Trifles Analysis

  • Trifles is a one-act play set in a small farmhouse. The action takes place in the course of a single day, satisfying the Aristotelian unity that states that a play should take place within the span of 24 hours.
  • Gender is the central theme of the play. All three of the men are so focused on gathering evidence to use against Minnie in court that they ignore the signs ("trifles") that illuminate her emotional state leading up to the murder. Only the women are able to understand and sympathize with Minnie.
  • Minnie's dead canary is a symbol of lost freedom. Its cage, broken during one of John Wright's rages, is symbolic of Minnie's marriage, which traps her with a man she doesn't love in a farmhouse that's isolated from the community.

Analysis

One-Act Play
The structure of a play affects all of its most important elements—the plot, characters, and themes. An episodic play, such as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, requires many twists and turns of plot, numerous characters and locations, and great stretches of time in order for the story to unfold. A climactic play, such as Sophocles’s famous tragedy Oedipus Rex, typically presents only a handful of characters involved in a single plot, which builds toward a climax—the most important moment in the play.

One of the most restrictive forms is the one-act play, a style favored by Trifles author Susan Glaspell. In every respect the one-act play is more tightly compressed than a full-length climactic Greek tragedy. Because one-acts are typically short, with playing times of fifteen to forty-five minutes, the number of characters introduced must be limited, and their personalities must be developed quickly.

Glaspell takes full advantage of this limitation in Trifles. The men in the play are stereotypical characters. Their actions and words immediately suggest personalities that are condescending, egotistical, and self-important. The women, meanwhile, begin the play timidly, allowing their husbands to blunder about the crime scene. Then, given the chance to be alone, they open up to each other and show a strong sense of female intuition that allows them to solve the play’s mystery very quickly.

Because of the limited time frame, the one-act format also tends to focus on a single location and a tight plot. Each of these aspects holds true for Trifles. There is a...

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The Play

Trifles tells the story of two investigations into the murder of John Wright. The male characters carry on the official investigation while the female characters carry on their own unofficial investigation.

The play opens when its five characters enter the kitchen of the Wright farmhouse. The county attorney takes charge of the investigation, guiding the sheriff and Mr. Hale in recounting their roles in the discovery of the crime. Mr. Hale tells how he came to the house to ask John Wright about sharing the cost of a phone line, only to find Mrs. Wright sitting in a rocker. When he asks to speak with her husband, Mrs. Wright says that he cannot speak with Mr. Hale because he is dead. Mr. Hale investigates and finds that Wright has been hanged. After commenting on Mrs. Wright’s poor housekeeping in ways that irritate the women present, the county attorney leads the men upstairs so he can search the scene of the crime for a motive.

The women are left alone. While gathering some household goods to make Mrs. Wright feel more at ease in jail, they discuss Minnie Wright, her childhood as Minnie Foster, her life with John Wright, and the quilt that she was making when she was taken to jail. The men reenter briefly, then leave. The women discuss the state of the Wright household before Mr. Wright’s death. In the process, they communicate how greatly Mrs. Wright had changed over the years and how depressing her life with John Wright had been. The women express sympathy over what the kitchen disarray would mean emotionally to Mrs. Wright and how much of an intrusion it was for her to have all of these outsiders searching through her goods. The women discover Mrs. Wright’s pet bird. It has been killed, and Mrs. Wright had hidden it in her sewing box. The women’s eyes meet, but they do not speak directly about the bird. When she hears the men returning again, Mrs. Hale hides the dead bird.

Once the men have left again, the women discuss past pains and losses that parallel those that Mrs. Wright has suffered. A boy killed Mrs. Peters’s kitten when she was a child, and she was childless for a time, like Mrs. Wright. The women express a shared sense of responsibility for her isolation and suggest that they were criminally negligent to allow her to be entirely alone. Just before the men reenter, Mrs. Peters suggests that they are getting too upset over a dead bird.

The county attorney summarizes the case as he enters and indicates that the entire case is clear except for a missing motive. As the investigation ends, the sheriff asks the attorney if he needs to inspect the things the women are taking to Mrs. Wright in jail. The county attorney dismisses this jokingly, suggesting that there is no need because the sheriff’s wife, Mrs. Peters, is essentially married to the law. When the men leave the room to check one last detail, the women’s eyes meet again. Mrs. Peters tries to hide the box containing the dead bird in the bag of quilt pieces she is taking to Mrs. Wright, but it does not fit. Mrs. Hale hides the box in her coat pocket. When the men reenter, the women have one last chance to share this clue with them. They do not, and the play closes.

Dramatic Devices

In De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705), Aristotle’s treatise on drama, he argued that a tragedy should consist of a single action, completed in one place and taking no longer than one day. Trifles follows these rules perfectly, taking place in a single room and far less time than one day. However, Trifles is more a social criticism than tragedy. Glaspell uses a variety of dramatic devices to critique her society. There are no formal scene breaks in Trifles. Instead, the entrances and exits of the male characters define the play. Each time the men leave, the women exchange private information; each time they enter, the men force or prevent crucial decisions. This action controls the pace of the play and symbolizes how men run women’s lives, controlling and silencing them as John Wright silenced his wife.

The many doubles in Trifles create a symbolic structure. Mr. Hale is accompanied by his wife; the sheriff is accompanied by his wife, Mrs. Peters. The county attorney is there because another pairing, Mr. and Mrs. Wright, was disrupted, indicating that the law must step in when the symbolic foundations of society breaks down. To underscore this point, the county attorney looks for a way to speak for Mrs. Wright, who refuses to speak for herself, and who is, indeed, completely absent from the play, making her invisibility to the social order literal. The final doubling is between Mrs. Wright and her bird. The bird symbolizes Mrs. Wright, a beautiful creature who loved to sing. When her husband killed it, it was as if she had been killed, and she killed him in turn.

Glaspell adapts a technique from German expressionist drama, referring to the male characters primarily by their social roles. Yet, Glaspell gives this casting an ironic twist by giving the characters names that reveal who they really are. Mr. Hale is hale and hearty; Mr. Peters, whose name means “rock,” is a sheriff, or a foundation of society. These names fit far less well for the women. Minnie Foster was out of place as a foster child, and the man she marries, John Wright, is anything but Mr. Right. Irony runs through the dialogue as well. During the play’s climax, the women discuss how Mrs. Wright killed her husband, but the men assume the women are still discussing housework. This is the final example of the “trifles” that give the play its ironic title.

Historical Context

Women’s Issues
In many ways, Susan Glaspell’s success at the turn of the century signaled a new age for women, and...

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Compare and Contrast

1916: In the United States, the women’s rights movement began in earnest in the nineteenth century. Margaret Sanger opens the first...

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Topics for Further Study

Read John Millington Synge’s famous one-act play Riders to the Sea and compare it to Glaspell’s Trifles. How does each play...

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Media Adaptations

Trifles is based on a Glaspell short story entitled ‘‘A Jury of Her Peers.’’ A short film version of A Jury of Her...

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What Do I Read Next?

Trifles is an adaptation of ‘‘A Jury of Her Peers,’’ a short story based on an actual trial Glaspell covered as a reporter in...

(The entire section is 242 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Alkalay-Gut, Karen. ‘‘Murder and Marriage: Another Look at Trifles,’’ in Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her...

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Bibliography

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Ben-Zvi, Linda, ed. Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Glaspell, Susan. “Lifted Masks” and Other Works. Edited by Eric S. Rabkin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.

Ozieblo, Barbara. “Rebellion and Rejection: The Plays of Susan Glaspell.” In Modern American Drama: The Female Canon. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1990.

Shafer, Yvonne. American Women Playwrights, 1900-1950. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.

Waterman, Arthur E. Susan Glaspell. New York: Twayne, 1966.