Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Though its plot focuses on a single moral choice, that of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters deciding whether or not to expose why Mrs. Wright killed her husband, Trifles is thematically complex. It addresses the abiding issue of justice and contemporary issues of gender and identity politics. Susan Glaspell’s power comes from the way she interweaves these issues until they are impossible to separate. When they enter the farmhouse, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are there as wives, adjunct to their husbands’ roles in society. However, through the process of attempting to help another woman by gathering items from her household that might comfort her in jail, they learn to identify themselves first as women and only secondarily as wives. Each woman recognizes her own life in Mrs. Wright’s suffering, and each comes to see that given the wrong circumstances, she, too, would have killed the man that so damaged her. These women symbolize all women, and this growing awareness suggests the possibility of personal transformation that decades later emerged in feminist consciousness-raising groups. When they decide to hide the evidence of Mrs. Wright’s motive for the murder, the two women are condoning the crime, or declaring that it is not a crime, but justice for the suffering that John Wright inflicted on his wife.
This stance creates a tremendous moral dilemma. The ideal of justice is that a truly just society is impartial. All the male characters are blind...
(The entire section is 410 words.)
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Perhaps the single most important theme in Trifles is the difference between men and women. The two sexes are distinguished by the roles they play in society, their physicality, their methods of communication and—vital to the plot of the play— their powers of observation.
In simple terms, Trifles suggests that men tend to be aggressive, brash, rough, analytical and selfcentered; in contrast, women are more circumspect, deliberative, intuitive, and sensitive to the needs of others. It is these differences that allows Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale to find the clues needed to solve the crime, while their husbands miss the same clues.
Glaspell differentiates between her male and female antagonists as they enter the Wright farmhouse at the beginning of the play. The men stomp through the door first, and head purposefully toward the stove for warmth. They are the leaders of the community—the sheriff, the local prosecutor, and a neighboring farmer. They get to business immediately, discussing the facts of the case.
Meanwhile the women, perhaps sensing the gloom and terror in the house, enter timidly and stand close to each other just inside the door. They are partly identified by the roles their husbands play. An important detail is they are always referred to by their married names only, and no first names are used.
As the investigation commences, the men seek obvious clues that...
(The entire section is 671 words.)