Susan Glaspell’s 1916 play titled “Trifles” uses many elements of drama such as, diction and spectacle through the actions of the two women as they rummage through a unusually messy kitchen to develop complexity and hold the attention of the audience until the very end. Glaspell uses irony and common misconceptions to convey her powerful message “Trifles” is also a play that reflects a clear notion of gender and sex roles. Glaspell, a feminist writer, writes plays that are known for their development of deep, sympathetic characters that have strong principles that are worth standing up for (Holstein 288).
Trifles” opens up in its setting, which is a rural area of Nebraska in a newly abandoned farmhouse kitchen belonging to the Wright family. The play is written from two different perspectives. The perspectives include a male’s, which include George Henderson, the county attorney, Henry Peter, the sheriff, and Lewis Hale, a neighboring farmer, and a female’s, which includes Mrs. Peter’s, the wife of Henry Peters and Mrs. Hale, the wife of Lewis Hale. The male characters enter the house as a crime scene.
The county attorney carries out the investigation in an orderly way by interviewing the key witness and asking for the facts only. “The audience hears only male voices for the first quarter of the play as they go from room to room routinely until they left nothing out, ‘Nothing of importance’” (Holstein 283). The females of the play were very hesitant to enter the house. The beginning scene describes, “The women have come in slowly, and stand close together near the door” (Glaspell 958). The women enter the house as a home rather than a crime scene.
They are there only to gather items for the imprisoned, Mrs. Wright. They are very nervous and timid, which can be determined by the diction that Glaspell uses. Many dashes are used as the women speak slowly and thoughtfully in the home where a man was just murdered. Seeing the bread outside the breadbox, the broken fruit jars, and the rocking chair that Mrs. Wright was sitting in before and after the alleged murder that Mrs. Hale almost sat in causing it to rock back and forth all startled and made the women uneasy as they wondered around the house (Glaspell 962).
These details also play a role in the spectacle that Glaspell is creating. As the play progresses, they are able to put themselves in Mrs. Wright’s position, making them more comfortable as they explore the familiar kitchen. Mrs. Hale has been Mrs. Wright’s neighbor for years and knows how hard it is to keep up with the cleaning and womanly chores of the home, which is why she is angry when the men are snooping around and judging her (Glaspell 962). She recalls when “Minnie Foster, now Mrs. Wright, wore a white dress with blue ribbons and stood up in the choir and sang” (Glaspell 968).
As the women find the birdcage and later discover the dead bird wrapped in a beautiful box and realize what has happened in the Wright’s home, they begin to sympathize with her. They first think about “the lonely quiet of her childless farmhouse” (Holstein 285). Mrs. Hale “mourns the loss of Mrs. Wright’s preserved fruit, remembering her own hard work during canning season” (Holstein 286). For the first time throughout the play, Mrs. Peter’s softens to Minnie’s situation remembering the time a boy murdered her kitten and whispered, “If they hadn’t held me back I would have—hurt him” (Glaspell 967).
Holstein mentions, “She also contemplates the stillness of her old homestead after her first baby died and compares it to Minnie’s solitude” (286). It is clear that the women are able to sympathize with Minnie Wright because “they share her experience” (Holstein 286). The play begins to be ironic as the men tease and belittle the women by poking fun at their “trifles” such as whether Mrs. Wright would sew or knot her quilt. “Mrs. Hale says, 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” (Glaspell 964).
Holstein points out that evidence is nothing more than the “little things” (284). The first trifle that was discussed was “a neighbor’s visit”, which Mrs. Hale has ongoing guilt about throughout the play. “Mrs. Hale observes, “We live close together and we live far apart. We all go through the same things—it’s all just a different kind of the same thing” (Holstein 287). Other examples of their trifles that are discussed are items such as the birdcage that no longer has a bird in it and the square of quilt that is not nearly as neat as the others.
These “trifles” become major evidence in the murdering of John Wright, but are kept secret by the women. The women ironically become the main characters of this murder mystery, which was groundbreaking in the time that Glaspell wrote this play. The men seemingly disappear as the women instinctively uncover the mystery for themselves piece by piece giving them a certain power over the men. In the beginning of the play, the women are quiet from “powerlessness”, but by the end “Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters ultimately find power in being devalued, for their low status allows them to keep quiet at he play’s end. ”
The women are much like “servants and other discounted groups”, for they are allowed to have knowledge of subjects “because it is assumed they will not be able to make intelligent use of it” (Holstein 284). By not turning Mrs. Wright in, Mrs. Peters clearly makes a change from the start of the play to the end. Mrs. Hale is luckily able to change Mrs. Peters’ initial thought on the discovery of Mrs. Wright being a murderer, which was the idea that “The law has got to punish crimes” (Glaspell 968).
The men enter the kitchen again after carrying out these investigations with no more knowledge of the murder than when they started. The county attorney overlooks the trifle of Mrs. Wright being afraid of cats when he questions the empty birdcage, which could have been possible evidence. Mrs. Hale lied and said, “We think—the cat got it” (Glaspell 697). Holstein mentions, “Perhaps Mrs. Hale’s remark is an oblique reference to the women’s silence, as in the old question ‘has the cat got your tongue? ’” The attorney is only interested in the “visible evidence” of the murder (Holstein 285).
In the end the women’s silence is no longer a “silence of powerlessness”, but a power of “intention and choice” (Holstein 284). The plays final line is the most powerful line. The county attorney remarks sarcastically, “Well Henry, at least we found out that she was not going to quilt it. She was going to—what is it that you call it, ladies? ” and Mrs. Hale responded, “We call it—knot it, Mr. Henderson” (Glaspell 968). Holstein discusses that “Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters intentionally “knot” their knowledge and do “not” share it. There silence has become a mark of their solidarity, a refusal to endanger a sister.
She ends her article with a basic summary of the men in the play by stating, “For the men in the play, [the women’s] secret remains an undiscovered trifle” (Holstein 290). Many aspects of Glaspell’s “Trifles” make it a moving play with a simple, yet powerful theme of women in this time period being powerful in the same way that they are powerless; in silence. As a feminist, Glaspell is able to give women the power of using trifles and womanly concerns that men laugh at to solve a murder mystery with hard evidence, and also gives them the power to stick up for a fellow female and withhold information from the portrayed ignorance of men.
Although Glaspell does not come right out and say it, she is making it clear that she finds men to be overbearing and inferior to women contrary to the popular beliefs at the time this play was written. Glaspell does something inspiring by using the many elements of drama along side irony and the notion of gender and sex roles to develop a complex, chilling, and entertaining play about something as serious as a scorned woman seeking revenge on her husband and two women using simple “trifles” to understand why.