How is the physical atmosphere of the Wrights' house a symbol of their marriage?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Susan Glaspell’s play Trifles, various references to the Wright home suggest that the physical condition of the house symbolizes the troubles in the Wrights’ marriage and the despair of Mrs. Wright. Such references include the following:

  • The stage directions almost immediately describe the house as “gloomy,” a word foreshadowing the depressing aspects of the Wrights’ relationship (at least for Mrs. Wright) as well as Mrs. Wright’s dominant mood.
  • The kitchen is described as having been

left without having been put in order--unwashed pans under the sink, a loaf of bread outside the bread-box, a dish-towel on the table--other signs of incompleted work.

These details foreshadow the disordered life of the Wrights – the fact that Mrs. Wright’s spirit seems to have been broken and that she has lost any real desire to keep her house clean and presentable. The details foreshadow her depression and her lack of interest in ordinary concerns of order and neatness, as if they no longer matter to her. Her marriage has left her feeling listless and lifeless.

  • The kitchen is literally quite cold. This detail is realistic (since the house has gone unoccupied for a while), but it is also symbolic of the coldness of the Wrights’ relationship.
  • The fact that the house lacks a telephone is explicitly attributed to Mr. Wright’s lack of interest in conversation or in contact with the outside world. This lack of interest in human relationships foreshadows the way his wife has suffered from his distance from other people. He is explicitly said to have had little interest in her thoughts and opinions.
  • The fact that it is cold in the kitchen when Mr. Hale first talks to Mrs. Wright can be interpreted as symbolizing, once again, the metaphorical coldness of her life as well as her lack of any strong emotion about the death of her husband.
  • The fact that Mrs. Wright is downstairs when Hale arrives and that her husband is dead upstairs at the time of Hale’s arrival may symbolize, again, the essential separation of their existences. In death as in life, they are distant from each other. Mrs. Hale is not upstairs, mourning or feeling guilt or regret; she is by herself. Alienated from her husband during their marriage, she is alone in more senses than one after her husband dies.
  • At one point soon after the murder is discovered, Mrs. Wright (according to the stage directions) moves to “small chair in the corner.” The details here seem significant. She does not, after all, move to a large, roomy armchair next to an open window (as Mrs. Mallard does after the death of her husband in Kate Chopin’s tale “The Story of an Hour”). Instead, she moves to a “small” chair in a “corner,” both details symbolizing confinement and restriction and thus symbolizing the confining nature of much of her married life. Perhaps the small, confined chair is also symbolic of the kind of life she is likely to lead – in jail – from this point forward.

In all these ways and in many others, then, Glaspell uses details of setting to suggest symbolically the details of Mrs. Wright’s marriage, existence, state of mind, and probably future.