand Jury” by Susan Glaspell states “Public sentiment is still very much against the prisoner, Mrs. Hossack” (Brady). While it was never fully developed in the testimony of a Mr. William Haines, it is known that “the public generally accepts the story to that effect as true and will sympathize with the county attorney in his efforts to convict the woman” (Bryan). Being a woman, Hossack did not have much of a chance in the way of getting a fair trial, so she decided not to appear for her preliminary hearing and went straight to the grand jury. Hossack did not have a fair trial in that she was not governed by a jury of her peers as the law states, but instead a jury of men who most likely wanted to convict her (Bryan). This was the same for the trial of the character, Mrs. Wright, in Glaspell’s play Trifles.
Glaspell did not agree with the outcome of the trials of Mrs. Hossack and used her play to depict her dislike in the way it was handled, as well as depicting the two sides of the feminist movement through her two female characters. The two women described in the play are very opposite in nature and in physical appearance. While setting the scene of the play, the stage directions describe them as “The SHERIFF’s wife first, she is a slight wiry woman, a thin nervous face. MRS. HALE is larger and would ordinarily be called more comfortable looking” (Glaspell 1156). Glaspell is setting these women up in such a way so the reader is aware of the two differing physical appearances, which could in fact represent the two differing personalities of the feminist movement at the time. Mrs. Hale represents the people like Susan Glaspell who were very outspoken about the feminist movement and wanted to provoke change in the United States for women and fight for their rights. Mrs. Peters on the other hand, represents the quieter women in the United States who do not know how to find their voice yet and for the most part have identity only through their husbands. The fact that while Mrs. Hale is given a name and described as “comfortable looking”, while Mrs. Peters is only identified as “the SHERIFF’s wife” and as having a “nervous face” shows how little say Mrs. Peters has in her life and her home.
Throughout the play, the male characters treat the women as if they are stupid. They brush them off as silly and the things that they concern themselves with as stupid. At one point Mrs. Peters makes a comment about how Mrs. Wright will be upset if her preserves freeze and the jars broke. The men make light of this and the Sheriff comments “Well, can you beat the women! Held for murder and worryin’ about her preserves” and instead of defending his wife,” to which Mr. Hale responds with “Well, women are used to worrying over trifles” (1158). They do this again when Mrs. Hale comments on some quilting of Mrs. Wright’s. She comments “It’s a log cabin pattern. Pretty, isn’t it? I wonder if she was goin’ to quilt it or just knot it?” To this, the Sheriff steps in and makes fun of the women saying “They wonder if she is going to quilt it or just knot it” (1160) and the men laugh. This continues throughout the whole play showing the reader the disregard that the men have for the women. Glaspell is showing the men as unsupportive of the women, using the men in the play as a metaphor for the men and husbands during the feminist movement who scoffed at the women and their wives who were trying to stand up for their rights. There is also a metaphor in the bird that the women find that belonged to Mrs. Wright. The women talk about how lonely Mrs. Wright was and that she must have gotten the bird to keep her company and to sing, but the bird is dead. This is a metaphor for Mrs. Wright who may have just discovered her voice in her marriage and Mr. Wright killed it, or put a stop to her standing up for her rights.
Ultimately, Glaspell gives the women the upper hand in the play by giving them the evidence that the men need for the trial to convict Mrs. Wright without question. The women take a stand in the final pages of the play by deciding to hide the evidence that they have found from the men. Glaspell turns the table and makes the men look stupid when they brush the women away, not giving them any credit for finding anything of use, when in fact they have found the motive for the crime. The County Attorney asks the women what they have taken to bring to Mrs. Wright in prison. When he sees what they have he responds with “Oh, I guess they’re not very dangerous things the ladies have picked out. No, Mrs. Peters doesn’t need supervising. For that matter, a sheriff’s wife is married to the law” (1164) as if to suggest most other women so need supervising while brushing off the piece of evidence that Mrs. Peters has in her possession. Glaspell uses Mrs. Peters to hide the evidence at the end very deliberately as if to show the woman who used to be meek and quiet as finally taking a stand for another woman in a small way. This is Glaspell’s way of encouraging women to speak up and stand up for themselves and other women in a discreet way.
Glaspell’s work incited many women to start their careers in writing, as well as other careers and helped to move the feminist movement in America along a little further. This play, along with other works of hers, inspired many women across the country and still inspire women today for the feminist movement that is still so prevalent. Her way of tying in feminist ideals and feelings into her work was very bold, making her one of the great female writers of her time.
Ozieblo, Barbara. “About Susan Glaspell.” International Susan Glaspell Society, 2010. blogs.shu.edu/glaspellsociety/. Accessed
Bryan, Particia, and Thomas Wolf. “Susan Glaspell.” Midnight Assassin, www.midnightassassin.com/SGarticles.html. Accessed
Glaspell, Susan. “Trifles.” The Norton Introduction to Literature, edited by Kelly J. Mays, Shorter 12th ed.,W.W. Norton, 2016, pp. 1155-165.