The Dubious Moral Message of Susan Glaspell’s Trifles

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Susan Glaspell’s Trifles concerns a woman who was once young, pretty, and outgoing until she found herself in a loveless marriage with a stern, anti-social farmer. Her isolation, the gloom of her surroundings, and her husband’s dispassion slowly drove her to the brink of insanity. She tried to fend off her depression with bits of gaiety—brightly colored quilting and a caged songbird—but when her husband, in a sudden act of aggression, broke the cage and killed the bird and its singing, she was driven over the edge.

In the middle of the night, she slipped a noose around her husband’s neck, and strangled him in his sleep. When the county prosecutor arrives with the town’s sheriff and a local farmer to investigate the scene, their wives quickly discover the miserable life Mrs. Wright led, and choose to hide the evidence of her crime.

For all its protestations about the treatment of women in rural America at the turn of the century, and in spite of the nearly unanimous approval of the play’s final outcome among feminist literary critics, there is something unsavory about the resolution of Trifles. The most shocking and irresponsible act in the play is not John Wright’s mental abuse of his wife, Minnie, nor is it even the murder itself, which happened before the play actually begins.

The most shocking act is the deliberate coverup of Mrs. Wright’s heinous act by two well intentioned but ultimately criminal conspirators. Their decision to cloak Mrs. Wright from the prying, but bumbling, eyes of the men in the play suggests a dubious sense of morality, and poses a frightening model of vigilante justice that, if widely adopted by those who felt neglected or marginalized, would seriously undermine the efforts of any judicial system.

Everything about Trifles, from its harsh treatment of its two-dimensional male characters to the play’s final words, Mrs. Hale’s clever, sarcastic remark, ‘‘We call it—knot it, Mr. Henderson,’’ suggests the audience should endorse, even applaud these women for their shrewdness and loyalty to their sex.

Yet what, really, is their accomplishment? In rationalizing and justifying Minnie Wright’s actions, then concealing evidence from her investigators, these formerly innocent, law-abiding Mid- western farm wives have become accomplices to a grisly murder. In seeking retribution for perceived oppression, and in trying to reform society, they have actually denigrated the moral fiber of their world.

Interestingly, in the years since Trifles was first produced, many scholars have found reason after reason to condone the actions of Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale. Intentionally or not, Glaspell has encouraged successive generations of critical scofflaws.

Feminist critics in particular have suggested a variety of people to blame for the crime of murder, other than Minnie Wright. According to these sympathetic scholars, John Wright, her difficult husband, Mrs. Peters, Mrs. Hale, and the town that abandoned her all contributed to the inevitable tragedy.

In an essay entitled ‘‘A Map for Rereading: Or, Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts,’’ Annette Kolodny suggests, ‘‘The essential crime in the story, we come to realize, has been the husband’s inexorable strangulation, over the years, of Minnie Foster’s spirit and personality; and the culpable criminality is the complicity of the women who had permitted the isolation and the loneliness to dominate Minnie Foster’s existence. . . .’’

Kolodny employs one of the most important ruses of creative defense attorneys: create sympathy for the defendant, and cast the blame somewhere else. She even goes so far as to propose that ‘‘the ending is a happy one: Minnie Foster is to be set free, no motive having been discovered...

(This entire section contains 1741 words.)

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by which to prosecute her.’’

Karen F. Stein echoes Kolodny’s judgment in ‘‘The Women’s World of Glaspell’s Trifles.’’ She observes, ‘‘The lack of a telephone, the shabby furniture, the much-mended clothing, and a canary with a broken neck bear mute but telling witness to the harsh meanness and cruelty of John Wright. Considering Minnie her husband’s victim (like her symbolic analogue, the strangled songbird), the women conspire to hide the evidence they discover.’’ Taking her simple description of the play’s action and symbolism a step further, Stein explains, ‘‘Through the women’s identification with her, we understand Minnie’s desperate loneliness, which drove her to do away with her brutal husband.’’

In her introduction to Trifles in Images of Women in Literature, Mary Anne Ferguson congratulates Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale for their service to women everywhere. ‘‘Through their concern for another woman and their decision to aid her, the women in Susan Glaspell’s Trifles rise above male perceptions of them as ludicrously inferior,’’ Ferguson contends. ‘‘Their awareness comes through shared anger at the men’s views, and their actions invalidate the stereotype of women as ‘fuzzy’ thinkers concerned only with trifles. . . . The play shows that ‘sisterhood is powerful’ by belying the conception that women are catty among other women.’’

Perhaps it should not be surprising that the clearly immoral acts of Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale elicit sympathy, and even applause, from many critics and readers of Trifles. Glaspell has, after all, created a decidedly slanted, one-sided murder mystery out of a relationship that must have been more complex than the carefully scattered, symbolic clues it left behind.

The playwright builds support for the undeniably guilty Minnie Wright slowly and deliberately, one clue at a time, in order to allow resentment against the real victim of this crime—the murdered Mr. Wright—to fester in the minds of the audience.

By the time all the evidence has been assembled— the lonely location of the Wright farmhouse, Mr. Wright’s gruff personality, his wife’s shabby clothes, and the strangulation of a canary—Minnie Wright has been built up as a martyr for victimized women everywhere. Her husband, on the other hand, has become an icon of aggression, cruelty, and masculine oppression. With no one to speak for him in front of ‘‘a jury of her peers,’’ Mrs. Wright’s husband never stood a chance.

The absence of Minnie Wright from the action of the play is another shrewd manipulation of emo- rtion by Glaspell. Without her presence on the stage, the audience must construct its own impression of her character from the comments of the other women and the clues as they are found. Given this one-sided information, she becomes a sort of ‘‘Everywoman,’’ an amalgamation of all women who have ever been lonely, in loveless marriages, or perhaps even abused by men.

In actuality, though, how far removed is Mrs. Wright from the ax-wielding Lizzie Borden, who murdered her parents in their sleep one night in 1892, then was acquitted of her crime because no one could believe a woman was capable of such an atrocity?

The guilt or innocence of the women of Trifles is not the central issue for every critic of the play. Linda Ben-Zvi, editor of Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction, and author of an essay titled, ‘‘‘Murder, She Wrote’: The Genesis of Susan Glaspell’s Trifles,’’ chose the middle ground. In her essay, which compares Glaspell’s play to the actual events it is based on, she asserts that Glaspell was not seeking to either convict or pardon Minnie Wright, but to perform a much greater service for women everywhere by reminding them of the state of gender relations:

Whether Margaret Hossack or Minnie Wright committed murder is moot; what is incontrovertible is the brutality of their lives, the lack of options they had to redress grievances or to escape abusive husbands, and the complete disregard of their plight by the courts and by society. Instead of arguing their innocence, Glaspell concretizes the conditions under which these women live and the circumstances that might cause them to kill.

Ben-Zvi casts a long shadow of blame across a society that would push these women to such an act of desperation. She, like many critics before her, attempts to construct a defense that relies on extenuating circumstances—justifiable homicide prompted by neglect and misery.

In so doing, she excuses the relative immorality of the play itself. ‘‘By having Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale unequivocally assume Minnie’s guilt and also assume justification for her act,’’ Ben Zvi continues, ‘‘Glaspell presents her audience/jury with a defense that forces it to confront the central issues of female powerlessness and disenfranchisement and the need for laws to address such issues.’’ In other words, because the play serves a higher purpose— the enlightenment of disenfranchised women everywhere— its crimes should be excused.

The problem underlying the behavior of the women in Trifles is the inherent contradictions in their actions. They claim the moral high ground, and indeed, until they actually commit the crime of hiding evidence in a murder investigation, they are probably guiltless people. But their unfortunate choice to commit the crime pulls them down from the height of moral purity to the depths of criminal depravity. They become no better than the murderess herself.

In the nineteenth century, women were widely considered to be naturally morally superior to men—a condition that did not earn them more rights or privileges but raised expectations of their behavior in domestic settings. In ‘‘Gender Ideology and Dramatic Convention in Progressive Era Plays, 1890-1920,’’ Judith L. Stephens suggests that a play like Trifles ironically defeats its own goal of liberating women from oppressive male stereotypes because it assumes some of the very stereotypes of women that were promoted by a male-dominated society.

In other words, by depicting the men in the play off as foolish and crude, and elevating the women to the status of clever sleuths, charged with defending one of their own against an unjustly oppressive male-dominated world, the play inadvertently promotes that which it seeks to undermine. Women are not morally superior to men, any more than men are intellectually superior to women, simply by virtue of their gender.

Stephens finds it regrettable that, by allowing the women in Trifles to subvert conventional law, Glaspell perpetuates the idea that men and women exist in separate spheres, forever isolated by uncontrollable differences. ‘‘By finding and concealing the incriminating evidence,’’ Stephens insists, ‘‘the women win their own individual victory, but the system continues intact.’’ Like the murderer Minnie Wright, they may have won the battle, but they have ultimately lost the war.

Source: Lane A. Glenn, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.

Glaspell’s Trifles

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On the surface, Susan Glaspell’s one-act play Trifles focuses on the death of an oppressive husband at the hands of his emotionally abused wife in an isolated and remote farm in the midwest. Beneath the surface, the collective behaviors of Mrs. Hale, Mrs. Peters, and Mrs. Wright in Glaspell’s play bear strong resemblance to those of the Fates (Clotho the Spinner, Lachesis the Disposer of Lots, and Atropos the Cutter of the Thread) in Greek mythology. Although Glaspell brings new vigor to the myth, the attention given to Mrs. Hale’s resewing the quilt, the change in Mrs. Peters’s perspective on law and justice, and the rope placed by Mrs. Wright around her husband’s neck are nonetheless grounded in the story of the Three Sisters who control the fate of men.

Mrs. Hale embodies the qualities of Clotho the Spinner, the sister who spins the thread of life. Mrs. Hale subtly suggests that Mrs. Wright is not the sole agent in the death of Mr. Wright. On the surface, Mrs. Hale’s ungrammatical reference to that event, ‘‘when they was slipping the rope under his neck’’ (79), can be attributed to improper subject and verb agreement, which is not uncommon in certain regional dialects. However, the use of the plural pronoun and singular verb subtly suggests the involvement of more than one in a single outcome, and it foreshadows the conspiracy of the three women and their efforts to control the outcome or the fate of all characters. Furthermore, the information concerning the domestic life of the Wrights is supplied, or spun, mainly by Mrs. Hale; she describes Mr. Wright as ‘‘a hard man’’ and, with her recollections of the young Minnie Foster (now Mrs. Wright) as ‘‘kind of like a bird’’ (82), she establishes the connection of Mr. Wright’s involvement in the physical death of the canary and spiritual death of his wife. The condescending manner in which the men joke about the women’s concern regarding Mrs. Wright’s intention ‘‘to quilt or just knot’’ the quilt evokes a defensive remark from Mrs. Hale in which she hints that it is unwise to tempt fate; she asserts, ‘‘I don’t see as it’s anything to laugh about’’ (79–80). Finally, by ‘‘just pulling out a stitch or two that’s not sewed very good’’ and replacing it with her own stitching (80), Mrs. Hale symbolically claims her position as the person who spins the thread of life.

The second member of the Three Sisters, Lachesis the Disposer of Lots, is personified by Mrs. Peters. The viability of the thread spun by Mrs. Hale depends on the actions and reactions of Mrs. Peters. To claim her position as the member of the Fates responsible for assigning destiny, she must abandon objectivity and move toward subjectivity. Her objectivity is exemplified by her assertion that ‘‘the law is the law’’ and her view on physical evidence as she informs Mrs. Hale, ‘‘I don’t think we ought to touch things’’ (79–80). The sight of the dead canary and the recognition that ‘‘somebody— wrung—its—neck’’ marks Mrs. Peters’s initiation into subjectivity and the sisterhood (83). The discovery of the dead bird awakens Mrs. Peters’s suppressed childhood memories of rage toward the ‘‘boy [who] took a hatchet’’ and brutally killed her kitten (83). In her mind, the kitten, Mrs. Wright, and the bird become enmeshed. Mrs. Peters realizes that the dead bird will be used to stereotype Mrs. Wright as a madwoman who overreacts to ‘‘trifles.’’ At this point, Mrs. Peters emerges from the shadow of her role as the sheriff’s wife and becomes ‘‘married to the law’’ (85). Her new concept of law subjectively favors justice over procedure. She claims her position as the sister who dispenses the lots in life when she moves to hide the bird and thus denies the men ‘‘something to make a story about’’ (85).

Mrs. Wright represents Atropos the Cutter of the Thread. Symbolically, Mrs. Wright is first linked to Atropos in Mr. Hale’s description of her ‘‘rockin’ back and forth’’ (73), a motion similar to that made by cutting with scissors. The connection to Atropos is further established when Mrs. Peters discovers the dead bird in Mrs. Wright’s sewing box and exclaims, ‘‘Why, this isn’t her scissors’’ (83). Ironically, the dead canary takes the place of the scissors: The death of the bird is directly tied to the fate of Mr. Wright. In addition, Mrs. Wright assumes mythical status through her spiritual presence and physical absence from the stage. Mr. Hale relates that in his questioning of Mrs. Wright, she admits that her husband ‘‘died of a rope round his neck,’’ but she doesn’t know how it happened because she ‘‘didn’t wake up’’; she is a sound sleeper (74–75). Mrs. Wright denies personal involvement in the death of her husband, yet she acknowledges that he died while she slept beside him in the bed. Mrs. Wright says, ‘‘I was on the inside’’ (75). Although she may be referring to her routine ‘‘inside’’ position of sleep behind her husband in the bed placed along the wall, Mrs. Wright’s statement suggests a movement from the outside (her individual consciousness) to the inside (the collective consciousness of the Fates). Her involvement with the rope of death is the equivalent of severing the thread of life. She did not spin the thread, nor did she assign the lot; she merely contributed a part to the whole, and that collective whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. For this reason, Mrs. Wright is correct in denying individual knowledge or responsibility in the death of her husband.

In Trifles, Mrs. Hale weaves the story or describes the circumstances, Mrs. Peters weighs the evidence and determines the direction of justice, and Mrs. Wright carries out the verdict; although the procedure is somewhat reversed, the mythic ritual is performed nevertheless. Susan Glaspell’s use of the Fates, or the Three Sisters, does not weaken her dramatization of women who are oppressed by men. Although some believe that the power of the Three Sisters rivals that of Zeus, Glaspell reminds her audience that, regardless of myth or twentieth-century law, it still takes three women to equal one man. That is the inequality on which she focuses.

Source: Judith Kay Russell. ‘‘Glaspell’s Trifles in the Explicator, Vol. 55, no. 2, Winter, 1997, pp. 88–90.

Trifles: The Path to Sisterhood

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In 1916 Susan Glaspell wrote ‘‘Trifles,’’ a one-act play to complete the bill at the Wharf Theatre (the other play was Bound East for Cardiff by Eugene O’Neill). One commentator on Glaspell’s work believes the play was originally intended as a short story, but, according to Glaspell, ‘‘the stage took it for its own.’’ In 1917, however, Glaspell rewrote the work as a short story, ‘‘Jury of Her Peers,’’ which appeared in Best Short Stories of 1917. That work was adapted by Sally Heckel in 1981 for her Academy-Award nominated film.

The setting for all three works is the same: a gloomy farmhouse kitchen belonging to John Wright, recently strangled, and his wife Minnie, now being held in prison for the crime. Three men enter the set: one, the neighboring farmer who discovered the body; another the district attorney; and a third, the sheriff. Two women accompany them: Mrs. Hale, the farmer’s wife and childhood friend of Minnie and Mrs. Peters, the sheriff’s wife. While the men search the bedroom and barn for clues to a possible motive for the murder, the women move about the kitchen, reconstructing Minnie’s dismal life. Through their attentiveness to the ‘‘trifles’’ in her life, the kitchen things considered insignificant by the men, the two women piece together, like patches in a quilt, the events which may have led to the murder. And because they empathize with the missing woman, having lived similar though different lives, they make a moral decision to hide potentially incriminating evidence.

It is unlikely that had either woman been alone, she would have had sufficient understanding or courage to make the vital decision, but as the trifles reveal the arduousness of Minnie’s life (and by implication of their own), a web of sisterhood is woven which connects the lives of all three enabling Mrs. Hale and Peters to counter patriarchal law, a decision particularly weighty for Mrs. Peters, who, as she is reminded by the district attorney, is ‘‘married to the law.’’

Having taught both play and short story in my ‘‘Images of Women in Literature’’ classes, I am continually amazed at the power of Glaspell’s feminist understanding of the difficult decision with which the two early twentieth century rural women struggle. The volatile discussions which accompany class readings of these works, the questioning of the legality and morality of the women’s choice, attest to the relevance of the issues Glaspell raises.

Current feminist research in developmental psychology can help increase our admiration for Glaspell’s challenging presentation of the moral dilemma and the way in which Minnie’s trifles raise the consciousness of both women, especially Mrs. Peters, moving them from awareness to anger to action. This research can also help us better appreciate Sally Heckel’s recent adaptation of these issues to the medium of film, more specifically her use of close-up and composition within the frame, to provide a cinematic equivalent of Glaspell’s statements in drama and prose.

Freud would not have been surprised by the decision taken by Mrs. Hale and Peters for in 1925 he wrote that women’s superego was never ‘‘so inexorable, so impersonal, so independent of its emotional origins as we require it to be in men . . . for women the level of what is ethically normal is different from what it is in men . . . women show less sense of justice than men . . . they are less ready to submit to the great exigencies of life . . . they are more often influenced in their judgment by feelings of affection or hostility.’’ Freud’s use of valueladen terms such as ‘‘less’’ emerges from a vision of moral development based upon a male model which tends ‘‘to regard male behavior as the ‘norm’ and female behavior as some kind of deviation from that norm.’’

Freud’s model of mature moral development as ‘‘inexorable . . . impersonal . . . independent of emotional origins’’ reappears in the 1960s as the sixth or post-conventional stage of Lawrence Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development. Not surprisingly, when women are given Kohlberg’s test, they rarely attain the sixth stage where decisions are based upon universal ethical principles but typically are stuck at the third and fourth (or conventional) levels where decisions are based upon contextual concerns.

But Kohlberg’s moral scale in turn relies upon a model of human development such as Erik Erikson’s ‘‘expansion of Freud’’ where separation, not relationship, becomes the model and measure of growth. Freud, Erickson, and Kohlberg, although recognizing that women’s development is different from men’s, present their model, based upon male experience, as universal.

Recent feminist research in developmental psychology challenges the sexual asymmetry of the patriarchal view in which male development is the norm and women’s development is perceived (as with Freud) as ‘‘less.’’ Of particular value for a discussion of Glaspell’s and Heckel’s works are Nancy Chodorow’s writings on gender development and Carol Gilligan’s on moral development.

According to Chodorow, the ‘‘process of becoming a male or female someone in the world begins in infancy with a sense of ‘oneness,’ a ‘primary identification’ . . . with the person responsible for early care. Emerging from this phase, every child faces the challenge of separation: distinguishing self from other.. . . Because women are the primary caretakers of children, that first ‘other’ is almost without exception female; consequently, boys and girls experience individuation and relationship differently. For boys, the typical development is more emphatic individuation and firmer ego boundaries, i.e., in order to become male, boys experience more strongly a sense of being ‘‘not female.’’ For girls, because the primary parent (or other) is of the same sex,’’ a basis for ‘empathy’ [is] built into their primary definition of self.’’ They ‘‘come to experience themselves as less differentiated than boys, as more continuous with and related to the external object-world. . . . The basic feminine sense of self is connected to the world, the basic masculine sense of self is separate.’’

This distinction in itself carries no value judgment and merely describes a difference. But because theories of psychological development (e.g., Freud’s and Erikson’s)’’ focus on individuation . . . and maturity is equated with personal autonomy, concern with relationships appears as a weakness of women rather than as a human strength.’’

If we turn from gender to moral development, a similar pattern emerges. Because women ‘‘define themselves in a context of human relationship,’’ their moral decisions differ from those of men. For women, typically, moral problems arise ‘‘from con- flicting responsibilities rather than from competing rights,’’ require for their ‘‘resolution a mode of thinking that is contextual rather than . . . abstract,’’ are concerned more with relationships than rules. Since Kohlberg perceives the expansion of moral understanding moving from the preconventional (or individual) through the conventional (or societal) to the post-conventional (or universal), women, who see the self and other as interdependent, whose moral judgments are more closely tied to feelings of empathy and compassion, who see moral problems as problems of responsibility in relationship, are more closely aligned with the conventional, a less mature stage of development. Gilligan, however, insists the relational bias in women’s thinking is not a developmental deficiency as traditionally seen by psychologists but a different social and moral understanding. What we have are ‘‘two modes of judging, two different constructions of the moral domain—one traditionally associated with masculinity and the public world of social power, the other with femininity and the privacy of domestic interchange.’’

With this theoretical basis, we can now turn to Glaspell’s works and more fully appreciate her astute depiction of these two different modes of judging: the post-conventional revealed through the words and actions of all three men and by Mrs. Peters early in each work, the conventional mode voiced by Mrs. Hale and by Mrs. Peters at the end of each work as her consciousness has been raised through the demeaning remarks made by the men and, more significantly, through her exposure to the trifles of Minnie’s life.

From the moment the men enter the kitchen, they begin to judge the absent Minnie according to abstract rules and rights. For example, dirty towels suggest to them that Minnie ‘‘was not much of a housekeeper.’’ To Mrs. Hale, however, responding from within a specific context, dirty towels imply that either ‘‘there’s a great deal of work to be done on a farm’’ or ‘‘towels get dirty awful quick. Men’s hands aren’t always as clean as they might be.’’ As the men continue to criticize or trivialize the domestic sphere (e.g., laughing at the women’s concern for broken jars of preserves or their curiosity as to whether Minnie was going to ‘‘knot or quilt’’ her sewing), the stage directions indicate: ‘‘the two women move a little closer together.’’

Their moral ‘‘moving closer together’’ does not occur, however, until Mrs. Peters empathically understands Minnie’s situation. For initially, Mrs. Peters parrots the male judgmental mode, demonstrating Glaspell’s keen understanding of women’s acquiescence to patriarchal law. When Mrs. Hale reproaches the men for disparaging remarks about Minnie’s housekeeping, Mrs. Peters timidly responds: ‘‘It’s no more than their duty.’’ As Mrs. Hale restitches Minnie’s erratic sewing on a piece of quilting, Mrs. Peters nervously suggests: ‘‘I don’t think we ought to touch things.’’ And when Mrs. Hale objects to the men searching and ‘‘trying to get Minnie’s own house to turn against her.’’ Mrs. Peters replies: ‘‘But, Mrs. Hale, the law is the law.’’ Her concern with ‘‘duty’’ and what one ‘‘ought to do’’ support a post-conventional view, corroborating the district attorney’s trust in Mrs. Peters as ‘‘one of us.’’

Mrs. Hale, on the contrary, supports Minnie from the outset (although it’s not clear that she could or would have taken the final action on her own). She responds to Mrs. Peter’s comment that ‘‘the law is the law’’ with ‘‘and a bad stove is a bad stove’’—implying the need to re-interpret abstract law within a particular context. When Mrs. Peters declares: ‘‘The law has got to punish crime,’’ Mrs. Hale urges a redefinition of one’s notion of crime. Reflecting on Minnie’s drab and lonely life, she cries: ‘‘I wish I’d come over here once in a while! . . . That was a crime! Who’s going to punish that?’’

As Mrs. Peters listens to Mrs. Hale’s recollections of Minnie’s past and comes into physical contact with Minnie’s present, ‘‘It was as if something within her, not herself had spoken, and it found in Mrs. Peters something she did not know as herself.’’ Minnie’s lonely life evokes memories of the stillness when Mrs. Peter’s first baby died while she was homesteading in the Dakotas. Minnie’s violent response to the killing of her pet canary recalls murderous feelings in Mrs. Peters when her pet kitten had been brutally slain. Sharing her memories with Mrs. Hale, Mrs. Peters recognizes her connection with other women and, consequently, is capable of moving from a typically male to a more typically female mode of judgment.

In filming the Glaspell works, Sally Heckel utilizes the visual and aural resources of cinema to highlight each trifle, create context, and reinforce relationships. Through close-up (e.g., a jar of preserves, a piece of quilting), the supposedly insignifi- cant kitchen things assume larger-than-life proportions— emphasizing the significance of the domestic sphere. Through a combination of off-screen dialogue and closeup, Heckel creates the context necessary for the women’s final decision. For example, when the district attorney is heard to state, ‘‘We need a motive,’’ the camera provides a close-up of sugar spilt on a counter (evidence of interrupted work). Another man will state: ‘‘We need some definite thing to build a story around,’’ and Heckel offers a close-up of Mrs. Hale’s hand on the quilt piece, under which is hidden the dead canary. Thus, while the men speak abstractly off-screen, on-screen, Heckel depicts the particulars, the specific context from which the women will make their moral choice.

A third visual device, composition within the frame, creates relationships, and Heckel will use this to visually unite the women and/or objects. In one frame, she links the remaining jar of preserves, the broken bird cage, and the now-restitched piece of quilt—a visual equivalent of the connections that lead Mrs. Hale and Peters to their joint decision.

Heckel’s powerful contemporary film of Glaspell’s earlier works attest to the vitality of Glaspell’s vision. Fifty years before the current women’s movement, Susan Glaspell understood how consciousness raising could empower women to take actions together which they could not take as individuals, how as women share their experiences, they could act out of a new respect for the value of their lives as women, different from, but certainly equal to, the world of men.

Source: Phyllis Mael. ‘‘Trifles: The Path to Sisterhood’’ in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 17, no. 4, 1989, pp. 281–84.


Critical Overview