Trifles is a 1916 one-act play by the American playwright and journalist Susan Glaspell. Penned around the first wave of the feminist movement, Trifles is a bold representation of the insidious conflict that had long existed between men and women in American society. The play revolves around the mysterious murder of John Wright by his wife, Minnie. The county attorney is unable to solve the case, and three women, all Mrs. Wright’s friends, and acquaintances start to investigate the family’s domestic environment. When they discover that it is the wife who killed Mr. Wright, they decide to hide the evidence in court. The title of the play has an important role in developing the central themes and conflicts. This essay argues that the title is an ironic choice that shows how details that are disregarded by men and dubbed as “trifles” are often of the highest importance.
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The title signifies the male perception of the concerns that women have in their everyday lives. Using the title as one of the key elements, Glaspell shows how distant and distinct the male and female world was in 20th century America. Men and women are confined to their domains; women’s roles are extremely limited and rarely expand beyond domestic life and child-rearing. Men, on the other hand, are in charge of making decisions. The reader notices that in Trifles, the two worlds are not complementary or peacefully coexisting – they are antagonizing. The play’s male characters consider women inept even in the roles that are assigned to them by society. When the county attorney Mr. Hales visits the Wrights’ house, he allows himself to behave frivolously and without much respect. At some point, he kicks the pans under the sink, calling Mrs. Wright “not much of a housekeeper (Mays 102).” He diminishes her needs and wants by saying that “women are used to worrying over trifles (Mays 105).” Because men’s position in society is that of dominance, they feel entitled to impose their views and perceptions.
Soon it becomes revealed that the “trifles” dismissed by men are key to solving the murder. The play’s narration shifts from the male to the female point of view and represents all details in a new light. For instance, the women discover the unfinished quilt and rotten fruit preserves, which is unusual for Mrs. Wright. While men write this evidence off as Minnie’s failure as a housekeeper, women know that such behavior is suspicious for a person who has been extremely committed to her role. Similarly, they notice a half-clean half-messy tabletop and bread that has been left out of its box. This is how the female visitors can figure out that the murder was not planned, otherwise Mrs. Wright would have finished her chores. The last and probably the most important piece of evidence that is only visible is the empty birdcage. Because the songbird was a beloved pet of Mrs. Wright, they are confused about such negligence and the disappearance. In short, the women intimately know the home environment and have developed intuitive senses that are sharper than an experienced attorney’s methodological skills.
Probably the most significant “trifle” that advances the women’s investigation is the bird. They find the house pet dead in Minnie Foster’s sewing box and realize that it did not die naturally but was violently strangled. The women know how precious the bird was to its owner because, in a way, she identified herself with his animal: “She — come to think of it, she was kind of like a bird herself—real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and — fluttery (Mays 121).” A comment is made that throughout the years, Minnie has changed a lot. She was “sweet” and “fluttery” like a bird, but grueling years of domestic violence and neglect have left her with a shell of her former self. The pet was likely her last joy because it represented everything she used to be but lost irredeemably. Therefore, when Mr. Wright strangled the bird, he symbolically killed his wife — her freedom, her talents, and her right to self-expression. Based on this connection, it is apparent that the death of the bird was a trigger, the last straw that pushed Mrs. Wright over the age.
Susan Glaspell could not choose a better title for a play depicting the increasing tension between genders in American society. The title describes the female world from the male point of view that diminishes everything important to women to “trifles.” However, such an approach proves to be powerless when approaching the mysterious murder of Mr. Wright. It is the women who have grown connected to the home environment who can unravel the case and see the evidence that escapes the men’s eye. The female visitors also discover the final piece of evidence, the strangled bird. Their analysis is precisely because they can relate to Mrs. Wright’s feelings and understand what the death of the bird meant to her.
Mays, Kelly J. The Norton introduction to literature. WW Norton & Company, 2015.