Trifles by Susan Glaspell was written in 1916 as a one act play about the investigation of a murder scene in a small farmhouse. One year later, Glaspell wrote A Jury of Her Peers which was written as a short story from the play. The idea for the story was born from Glaspell’s time as a news reporter for the Des Moines Daily News.
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She had covered the story of a woman accused of murdering her husband while he was sleeping with an axe and then she wrote a work of fiction based on it. Both the play and the short story are the same with the exception of the change in genre. The themes of the story unfold as the women at the scene try to figure out the motive while examining insignificant things the men call Trifles. These two literary works both refer to the isolation and abuse of a woman by a man and through the use of theme, tone, and symbols, Glaspell is able to represent her views on the treatment of women in the early 1900’s.
The story follows five characters as they investigate the scene of a murder in a farmhouse. The murder suspect is Mrs. Wright who is accused of murdering her husband, Mr. Wright. It seems as though Mr. Wright has been carefully hung by a rope while he was sleeping. It is inferred that Mrs. Wright murdered him because the dead body remains in bed right next to where she was sleeping. Evidence needs to be discovered by the county attorney, sheriff, and Hale who is the next door neighbor. However, the wives of the sheriff and Hale are able to discover their own evidence because of the small details left behind in the kitchen where the women are waiting. As the plot unfolds, the women are able to understand and relate to why Mrs. Wright would want to kill her husband. Objects play an important part in the play such as a birdcage, bird box, and a quilt, just to name a few. Mr. Wright’s patriarchal lifestyle causes figurative death in Mrs. Wright through her isolation. Ironically, this causes his literal death in the end.
Many themes are presented in this story with a strong focus on patriarchy, isolation, and loyalty. Mr. Wright’s patriarchal behavior is the sole reason he met his demise. Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale know all too well how men view women and seem to have an understanding of the loneliness Mrs. Wright must have felt. We see this with each piece of evidence they discover while waiting in the kitchen. The theme of isolation plays a very important part of the story. Mrs. Hale reveals that she never came over to visit Mrs. Wright in the twenty years she lived next door. She states, It never seemed a very cheerful place (495), in her excuse for not visiting. Later she reveals her regret, I stayed away because it weren’t cheerfuland that’s why I ought to have come. I- she looked aroundI’ve never liked this place (500). We see the loyalty come in when the women make conscious decisions to keep the evidence from their husbands. One of those moments was when Mrs. Hale’s inner voice says, She felt that she ought to take her hand off the basket. She did not seem able to, Her eyes felt like fire. She had a feeling that if he took up the basket she would snatch it from him (503). She was hiding the dead bird the two women found to protect Mrs. Wright. Throughout the story there are comments made from the men that degrade women and their wives thoughts and comments are not taken seriously. Mr. Peter’s sarcastically exclaims, Held for murder, and worrying about her preserves (494)! In which Mr. Hale responds, Oh, well, women are used to worrying over trifles (494). They neglect what the women are concerned about and their tone presents how they view women.
The dark tone of this story is felt in the beginning of Trifles with the stage direction. It states, Scene: The kitchen in the now abandoned farmhouse of John Wright, a gloomy kitchen, and left without having been put in order (246). This immediately gives you a feeling of a cold, unwelcome place. The dark and gloomy tone continues throughout as we learn the details of the murder where Mr. Wright was strangled by a rope around his neck while he was sleeping. Later more darkness when the women find the dead bird. Glaspell states, And then again the eyes of the two women metthis time clung together in a look of dawning comprehension, of growing horror (501). This points us to the women’s realization that Mrs. Wright was in a desperate situation. She was oppressed and this was her only way to freedom.
The symbols Glaspell uses helps show the sexism of men in that time period. One of those symbols is the use of trifles. The men overlook the things that they consider to be insignificant and useless to them with the investigation. The trifles symbolize the men’s ignorance and they miss the opportunity to gather evidence to implicate Mrs. Wright. These things suggest her motive for killing her husband but the men don’t care what’s going on in the kitchen. Some of the insignificant things mentioned are the canning of the fruit, the quilt with the sloppy stitching, the empty broken birdcage, and the dead bird. These trifles could’ve been used to reveal the truth about Mrs. Wright and her hopeless situation. The quilt is also used as a symbol when the two women repeatedly discuss the different styles of quilting that Mrs. Wright would have used to make the quilt, either regular or knotting. The women tell Mr. Henderson at the end that Mrs. Wright was going to knot it. This serves as a representation of Mr. Wright being killed by a rope knotted around his throat. The birdcage represents the isolation Mrs. Wright felt while trapped in her home in an abusive marriage. He was cold, unkind, and treated her poorly. The dead bird was symbolic with how Mr. Wright treated her throughout their marriage. Like the songbird, Mrs. Wright was once a beautiful singer who had a lovely, bright personality. The bird was her companion when everything was dark in her world. When her husband killed her bird, he crushed the only hope she had to make her life worth living and she retaliated by killing him, channeling years of pain and destruction of her self-worth. Mrs. Hale stated, If there had been years and years ofnothing, then a bird to sing to you, it would be awfulstillafter the bird was still (502). Mrs. Wright was just like the bird that was stuffed into that birdcage which represented her in her marriage. And the killing of the bird destroyed her spirit.
Although the play and the short story were published separately, they both are able to convey their message of men’s attitudes towards women in a time when women didn’t have many rights. Trifles is presented in all dialogue form so the reader isn’t able to hear the thoughts of the characters, particularly the women in the kitchen. A Jury of Her Peers gives us much more information while presenting the same exact story. For example in Trifles it states, (They all look at the rocker) (1126), and in the same part of the story in A Jury of Her Peers it states, Everyone in the kitchen looked at the rocker. It came into Mrs. Hale’s mind that the rocker didn’t look in the least like Minnie Fosterthe Minnie Foster of twenty years before. It was a dingy red, with wooden rungs up the back, and the middle rung was gone, and the chair sagged to one side (492). This gives a deeper image of what they are all staring at while also giving us a glimpse of Mrs. Hale’s thoughts when looking at it. Trifles leaves more up to the imagination of the audience. Regardless of the genre one chooses for Glaspell’s work of fiction about insignificant things, they both are able to convey their message that the treatment of women in the early 1900’s was a lonely, desperate time where men were superior and women were inferior to them. It was very important for all women to band together to demand changes in a society that was male dominated and Glaspell is able to represent her views on the treatment of women through the use of theme, tone, and symbols.