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 theory of unity.
  • 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 that illuminate her emotional state leading up to the murder.
  • 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 isolates her from her community.


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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....

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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 single setting, the Wright farmhouse, which is located in the countryside and set back from the road, a lonely, desolate place. The plot involves seeking clues to suggest a motive for the murder of John Wright. Furthermore, there are no unimportant words or actions. Everything that is said and done, from the way the characters enter Mrs. Wright’s kitchen to the discovery of her dead canary, relates in some way to the mystery at hand.

Local Color
In the late nineteenth century, a popular style of writing known as ‘‘local color’’ emerged, a style characterized by its vivid description of some of the more idiosyncratic communities in the American landscape. Writers such as Bret Harte, Mark Twain, and Nathaniel Hawthorne created characters whose speech and attitudes reflected the deep South, the western frontier, or New England Puritanism. Their short stories and novels particularly appealed to people in larger cities, who found these descriptions of faraway places exotic and entertaining.

Susan Glaspell began writing during this age of regionalism, and Trifles incorporates many of the elements of local color: regional dialect, appropriate costuming, and characters influenced by a specific locale.

Trifles is filled with a strong sense of place. The characters in the play are deeply rooted in their rural environment. Lewis Hale was on his way into town with a load of potatoes when he stopped by the Wright’s house to see about sharing a party line telephone, a common way for people in small communities to afford phone service during the first few decades of the century. The lives of the women seem to consist of housekeeping chores, food preparation, sewing, and raising children, with little time left for socializing.

The characters’ manner of speech reveals their limited education and rural, Midwestern environment. They use a colloquial grammar peppered with country slang. ‘‘I don’t think a place’d be any cheerfuller for John Wright’s being in it,’’ Mrs. Hale tells Henderson. Their lives, too, have been deeply affected by their regional experiences. While homesteading in the Dakota countryside, Mrs. Peter’s two-year-old baby died, leaving her alone in the house while her husband was away.

Still, at the same time that she provides these carefully crafted details of country life, Glaspell provides her audience with ideas that transcend local color. The struggle between the sexes, loneliness, and the elusive nature of truth are all experiences shared by people across cultures and boundaries of geography.

The Play

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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

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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

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Women’s Issues
In many ways, Susan Glaspell’s success at the turn of the century signaled a new age for women, and Trifles, still her best-known play, represents the struggles women of her era faced. Born in 1876, Glaspell’s grandparents were some of the pioneers who settled her hometown of Davenport, Iowa.

In an age when few women went to college, and even fewer actually sought careers beyond menial labor outside the home, Glaspell did both, graduating from Drake University with a Ph.D. in Philosophy in 1899, and immediately embarking on a lifetime of freelance journalism, playwriting, and fiction writing.

In 1916, the year Glaspell wrote Trifles for the Provincetown Players, some of the important issues of the day were women’s suffrage, birth control, socialism, union organizing, and the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud. Women had not yet achieved the right to vote, and in most states women could not sit on juries. It wasn’t until 1920 that the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote.

Only a year after she was jailed for writing Family Limitation, the first book on birth control, Margaret Sanger opened America’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York. Charged with ‘‘maintaining a public nuisance,’’ she was once again arrested, and served thirty days in the Queens County Penitentiary. It wasn’t until 1973 that the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision gave women the right to choose an abortion during the first few months of pregnancy.

Life in America’s industrial cities was harsh. Manufacturing jobs paid only a few dollars a day for 10-12 hours of work, and children under fourteen constituted a sizable portion of America’s workforce. The factory system created wage-earning opportunities for women, leading to a chance for financial independence.

Yet women earned significantly less than their male counterparts, and most were relegated to jobs in domestic service, textile factories, or offices. Unfortunate women often found themselves working in ‘‘sweatshops,’’ small factories that forced employees to spend long hours in a dirty, unsafe environment for substandard wages.

Life for rural women, as shown by Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale in Trifles, was not much better. A large portion of America’s population was still scattered in rural towns, ranches, and farmsteads across the country at the turn of the century. Women were largely responsible for the maintenance of the family, including cleaning, laundry, food preparation, and childcare. They often had to make clothes and bedding for families.

Farming could be lonely life for women. In Trifles, Mrs. Peters, whose husband is now the sheriff of their small community, remembers when she and her family were homesteaders in the Dakota territory, and her first baby died, leaving her alone in the house most of the day while her husband worked outside. Another character, Minnie, is driven to kill her husband as a result of the hopelessness and desperation she feels from her isolated and joyless life.

In dramatizing the lives of these rural women, Glaspell captured an intimate portrait of American history on the stage. She also contributed to a significant literary and artistic event: America’s ‘‘Little Theatre Movement.’’ Trifles was produced by the Provincetown Players, an amateur, experimental group of actors, designers, and playwrights Glaspell and her husband, George Cook, had assembled at their vacation home on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

The goal of the Provincetown Players was to present plays by new American writers, relying on innovative scenery and staging techniques. The group moved to Greenwich Village in New York City in the fall of 1916 and remained active until 1929, helping to launch the careers of such notable authors as Eugene O’Neill, e. e. cummings, Edna Ferber, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

At the same time that the Provincetown Players were finding success in New York, similar ‘‘little theatres’’ began springing up around the country. The Toy Theatre in Boston and the Chicago Little Theatre opened in 1912; and the Detroit Arts and Crafts Theatre opened in 1916. By 1917, nearly fifty such organizations were producing plays in what would become, by the end of the century, a diverse network of regional theaters across America, offering quality alternatives to community theaters and standard Broadway fare.

Compare and Contrast

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1916: In the United States, the women’s rights movement began in earnest in the nineteenth century. Margaret Sanger opens the first birth control clinic in 1916. In 1920 the 19th Amendment gives women the right to vote. The average life expectancy for men is 53.5 years; for women it is 55 years.

Today: Women have made great strides worldwide, and their average life expectancy remains 2-3 years longer than that of men (both are expected to live well past age seventy). The Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade (1973) gives women the right to choose an abortion during the first few months of pregnancy.

1916: In cities, dance halls are popular places for young men women. ‘‘Ragtime’’ music moves into mainstream America in 1911 when Irving Berlin writes a syncopated dance tune called ‘‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band.’’ The sheet music to the song sells more than a million copies.

Today: Rap is a very popular musical genre in America. Like the ragtime music at the turn of the century, rap has its roots in black American culture, but has fans in all segments of society. While overall music sales increase a mere 9%, rap music boasts a 31% gain.

1916: Alcohol abuse is deemed one of the biggest problems faced by Americans. As a result, twenty-three states have anti-saloon laws in 1916. By 1919, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution is passed, prohibiting the ‘‘manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.’’ Prohibition begins in 1920. Thirteen years later the ‘‘experiment’’ is considered an economic and social disaster, and Prohibition is repealed in 1933.

Today: America’s ‘‘War on Drugs’’ is often thought of as the new Prohibition. Between 1980-1995 the U.S. government spends over $300 billion trying to rid the country of illegal drugs, particularly marijuana and cocaine. As a result of the drug trade in America’s inner cities, minorities are particularly affected by drug convictions. Many groups across the country are calling for legalization of various controlled substances, particularly marijuana.

1916: Movies are a very popular genre of entertainment. Each week, nearly thirty million Americans see black-and-white film comedies, documentaries, or full-length features. A film studio might gross as much as $3 million in a year, while top stars might receive weekly salaries of $3,000.

Today: Entertainment, particularly movies and music, is America’s second leading export product behind the aerospace industry, grossing billions of dollars each year. A major motion picture might cost over $100 million to film and market, and its leading stars might receive salaries of $10-20 million or more. The most expensive film in Hollywood history is made in 1997. Titanic is a financial gamble at over $200 million but earns nearly $400 million in gross sales.

1916: In 1912 there are 900,000 automobiles registered in the United States. With the advent of the production innovations-in particular, the assembly line-automobile production increases drastically. By 1919 the number of cars registered soars to 6.7 million. The Model T is the most popular automobile, priced at $850 and available in a single color: black.

Today: The assembly of cars has become more complicated as automotive technology has grown more complex. In response to environmental protection laws, General Motors introduces the first all-electric car, the EV1, in 1996. Capable of traveling only a hundred miles between charges, and accelerating to only about 55 miles per hour, the cars are not immediately successful.

Media Adaptations

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Trifles is based on a Glaspell short story entitled ‘‘A Jury of Her Peers.’’ A short film version of A Jury of Her Peers was produced in 1981 by Texture Films. The program aired on PBS in 1987.

Another film adaptation of A Jury of Her Peers, entitled An Eye for an Eye, was created by Diana Maddox for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s ‘‘Guest Stage’’ television series in 1956.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation aired a radio drama version of Trifles, directed by Denis Johnston, in February, 1999.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Alkalay-Gut, Karen. ‘‘Murder and Marriage: Another Look at Trifles,’’ in Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction, University of Michigan Press, 1995, pp. 71-81.

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

Ferguson, Mary Anne. Images of Women in Literature, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977, p. 390.

Hedges, Elaine. ‘‘Small Things Reconsidered: ‘A Jury of Her Peers’,’’ in Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction, University of Michigan Press, 1995, pp. 49-69.

Kolodny, Annette. ‘‘A Map for Rereading: Or, Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts,’’ in New Literary History, University of Virginia, Spring, 1980, p. 451-67.

Nelligan, Lisa Maeve. ‘‘The Haunting Beauty from the Life We’ve Left: A Contextual Reading of Trifles and The Verge,’’ in Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction, University of Michigan Press, 1995, pp. 85-104.

Stein, Karen F. ‘‘The Women’s World of Glaspell’s Trifles,’’ in Women in American Theatre, Crown Publishers, Inc., 1981, p. 251-54.

Stephens, Judith. ‘‘Gender Ideology and Dramatic Convention in Progressive Era Plays, 1890-1920,’’ in Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990, p. 283-93.

Further Reading
Ben-Zvi, Linda, editor. Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction, University of Michigan Press, 1995. This useful collection includes sixteen essays examining several of Glaspell’s plays and short stories. Four separate articles consider Trifles and ‘‘A Jury of Her Peers.’’

Egan, Leona Rust. Provincetown as a Stage: Provincetown, the Provincetown Players, and the Discovery of Eugene O’Neill, Parnassus Imprints, 1994. Egan’s account of the Provincetown Players. Chronicles the group’s production of plays by some of the most famous American playwrights of the early ‘‘little theatre’’ movement, including Glaspell and Eugene O’Neill.

Jones-Eddy, Julie. Homesteading Women: An Oral History of Colorado, 1890-1950, Macmillan, 1992. The author interviewed several women for this account of the American West seen through the eyes of frontier women who raised families, built and kept homes, and survived the harsh rural life of the Colorado Territories.

Riley, Glenda and Richard W. Etulain, editors. By Grit and Grace: Eleven Women Who Shaped the American West, Fulcrum, 1997. This collection of biographical essays includes pro- files of well-known figures such as Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane, as well as civil rights activist Mary Ellen Pleasant and women’s suffrage leader Abigail Scott Duniway.

Waterman, Arthur E. Susan Glaspell, Twayne Publishers, 1966. A biography that chronicles Glaspell’s early life as a Iowa reporter through her career as a playwright and novelist in New York and Massachusetts.


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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.

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Critical Essays