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Symbolism and Character Motivation in Glaspell’s “Trifles”


Trifles is a short play composed by Susan Glaspell and revolves around the killing of John Wright and the murder apprehension of his wife, Mrs. Minnie Wright. Despite being written more than a hundred years ago, its primary subject, the difference in the perspective between males and females, is still relevant today since gender equality is yet to be fully achieved. To explain the intricacies of the topic, the literary work focuses on the characters and conflicts among them. The current essay presents the summary of the play, discusses the elements of symbolism, such as Mrs. Wright’s quilt or the canary, and interprets the motivation of the main characters in the narrative.

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Before the deconstruction of symbols and motivation of the characters, it is essential to briefly summarize the play. The performance commences with an introduction of the characters in the house where the crime has occurred. The cast includes three males, a sheriff, a neighbor, and a county attorney, and two females, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale. These two parties, men and women, have very distinct perspectives and hypotheses on what has happened on the crime scene. Men are primarily looking for material evidence to find out who killed John Wright and pay no attention to the perspectives of the women. Mr. Hale, the neighbor of the household, even proclaims, “Well, women are used to worrying over trifles” implying that it is unnecessary to consult with the females and grounding the title of the play (Atlas). Consequently, the men leave the scene allocating the major part of the story to the dialogues of Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale.

Closer to the middle of the play, the women commence exploring the kitchen and discuss the possible motives for Mrs. Wright to kill her husband. Examining the belongings of Mrs. Wright, Mrs. Hale discusses how the marriage has changed the mistress of the household, “She used to wear pretty clothes and be lively, when she was Minnie Foster” (Atlas). Consequently, the two women find a birdcage in the cupboard and realize that Mr. Wright could have potentially murdered the canary by twisting its neck. The same method of killing was applied to Mr. Wright leading Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale to believe that the wife did murder her husband. Shortly after this realization, the three men come back on the scene, however, the women do not reveal their findings due to the sympathy towards Mrs. Wright. The play ends with no further explanation of whether the mistress of the household was convicted for the murder or not.


Susan Glaspell has included a variety of symbols and signs in the narrative of the play. The primary elements of symbolism include the quilt, the canary, and the rocking chair. The quilting was generally done in an excellent manner, however, some parts of the craft were completed atrociously. Mrs. Hale even states, “All the rest of it has been so nice and even. And look at this! It’s all over the place!” (Atlas). It potentially implies the chaos of Mrs. Wright’s personal life and the abuse from her husband. The wrecked state of her well-being is also portrayed by the murdered canary. According to Bazregarzadeh, a bird symbolizes nature which is the essence of life on the farm, and the killing of the canary shows a sign of Mrs. Wright’s emotional downfall (13). Lastly, while both Mr. and Mrs. Wright are absent from the scene during the play, the presence of the mistress is symbolized by the rocking chair that the characters mention several times.

Character Motivation

Throughout the whole play, the motivation of the characters is excellently portrayed by their dialogues and actions. The cast is specifically divided into the two groups of males and females to show an apparent distinction of their motives and behavioral characteristics (Doley 43). The men try to utilize the logical approach and attempt to objectively analyze the crime scene, while the women are more interested in smaller details that seem irrelevant to the male characters. Nevertheless, this behavior pattern leads Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters to the truth unrevealing the motivation of the female cast that decide to side with the mistress of the household and not expose her crime. Concerning Mrs. Wright’s motives, she is clearly dissatisfied with the daily routine on the farm and suffers from psychological abuse from her husband (Guswanto and Husna, 34). Furthermore, while not stated explicitly, there is a high chance that Mr. Wright is the murderer of the canary. The combination of the factors has led Mrs. Wright to eventually kill her husband.


Personally, I find it difficult to sympathize with any of the characters introduced in the play. The author of the story demonstrates the hardships that Mrs. Wright goes through in her marriage, potentially making some of the readers justify the murder. It is an objective fact that the mistress of the household is indeed exhausted and emotionally traumatized due to the abuse; nevertheless, I cannot sympathize with her or defend her actions. However, if someone does deserve the reader’s sympathy, it would be the female cast of the play since the male characters constantly demean the women regardless of circumstances.


Summing up, this essay has presented the summary of the play, analyzed the symbolic patterns, and interpreted the motivation of the characters. Concerning symbolism, the primary elements of the technique are the quilt, the canary, and the running chair. The motives of the characters are also presented explicitly through their dialogues and actions. Overall, Trifles is a great example of the play that discusses highly relevant issues of the time.

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Works Cited

Atlas, Nava. “Trifles by Susan Glaspell (Full Text of the 1916 One-Act Play)” Literary Ladies Guide, 2019. Web.

Bazregarzadeh, Elmira. “Susan Glaspell’s ‘Trifles’ in the Light of Ecofeminism.” [email protected]: A Biannual Publication on the Study of Language and Literature, vol. 21, no. 1, 2019, pp. 10-16.

Doley, Dr. Dipak Kumar. “The Concepts of Home, Family and Traditional Gender Roles: A Critical Study of Susan Glaspell’s Trifles”, Social Vision, vol. 3, no. 2, 2020, pp. 41-51.

Guswanto, Doni, and Husna Lailatul. “Psychological Conflict between Men and Women in Susan Glaspell’s Trifles.” Jurnal JILP (Jurnal Ilmiah Langue and Parole), vol. 2, no. 2, 2019, pp. 26-35.

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