What are some examples of situational irony and verbal irony in Trifles?

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There is verbal irony first of all in the title of the play. Practically all clues appear trifling (Sherlock Holmes famously told Watson that his method was founded on the observation of trifles). If a clue were not a trifle, any competent criminal would have noticed and removed it. The...

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There is verbal irony first of all in the title of the play. Practically all clues appear trifling (Sherlock Holmes famously told Watson that his method was founded on the observation of trifles). If a clue were not a trifle, any competent criminal would have noticed and removed it. The fact that the men in the play dismiss all the clues they see as "trifles" leads the audience to question what they think they are seeking.

Most of the irony in the play is situational rather than strictly verbal, since the characters are not being consciously ironic. This is evident, for instance, in the following few lines:

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.]

COUNTY ATTORNEY: (with the gallantry of a young politician) And yet, for all their worries, what would we do without the ladies?

The men miss all the clues, physical and psychological, including the preserves, which symbolize the women's work they disparage and which might have told them about Mrs. Wright's state of mind. They dismiss everything the women focus on as trifles, despite the fact that they have discovered nothing themselves. Then, in a moment of supreme irony, the County Attorney asks what they would do without the ladies. The answer, of course, is that they are conducting the investigation without the ladies, which is why they are bungling it so badly.

As soon as the men have gone, Mrs. Hale remarks: "I'd hate to have men coming into my kitchen, snooping around and criticizing." The irony here is that it is precisely the men's job to snoop around the kitchen and think critically about what they see, yet they fail to do this.

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Glaspell's play Trifles (1916) takes as one of its subjects the dismissive treatment of women by men--in this case, the sheriff's wife, Mrs. Peterson, and the farmer's wife, Mrs. Hale--who are present simply to gather some clothes and personal items for Mrs. Wright, who appears to have killed her husband. The men carrying out the investigation assume, based on their bias toward women, that the two women cannot add anything significant to the investigation.

The play is framed by the situational irony created when the men go upstairs to look for evidence relating to the murder and leave the women in the kitchen. The County Attorney and Sheriff's goal is to find evidence of a motive, but they dismiss the kitchen--the woman's domain--immediately:

[the County Attorney to the Sheriff] "You're convinced that there was nothing important here--nothing that would point to any motive?" [the Sheriff responds] "Nothing here but kitchen things."

Ironically, the men have completely ignored the most important room in the Wright's house from a woman's point of view--the accused Mrs. Wright probably spent more time here than anywhere in the house. As we learn in the next scene in the kitchen, the two women discover the irregular sewing on a quilt, the broken bird cage in a kitchen cabinet, and, more important, a dead canary with its neck broken wrapped in silk in a sewing box.

As the women examine the quilt, for example, they discuss whether Mrs. Wright was "goin' to quilt it or just knot it?" The Sheriff and County Attorney's response to their question is laughter, the implication being that the irregular sewing and knot issue cannot be relevant to solving the case. The great irony here is that, while the men are upstairs or outside looking for clues, the two women are in the "heart" of the house where all the clues to Mrs. Wright's motive reside. The word knot later becomes a masterful example of verbal irony.

Later, when the Sheriff and County Attorney are examining the items the two women intend to take for Mrs. Wright, which includes the dead canary, the County Attorney says,

"Oh, I guess they're not very dangerous things the ladies have picked out. . . . No, Mrs. Peters doesn't need supervising. For that matter a sheriff's wife is married to the law."

There are several ironies here: 1) The County Attorney assumes the women have picked out only appropriate items, but we know they have essentially erased (by fixing the quilt) or hidden anything that would incriminate Mrs. Wright; 2) Mrs. Peters, the Sheriff's wife, does indeed need supervising, but the County Attorney assumes she is acting in accord with her husband because he cannot envision her exercising any independent judgment; and 3) at the beginning of the play, one could argue that Mrs. Peters is a good representative of her husband--that she is indeed "married to the law"--but in this scene, she is willfully withholding evidence because she identifies with Mrs. Wright rather than the law.

A wonderful example of verbal irony occurs in the last lines when the County Attorney "facetiously" comments that, even though they have failed to find a motive, they have determined (because the women have focused on it) that Mrs. Wright's quilt was knotted--"We call it--knot it, Mr. Henderson." This is rich irony in that Mr. Wright was strangled in his bed by a knotted rope. If the men were paying attention, they might have connected the construction of the quilt with the method of Mr. Wright's death, but because they dismiss the women's comments as unimportant, a chance to connect Mrs. Wright to the murder slips away.

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