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“Trifles” by Susan Glaspell

The one-act play Trifles by Susan Glaspell, presents both a riveting murder mystery and commentary on social justice at the same time..This play reflects the status of women in the era of 1916. It makes fun of the attitudes of men towards the women who share their world, at a time when women did not have the right to vote. Although it has a very limited cast, and takes place in just one tiny house, it manages to generate tension and fear, as well as humor.

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The one-act play holds up a mirror to the current state of affairs between the genders. It gently suggests that ignoring what women have to say, to observe, to suggest, and to accomplish, and treating women and their work like “trifles”, is something that men can do only at their own risk. Her perspective was formed by her experiences as journalist.

This play is a pleasure to read. This is in part because each character has a distinctive way of speaking, and is thus very colorful. Additionally the audience is let in on a big secret, and shares it with the women in the play, concealed from the male characters.

The dialogue is written in dialect so it gives the reader a very vivid idea of the place and the culture from which the characters come. This is very different from the sort of life that most modern students experience, and of course very different from the life that an international student knows well.

The title is based on the idea that what women are interested in and spend their time on things with which men are unfamiliar and which men often ignore. The character Hale states, “Well, women are used to worrying over trifles.”. This suggests that he places everything that the women characters discuss in the category of trivialities.

The author sets the scene very specifically. The setting is a gloomy farmhouse in rural America. The kitchen shows signs of disorder. We learn later that the gloom comes from at least two sources. The family is probably very poor, and the murdered man was stingy and oppressive of his wife. The objects in the room, and the mood of the house, are essential to the plot, since the women use them to reconstruct the story of the murder.

The characters clearly express their gender roles in their speech, which reflects rural speech patterns. The men are very assertive and sure of their opinions. The women, on the other hand, are tentative and questioning about what they are seeing and inferring from the circumstances around them. As an example, of this tentativeness, Mrs. Hale says, “I hope she had it a little more red-up up there”.

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The exposition is fairly simple, but indirect. The male characters, a sheriff, a lawyer, and a neighbor who discovered the wife staring into space with her husband dead upstairs, are investigating this recent murder.

Two ladies from the same community are there with them because they were asked to return to the murder scene to pick up items for the accused wife while she is in jail. They discuss and actually solve the murder, although the viewer must infer this from the last scene.

This indirect exposition helps to implicitly state the theme of the play. The theme seems to be that men ignore women’s feelings, thoughts, and the work that they do. The playwright also suggests that this is not wise, and that men would be better off if they paid closer attention to what women had to offer. This reflects the fact that in society at that time, women did not have the right to vote, and lacked other rights as well.

This theme is expressed from the very beginning. Mr. Hale, in explaining to the Sheriff why he came to the Wright’s house the day before, says of his plan to try to get the Wrights to put in a telephone line, “I said to Harry that I didn’t know as what his wife wanted made much difference to John—“. This demonstrates that Mr. Wright does not consult his wife about anything.

As another example, Mr. Hale then asks the sheriff, after telling his story, “You’re convinced that there was nothing important here–nothing that would point to any motive. SHERIFF Nothing here but kitchen things. “(italics added) .

As the reader learns later, there are actually clues to the solution to the mystery all over the room. They give hints as to why Mrs. Wright might have been driven to murder her husband. However the men do not even see these ‘kitchen things’ as worth their criminal investigation

On the other hand, these same men do, indeed, notice the “nice mess” caused by the preserved fruit that has frozen and broken out of the bottles on the shelves. They also notice that the towel is dirty and the pans are not washed. However, they assume, critically, that this is because Mrs. Wright is, “Not much of a housekeeper”.

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They don’t make the logical connection. How can Mrs. Wright wash dishes and towels if the house is so cold that preserves freeze? That task requires a cheerful fire to heat up the water. By not remembering the connection between the dirty items and the cold temperature in the house, they overlook the pattern of stinginess. Mr. Wright won’t spend money on a telephone, and he won’t spend money on firewood, apparently.

On the other hand, one of the women sees the connection immediately. Mrs. Hale responds to the county attorney’s criticism of Mrs. Wright by noting, “But I don’t think a place’d be any cheerfuller for John Wright’s being in it.”. Mrs. Wright’s housekeeping is also clearly very organized because she knows exactly where her apron and shawl are located. she was in the middle of wiping her table, and she was quilting before she was interrupted.

The difference between the attitudes of the men towards their own activities and that of the women towards their own and the men’s activities is summarized in the following exchange between Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale:

“MRS. HALE [Resentfully.] I don’t know as there’s anything so strange, our takin’ up our time with little things while we’re waiting for them to get the evidence. [She sits down at the big table smoothing out a block with decision.] I don’t see as it’s anything to laugh about.

MRS. PETERS [Apologetically.] Of course they’ve got awful important things on their minds . “ It is hard not to see this last as a satirical comment on men’s opinion of themselves.

Glaspell also shows that men miss out on important and useful matters when they regard women’s thoughts, feelings and activities as irrelevant. They overlook the evidence that Mrs. Wright was deeply upset and could not sew properly. They overlook that her canary cage was treated with violence and that it was empty.

Naturally, having ignored the cage, they do not think to look for the canary, which was murdered itself. Thus, they miss what they were looking for. This missing something was what Mr. Henderson described as, “a motive; something to show anger, or–sudden feeling, “.

This means that the county attorney may not be able to prove a case against Mrs. Wright because he simply does not see her motive. Glaspell is also suggesting that there may be many ways that men are missing out by having this attitude about women. Some of them may be even more serious and far-reaching.

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She is commenting on the whole of society, not just a few men in a small town with a murder mystery to solve. She has a larger message to share than just about a small-town scandal.

She was sharing her observations of a society that could oppress a woman to the point that she would be motivated to murder (and then punish her for fighting back against her abuser.). As Ben-Zvi points out, this play can, “reveal [,] in the telling {,} the lineaments of the society that spawned the crime.

Where might the idea for this theme have come from? Glaspell did not come up with these ideas out of her imagination. She was a journalist as well as playwright. She reported on a 1900 murder of Mr. Hossack, an Iowa man, while he was sleeping in his bed. This, as Ben-Zvi says, revealed to her that,

“juridical attitudes toward, and prosecution of, women are shaped by societal concepts of female behavior, the same concepts that may have motivated the act of murder. “.

This Hossack murder gave Glaspell a chance to wonder, “whether a woman in the early twentieth century could be fairly judged in a courtroom controlled by men”. It seems clear from her play that she did not believe that a woman could get a fair trial in a legal system in which women did not have the same rights as men. The county attorney is so smug about the position of women that he says,

“No, Mrs. Peters doesn’t need supervising. For that matter, a sheriff’s wife is married to the law. Ever think of it that way, Mrs. Peters?

Glaspell’s point of view about the status of women in a man’s world is shown in the actions of the two ladies. These women, after having found multiple clues to Mrs. Wright’s state of mind, promptly conceal them from the men. For example, they repair her messed up sewing. As another example, they also conceal her destroyed canary which was strangled and had its head twisted.

Her husband, the reader is led to believe, probably twisted the bird’s neck because it sang prettily, when, in Mr. Wright’s words, “all he asked was peace and quiet”. The two ladies also recall a significant but trifling fact about Mrs. Wright. “She used to sing. He killed that, too.” Mrs. Hale comments.

All these actions suggest that the women must clearly not believe that she can ever get a fair trial. They also think that the men’s actions are unfair to begin with. This opinion is revealed by what Mrs.

Hale says, “You know, it seems kind of sneaking. Locking her up in town and then coming out here and trying to get her own house to turn against her!” This expresses Glaspell’s own opinion, in all likelihood, formed by her journalist’s experience of the dramatic trial of Mrs. Hossack for the murder of her husband in Iowa twelve years earlier.1

Thus, this play accomplishes several goals. It allows the audience to enjoy an exciting murder mystery from the point of view of the investigators (both the official men and the unofficial women). It also raises questions about the way that men regard women’s work and thoughts.

Finally, the play sends a strong message of warning that men ignore women and disregard them at their own risk. The negative implications of not respecting women, Glaspell tells us, may be very serious. This play provides excitement, subtle satire, and a powerful message for society to change for the better.

Works Cited

Ben-Zvi, Linda. “Murder, She Wrote”: The Genesis of Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles”. Theatre Journal 44.2 (1992): 141-162. Web.

Bryan, Patricia. “Stories in Fiction and in Fact: Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers” and the 1901 Murder Trial of Margaret Hossack.” Stanford Law Review, 1997. Web.

Crayton, Cherry. “Daring to Wake Old Ghosts.Endeavors , 2005. Web.

Glaspell, Susan. Trifles: A Play in One Act. Ed. Frank Shay. New York: Washington Square Players, 1916. Web.


1 The details of the case were complex and showed evidence of the wife’s fears for her own and her children’s safety. Unfortunately, as noted by Bryan,” The abuse that Margaret Hossack had suffered was of great significance, if only to the prosecution, because it provided a motive for the crime.

The defense lawyers sought to characterize Mr. Hossack’s cruelty toward his family as irrelevant, and they objected to the introduction of such testimony at every opportunity. In fact, Mrs. Hossack’s acquittal seemed to depend on a denial of the reality of her marriage and the harsh treatment she had endured from her husband, with members of the family brought to the stand to testify to the happiness and stability of the Hossack union.”

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