Trifles is a poignant drama of the consequences of feminine repression, loneliness, and deprivation.
The play begins as the male and female characters arrive at the home of John and Minnie Wright (who is being held in the county jail) on a large farm in Iowa that is distant from other homes. Gordon Henderson, the County Attorney, Sheriff Peters, and a neighbor, Mr. Hale, dismiss the kitchen as insignificant in their search for a motive regarding the murder of Mr. Wright: "Nothing here but kitchen things," says the sheriff. But, before he goes upstairs, Henderson remarks, "Dirty towels! Not much of a housekeeper, would you say, ladies? Further, he criticizes Mrs. Wright's homemaker instinct.
While the men go upstairs after the attorney tells the women to keep an eye out for anything that might be of use to him and the sheriff, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, enter the kitchen, resentful of the remarks made by the county attorney about Mrs. Wright. Instead, they see the dirty towels and the unkempt state of the kitchen as indicative of Mrs. Wright's low spirits. They look around for a time, then Mrs. Hale says she must gather Mrs. Wright's things from the front closet. When they pull out the requested articles of clothing, Mrs. Hale notices how shabby they are. "She used to wear pretty clothes and be lively," she remarks to Mrs. Peters.
As they return to the kitchen, the women discuss the method in which Wright was killed--with a rope around his neck--and they wonder if there were some connection of this method to motive. Looking through cabinets, they find a quilt that Mrs. Wright was piecing. Mrs. Hale wonders,
" 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 evidence."
Further, she notices that the sewing has become erratic in one place. So, Mrs. Hale pulls out the stitching to repair it, wondering why Mrs. Wright was obviously nervous while sewing. Soon, the men descend the stairs and Sheriff Peters overhears the women wondering if Mrs. Wright were going to "quilt" it or just "sew" the quilt. He jokes to the others about the unimportant concerns of the women, a remark that they find offensive.
Upon further searching, Mrs. Peters discovers in a cupboard a birdcage with a hinge broken. She asks Mrs. Hale if Minnie had a bird, but Mrs. Hale replies that she only knows that once a man came around selling birds. Mrs. Hale wonders if Mrs. Wright may have purchased one since Minnie, whom she knew when she was younger, once sang in the church choir and who must have been lonesome living so far removed from other people with no children or anyone to talk to while her husband worked the farm. But, they wonder what might have happened to the bird because Mrs. Hale notes that Mrs. Wright did not like cats or anything that might have killed it.
Later, Mrs. Hale suggests they take the unfinished quilt to the jail for Mrs. Wright to sew. Mrs. Peters agrees and looks for a sewing basket while Mrs. Hale comes upon a pretty red box, thinking it may contain a scissors. To their amazement, they discover the canary inside, with its neck twisted around; the women look at each other in knowing horror. But, when the men reappear, they say nothing about the bird except when the County Attorney notices the cage and asks where the bird may have gone. Mrs. Hale quickly replies, "We think the --cat got it." When he asks if there is a cat, Mrs. Peters quickly says, "...not now. They're superstitious, you know. They leave."
As the men retrace their steps and start upstairs, the two women say nothing to each other, but perceive something intuitively together. They understand Minnie Wright, and in their women's hearts, they have compassion for her, a lonely, desolate woman, who has suffered silently under the cruel coldness of the man she married. Nothing of beauty has survived in this home; so, when he silenced the little bird who sang for her and brought her some little joy, Minnie Wright snapped. They wonder what they would have done in her place:
"If there's been year and years of nothing, then a bird to sing to you, it would be awful--still, after the bird was still," Mrs. Hale says.
Mrs. Peters commiserates, "I know what stillness is. When...my first baby died--after he was two years old, and me with no other then--"
But, she tells Mrs. Hale that the law must punish crime. Mrs. Hale counters,
"Oh, I wish I'd come over here once in a while. That was a crime! That was a crime! Who's going to punish that!....We all go through the same things--it's all just a different kind of the same thing.
They decide not to tell Mrs. Wright that her jelly that she worked so hard to put up in the summer has all frozen and the jars broken. Mrs. Peters nervously remarks on how they got so worked up about a dead canary. "As if that could have anything to do with--with--wouldn't they laugh! Under her breath Mrs. Hale says, "Maybe they would--maybe they wouldn't." Clearly, both women consider the previous remarks of the men about the trifles with which women concern themselves. Perhaps, they wonder to themselves, the canary is a mere "trifle," too. So, why mention it?
As the men come downstairs again, the women hear the attorney telling the sheriff that the case is clear except for a reason for the act of doing the crime. There is nothing to connect with the strange "way of doing it." Entering the kitchen, the sheriff asks if the attorney wishes to see what his wife is taking to the jail, but the attorney says no because, after all, she is "married to the law" Mrs. Peter defers, "Not--just that way." While the men step out to examine the windows, the two wives look meaningfully at each other, both disgusted with the chauvinistic remarks of the men. Quickly, Mrs. Peters tries to put the box with the canary in her bag, but it will not fit. She opens the box, but is too nervous to grab the canary, and they hear the door knob turning. Mrs. Hale, then, snatches the box and shoves it into her large pocket of her heavy winter coat in an act of feminine loyalty. Surely, she feels justified when the county attorney facetiously says,
"Well, Henry, at least we found out that she was not going to quilt it. She was going to--what was it you call it, ladies?"
Her hand in her pocket, Mrs. Hale pointedly responds, "We call it--knot it, Mr. Henderson."
And, they do, indeed, "knot" the case for Mr. Henderson, depriving him of a possible motive out of their feminine sympathy and sisterhood. They cannot bring themselves to condemn Minnie Wright, who lived a life of silent, lonely desperation on a remote farm with no laughter and no song in her home to warm her heart. To Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters this deprivation and repression by a cold husband was punishment enough.
However, some critics feel that Glaspell sends "a dubious moral message" with her play since Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters have actually become accomplices in thwarting justice. One critic writes,
Interestingly, in the years since Trifles was first produced, many scholars have found reason after reason to condone the actions of Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale. Intentionally or not, Glaspell has encouraged successive generations of critical scofflaws.
Still, in an introduction to the play, Mary Ann Ferguson applauds the actions of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters:
‘Their awareness comes through shared anger at the men’s views, and their actions invalidate the stereotype of women as ‘fuzzy’ thinkers concerned only with trifles. . . . The play shows that ‘sisterhood is powerful’ by belying the conception that women are catty among other women.
Perhaps, viewers and readers should consider this play as just that--a work of literature that presents a feminist perspective which points mainly to male neglect rather than to criminal activity. It is not, and should not be, a manual for moral conduct, that is certain.