Written by Susan Glaspell, Trifles was based on an actual murder. In Iowa, a wife killed her husband with an axe. The wife argued that she thought he was an intruder. She was convicted; but, in appeal, her sentence was overturned. Glaspell, as a reporter, covered the story. Along with the jury, she went to the scene of the crime, particularly the kitchen. She based her play on this experience. This is an example of an early feminist drama because of the sympathy implied toward the wife of the murder victim.
The setting of the play is the home of the couple involved in a murder. The kitchen of the home is the primary place of the action of the play. The husband was found dead in his bed with a noose around his neck. He had been choked to death. The wife says that she was asleep and did not know anything about the murder. The two ladies involved in the majority of the dialogue are the wives of the sheriff and a neighbor’s wife.
Their men’s minds are clouded by prejudice against women; consequently, they disregard important clues as being mere "trifles" with which women concern themselves. The men tromp around the house without really looking at the scene. They immediately jump to conclusions with no examination of the actual setting or scene. One important line, spoken by the sheriff, says of the kitchen "Nothing here but kitchen things." That included the women who were cleaning and talking in the kitchen.
The important part of the drama begins when the ladies are in the kitchen trying to clean it for Minnie, the wife. She would have wanted it nice if there were going to be a lot of people walking around in it. They discuss the relationship between the couple, knowing that the husband was a hard man with little empathy for his wife. In addition, the couple had no children. Both women wonder how it would be in the kitchen without the sounds of children.
The women are able to sympathize with the wife. As they look around the room, one of the ladies discovers a box with a canary wrapped in a cloth with its neck wrung. The wife loved the bird and its singing. Minnie at one time sang. The husband had taken the song out of her. Obviously, the canary symbolizes the wife who like the bird lived in a cage.
The women realize that the man was murdered in the same way that the bird had been killed. The husband had killed the one thing that brought joy to the wife; she returned the favor by breaking his neck. The women hide the bird knowing that this might prove that the wife was guilty.
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.
County Attorney: And yet what would we do without the ladies? Not much of a housekeeper, would you say, ladies?
Mrs. Hale: There’s a great deal of work on the farm.
The play’s title refers to the trivialities that the men think that the women concern themselves with as they work in the kitchen. Despite the fact that they have probably solved the murder, the men feel that what the women concern themselves with are just little insignificant things.
The two women, having pieced together the murder, faced the moral dilemma of telling the men about the motive or protecting Minnie, whom they now see as a victim. Their choice raises questions about solidarity among women, the meaning of justice, and the role of women in society as a source of justice.