In Glaspell's play, "Trifles," how does spectacle (stage direction, setting, etc.) arouse pity?

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athenaia86 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Aristotle, in his Poetics, defines "spectacle" as one of the six components of tragedy. All sensory elements of the drama fall under the heading of "spectacle," including costumes, settings, music, and the movements and voices of the actors on stage. While it's not possible to fully appreciate the spectacle of a play when reading it as a text, it is still possible to glean a sense of the intended spectacle from the scene settings and the stage directions.

Glaspell's Trifles is the story of a woman who murders her husband. It is set in a shabby farmhouse in midwinter. The scene description states that the kitchen is "gloomy [...] the walls covered with a faded wall paper." The stove is "old-fashioned," the window "uncurtained," the rocking chair "old," and the kitchen table "unpainted." The whole kitchen is full of "signs of incompleted work." As soon as the characters enter the scene, they begin remarking on how cold the house is—so cold, jars of jam preserves have frozen and burst inside the cupboards. This is not a nice place to live, and the people who lived here could not have been happy. As Mrs. Hale notes, "It never seemed a very cheerful place."

The men in the play blame the lady of the house, Minnie Wright, for the state of the place, saying she clearly isn't "much of a housekeeper." When Mrs. Peters notes that Minnie was worried her jam would freeze, Mr. Hale says, "women are used to worrying about trifles." The men's actions are careless—rummaging through the cupboards, disturbing objects on the table, increasing the mess—and they blame the absent Minnie in a casually cruel way. They are disrespectful to and dismissive of Minnie throughout the play, and it becomes clear that her dead husband, John Wright, treated her the same way.

The women, by contrast, literally "move a little closer together" in solidarity against the men and "do not unbend" when the men try to make light of the situation. The stage direction shows them answering the men "stiffly" when their husbands try to cajole them into joining in with insulting Minnie Wright. They feel sorry for her and point out that her life must have been both hard and lonely. When the attorney, Mr. Henderson, says that Minnie seems to lack "the homemaking instinct," Mrs. Hale retorts, "Well, I don't know as [John] Wright had [it], either. "

When the men troop upstairs to investigate the murder scene, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are left in the kitchen together. They move restlessly around the room, picking up and putting down objects and remarking on them. They're sorry about the frozen jam, in particular; Mrs. Hale says "[Minnie will] feel awful bad after all her hard work in the hot weather." The amount of time and effort required to make fruit preserves has been wasted, and both Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are sympathetic to that loss. They see the silent side of life that the men are oblivious to, the "hard work in hot weather" that makes up so much of a farmer's wife's daily routine. They lift up Minnie's shabby clothes and note that Minnie didn't belong to any social clubs, or ever go out, possibly because she had nothing nice to wear.

When they find the birdcage with its broken door, they wonder about why Minnie might have had a bird and what could have happened to it. They talk about how lonely she must have been, and how a bird might have brought her company. Alas, the bird has somehow been lost—or so they think—until they discover its small body in Minnie's sewing basket, wrapped in a piece of pink silk, like a precious object. The bird's neck has been broken; it was obviously deliberately killed. At this point, the women begin to realize that Minnie has killed her husband, and this little bird was her motive. The stage direction has them

sit there not looking at one another, but as if peering into something and at the same time holding back. When they talk now it is in the manner of feeling their way over strange ground, as if afraid of what they are saying, but as if they cannot help saying it.

Mrs. Peters recalls, in a whisper, the time a boy murdered her pet kitten with a hatchet. She covers her face in anguish for a moment and says, "If they hadn't held me back, I would have—hurt him." Her voice falters in the retelling. When she struggles to pull herself back round, she says, "It was an awful thing was done in this house that night, Mrs. Hale. Killing a man while he slept, slipping a rope around his neck that choked the life out of him," Mrs. Hale lays her hand over the broken birdcage and replies "His neck. Choked the life out of him."

The awful weight of the pity they now both feel for Minnie Wright compels the women to hide the body of the little bird from the men, who are agreed that "it's all perfectly clear except a reason for doing it." The men are sure that without a clear motive, a jury will acquit Minnie. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters look at each other meaningfully and silently agree to hide the evidence. With that, the play ends.

bmadnick eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The setting of the play arouses pity immediately. The house is in the middle of nowhere, suggesting the loneliness of Mrs. Wright. We also get a sense of how domineering Mr. Wright was over his wife by what Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale say about him. "I don't think a place'd be any cheerfuller for John Wright's being in it." Mrs. Wright had no friends and no family to turn to. She was totally controlled by her husband, as was the custom of the day. This is supported by how the two women react when the men come in and out of the kitchen. When the men leave, the women start talking and discovering the clues to the murder. As soon as the men enter the room, they stop talking. This emphasizes the role of women in society during this period of time.

Because Trifles is a one-act play, characters must be developed quickly in one setting, and the plot is very tight. Therefore, everything that is said and done in the play is important in some way. We feel pity for Mrs. Wright even though we never see her, and this pity is developed by Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters.

Go to the link below to get a more detailed description of the play, events, and the characters. I hope this helps--good luck!

libertybell | Student

Jarvis,

Yes that is kind of what im looking for.  I am looking specifically for exchanges, dialogue, and stage directions that would make you feel sorry for (or pity) the husband character in "Trifles."  Any help would be great!!

jarvismulhuland | Student

"Spectacle" is defined by Aristotle in his Poetics as te "Stage-appearance of the actors." Aristotle also notes that it is an essential element of what defines dramatic poetry: "tragice fear and pity may be aroused by the spectacle," Aristotle writes. In other words, spectacle is what happens on stage, what the audience sees in addition to what it hears. Are you tring to use the play "Trifles" to discuss how the playwright utilized stage directions, setting, sound, soctumes, or any other factor of spectacle which is important to the arousal of "fear or pity" (or comedy, or any other primary dramatic end)?

Read the study guide:
Trifles

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