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Susan Glaspell's one act play is best known for exploring the evolution of traditional gender roles for women in the 19th Century; while the play acknowledges the divide between the public sphere and the home domain, it also highlights the challenges of discrepancies found between male and female judgement in the context of these areas.
In the play, Mrs. Wright/Minnie Foster stands accused for the murder of her husband. Mrs. Peters, the Sheriff's wife, and Mrs. Hale, the neighbor's wife, are both gathering items to take to Minnie in prison. As the women look for things Mrs. Wright might need, they come across a partially completed quilt, which exhibits evidence of wildly uneven stitching in one particular block.
Interestingly, the other squares in the log-cabin patterned quilt shows completely even and neat stitching. The erratic stitching on that lone square highlights the change in Minnie's mental attitude; at this point, both Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters gingerly skim over the topic of the accused women's 'nervousness.' They are almost afraid to explore the ramifications of such damning physical evidence of Minnie's state of mind.
The next discovery is a bird cage, with no bird in it. The women philosophize about not being available to minister to Minnie; Mrs. Hale voices her sadness that she kept away from the place only because of the seeming cheerlessness of the Wright residence. Here, we get a glimpse of Mrs. Wright's lonely life. The very essence of her loneliness permeates even the atmosphere of the residence.
The cage has a door, but one of its hinges is broken, rendering the door useless. Mrs. Hale reminisces about her memory of Minnie, who she always viewed as 'like a bird herself—real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and—fluttery.' This imagery sets the stage for a gruesome discovery: the women find a dead bird, its neck broken, wrapped in some silk in a pretty box. The women conclude that Minnie must have wanted to bury the bird in the box.
The dead bird, with its broken neck, symbolizes the death of Minnie's hopes. When the bird was alive, she represented all the joys Minnie might have enjoyed had the Wrights had any children. In the play, it is alluded that, by killing the bird, Mr. Wright may have quite possibly murdered his wife's spirit. Minnie was a caged bird, living a bleak existence in a loveless home. The broken hinge on the door of the bird cage signifies the violence Minnie endured in this breaking of her spirit.
Therefore, all the supposed 'trifles' the women discover (from the broken jars of preserves, erratic sewing on the quilt, empty bird-cage, to the dead bird wrapped in silk) represent a dysfunctional change in Minnie's psyche. When her husband was alive, Minnie learned to channel all her hopes into seemingly mundane matters and lavish her affections on a treasured pet. The broken jars, the dead bird, and the broken cage also represent evidences of Minnie's likely guilt in her husband's murder.
In the beginning of the story, Mr Hale reports that Minnie just laughed when he inquired about Mr. Wright possibly wanting to share a telephone line. Subsequently, her laughter abruptly stopped, before a frightened look eclipsed her expression. Minnie's seemingly erratic behavior mirrors the turbulent physical evidences of her distress and mental anguish.
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