Symbolism in Trifles by Susan Glaspell
In the play, Trifles, by Susan Glaspell tells a story full of mystery surrounding the murder of farmer, John Wright. Two housewives hide evidence that could be damning for Minnie Wright in the death of her abusive husband. Due to it being a one act play, Glaspell has the opportunity to give hints through foreshadowing, themes of isolation, gender roles, and she also does this through symbolism. By the end they are not wondering who did it, but why.
Glaspell gives the women in her play a voice by making the men stereotypical, flat, characters. The men are self centered and have tunnel vision, whereas the women are more understanding and see the crime from a more dimensional point of view. These stark differences make gender roles a main theme throughout the play. The men are only focused on gathering evidence to convict Minnie, but Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters seek to understand her on a deeper level. They find evidence that helps them realize there is more to the story than it seems. Mr. Henderson, the county attorney, overlooks the small clues that help paint the bigger picture. He ignores Mr. Hale when he tells him Mr. Wright never seemed to care about his wife. Henderson tries to make the mess in the kitchen seem like the fault of Mrs. Wright and bad housekeeping rather than considering her mental state, and when the women come to her defense he says, Ah, loyal to your sex I see. This line is ironic, because the women are in fact loyal to their sex even though Henderson is mocking them. If the men had seen beyond just a dirty home and stopped being so sarcastic they could have found evidence that would have been useful in their case. Glaspell makes Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale seem timid and submissive to their husbands at first, but as the story goes on and the women speak freely amongst each other there is a sense of togetherness and sympathy for Minnie between them. Once they find the dead canary they piece together what has happened. The dead bird combined with what they know has happened to Minnie over the years, helps them understand why Minnie was driven to such an extreme as killing her husband instead of making her seem like the crazed killer the men try to make her out to be.
The canary symbolized everything Minnie used to be and what she longed for. Mrs. Hale says, She used to wear pretty clothes and be lively, when she was Minnie Foster, one of the town girls singing in the choir. From this the reader can interpret that before she became Mrs. Wright, Minnie was a completely different person. The canary was hope and comfort for Minnie that one day she might be happy again and once John took that away from her, she was so devastated and distraught that she became angry enough to kill him. This anger is symbolized in John Wright being strangled, because she killed him in the same way he killed her spirit, hopes, and her bird.
Glaspell made the theme of isolation and the effect it can have on the psyche prominent throughout the play, because it happened to many women during this time period. Mrs. Hale said, We all go through the same things, it’s all just a different kind of the same thing. This line was significant because it solidifies their solidarity as women and the guilt Mrs. Hale has for not helping Minnie, although she had a clue of what was happening. On the other hand the question of whether Minnie could have truly been helped could be asked. John Wright isolated Minnie and he was abusive towards her. Someone who is being abused could be saved in theory, but mentally that person is broken. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters want badly to get justice for Minnie, but they are not sure how to go about it. Ultimately they decide that hiding the dead bird would be best for Minnie.
Glaspell was writing about more than just a mystery, she is portraying the different perceptions between men and women. She was writing on misogyny, and the awful effect it can have on women. When a woman is isolated and abused she can do heinous things that she may not typically be capable of. The question is does Minnie deserve the punishment deserved for murder or has she been punished enough? The women surely seem to think so as they hide the evidence from the county attorney and sheriff. As an oppressed group they felt they had the burden of protecting Minnie.
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