Trifles is an early example of a feminist drama, written by Susan Glaspell in 1916. The drama revolves around the murder of John Wright, a farmer described by his peers as an honest and hard-working man. The man was found in his house, strangled with a string. His wife, Mrs. Minnie Wright, is suspected of murder. The main characters of the drama include George Henderson, who is the county attorney charged with investigating the crime, Henry Peters – the sheriff, Mrs. Peters – his wife, and Mrs. Hale – the neighbor of the Wrights.
The four principal characters investigate the scene of the crime, but the investigation itself does not serve as the main theme of the drama. The play is dedicated to depicting the untold story of the domestic suffering of Mrs. Minnie Wright. In the end, we learn that she is the one responsible for the murder. However, she is painted in a sympathetic light – as a victim of her husband’s misogyny and domestic abuse. Trifles is a challenge to the misogynistic tendencies of the time the play was written in.
Character development in trifles
There are four principle characters in the play – two men and two women. As it is a staple in many feminist dramas, the play is focused on the women. They are portrayed as deep, complex and multi-layered characters. The men, in contrast, are painted as shallow, two-dimensional characters who are there to represent the ideas that the playwright opposes, rather than actual characters. In order to see this, let us examine the characters one by one.
– Mrs. Hale. This character represents the archetype of a “Strong woman.” She is not afraid to call men out and defend Mrs. Wright from accusations of being a bad housekeeper. Although, she does it subtly, without being aggressive or causing a direct confrontation. Still, there is more to the character than simply being a foil for the male antagonists. Mrs. Hale feels guilty about not visiting Mrs. Wright while being fully aware of how unhappy and shallow her life was after the marriage. The woman believes that she should have done so if only to alleviate her neighbor’s loneliness. Her line about how women should band together is the strongest feminist message in the entire play. She challenges the male-dominated society by hiding the bird within her pocket, thus saving Mrs. Wright by removing this critical piece of evidence.
– Mrs. Peters. She is the character that underwent the most character development throughout the entire play. She starts off as a typical “Good housewife.” Mrs. Hale never opposes men and constantly apologizes for their misgivings. However, there is more to her than meets the eye. As she and Mrs. Peters investigate the room, they find a dead canary in a handkerchief, which was choked with a wire. The realization came quick – the death of the canary was what triggered Mrs. Wright to do what she did. Out of pity for her, Mrs. Peters breaks the facade of a good housewife and attempts to hide the canary. Mrs. Hale quickly catches up to the idea. Mrs. Peters’ protest is a more silent one, and it has buildup, which makes it more powerful.
– Mr. Henderson. At first, he seems like an amicable character – polite and handsome, he could have qualified for the role of the main hero in a detective movie. At first, he even seems like the less misogynistic kind of character, even admitting that they would be nowhere without women. However, the sympathy for the character ends the moment he comments about the towels. He shows disdain towards anything that has to do with the household, thus finally revealing his nature of a stereotypical misogynistic male.
– Mr. Peters. This is possibly the flattest and one-dimensional character within the entire play. His purpose, apparently, is to voice low-key misogyny and to serve as Mr. Henderson’s yes-man. He follows the attorney around like a dog and does not contribute much to the investigation. His presence is rather pointless to the story, and removing him from the script entirely would not have changed much. Naturally, neither of the two male characters receive any character development throughout the story.
A comparison between a character from the play and myself
I found Mrs. Peters to be the character I can relate to the most. Although the “male dominance” is a lot less prevalent in modern society than it was a hundred years ago, the gender roles and society expectations are still present. I comply with them, often, in order to avoid trouble and constant lectures from my parents or strangers about what I should and should not do. However, it ticks me off sometimes, especially when I am being forced into compliance with a gender role. I can sympathize with Mrs. Peters and her actions. It is what I would have done in her place. However, unlike her, I would not allow others to thread on me as much as she did.
If I were to direct the play…
If I were to direct the play based on Trifles, I would have re-written parts of the script about the male characters. I believe it is wrong to portray the men as stereotypical and shallow creatures full of misogyny alone, without any additional traits, as it diminishes the depth of female characters. It implies that women can only show depth and complexity when the opposition is made out of straw and fetch. I would either remove Mr. Peters altogether or write him into a proper character.
The focus, the pivotal point of my play would be the scene with the canary. It has to look powerful yet subtle at the same time. I would dispense with the dramatic cage rattling and have Mrs. Peters quietly hide the bird herself, with Mrs. Hale noticing and giving a silent nod of approval. I think it would give the scene more power, through subtlety.