Susan Glaspell's Trifles is only a one-act play, but its message is more powerful than its length might imply. It was inspired by actual events Glaspell was familiar with—showing not only how women were subservient in the home, but also how they were judged by the male-dominated society's legal system.
Glaspell was a reporter, covering the events in the murder trial of Margaret Hossack, of Indianola, Iowa, accused of killing her husband with an axe while he slept.
Ultimately, she was charged with and found guilty of the crime and sentenced to life in prison.
Glaspell began to feel sympathetic for the life Hossack had led, and it was this sympathy that led to write her own play about Minnie Wright, a woman who was victimized by her husband emotionally (and perhaps physically), and struck out one night when she could endure no more.
Minnie is described as a once pretty, laughing and talented young woman who loved to sing in the church choir. After marriage to the "cold" John Wright, there were no children, and seemingly no affection. Her days became long and dark, living with a stingy and unrelenting husband.
MRS. HALE. Yes...he didn't drink, and kept his word as well as most, I guess, and paid his debts. But he was a hard man, Mrs. Peters. Just to pass the time of day with him. (Shivers.) Like a raw wind that gets to the bone.
Society regarded the hard work that filled a woman's day on the farm (the arduous job of making preserves, keeping the farmhouse clean, sewing, cooking, etc.) as unimportant. It is Mr. Hale who delivers society's view of women and their work when speaking with the county attorney about Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peter's worry over the loss of a batch of preserves:
COUNTY ATTORNEY. I guess before we're through she may have something more serious than preserves to worry about.
HALE. Well, women are used to worrying over trifles.
(The two women move a little closer together.)
Ironically, it is Mrs. Hale who, in fact, takes definitive steps to protect Minnie from the men (even her own husband) who are intent to find evidence to convict the broken Minnie.
As reflected in the story's title, the reader or audience understands that men have little regard for the work that fills a woman's life: the unending chores and drudgery, especially when a woman has no children to cheer her or bring her love and satisfaction, noted by the two neighboring women who come to collect things to take to Mrs. Wright in jail.
The trial of Margaret Hossack took place between 1899-1901. It would be some years before women even had the right to vote. In reading the play, it is not the trifles of her life that drive Minnie to kill her husband; it is her husband's brutality against her only joy—her canary.
MRS. PETERS. Somebody--wrung--its neck.
(Their eyes meet. A look of growing comprehension of horror...)
The bird could not have done anything to cause harm, but we can infer that Minnie's attachment to the bird was something her husband would have been aware of. Killing the bird would have been directed solely at Minnie, showing perhaps her husband's desire to hurt Minnie—and implying that he may also have been violent with her.
Society would have found no mitigating circumstances with which to find Minnie innocent under any circumstance; Mr. Hale's comment indicates that a woman's life was filled with unimportant things, even though each thing supported any comfort or ease a man would have found in his home.