Susan Glaspell’s Trifles is a one-act play that is loosely based on a case that the author reported on when she was working as a journalist in Iowa in 1900. John Hossack was found dead in bed, hacked by an ax, on December 1, 1900. At first, his wife, Margaret, said that although she was sleeping right beside him, she heard nothing. Five days later, Margaret Hossack was arrested for her husband’s murder. Glaspell was assigned to cover the case for the Des Moines Daily News, and at first, she was horrified by the crime and by Mrs. Hossack’s apparent indifference to her husband’s death and her own role in it. But the more Glaspell leaned about the Hossacks’ marriage and home life (she even visited their farmhouse), the more sympathetic she became to Margaret Hossack, who was eventually sentenced to life in prison for the murder of her husband.
Trifles, then, shares many aspects of this original case, including an unhappy wife who turns desperate enough to murder the man she married. There are, of course, differences, and Glaspell took plenty of literary license with the original event, including the dead canary and the involvement of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters—although they might represent, to a point, Glaspell herself as she strove to understand Margaret Hossack’s actions. Yet her point is clear: an unhappy marriage can and often does lead to tragedy.
Because Trifles is a play, its setting is critical, and many pieces of “evidence” appear within that setting as Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters notice all kinds of things about Minnie Wright’s domestic domain. The author describes the setting in detail through the stage directions and the characters’ comments. The broken jars of preserves, the somewhat messy appearance of the kitchen, the bread set to rise, and the bad stitching on the quilt all indicate Minnie’s state of emotional disturbance. The broken birdcage, of course, adds another element to the setting and another piece of evidence to the case.
In fact, the birdcage and many other items described and handled in the play are symbolic. The birdcage seems to indicate that Minnie Wright feels trapped in her marriage and her life. The cage has been broken by John Wright, but Minnie, too, has broken something in a desire to escape her own cage: her husband. The canary, too, is symbolic, this time of Minnie herself. Mrs. Hale remarks that the young Minnie Foster was somewhat like a bird, always fluttering and singing. But Minnie’s singing voice has been silenced for years. When John killed the bird (as he likely did), he symbolically killed whatever joy was left in Minnie, too, although according to Mrs. Hale, John killed Minnie's singing a long time ago.
The shattered jars of preserves provide another symbol in this play. They have broken in the cold of the empty house now that John is dead and Minnie is in jail. Indeed, Minnie’s life is shattered like those jars. Yet one jar still remains, and perhaps this is a symbol of hope that not everything is lost. Even the quilt represents something beyond itself. It might embody Minnie’s life in a way, given how it is stitched together in many pieces. Some of it is sewn well, but the last bit is done poorly. This indicates Minnie’s state of mind and nerves, but it also shows how her life is now coming apart at the seams.
Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters look at Minnie’s home and at her things, and they realize what has happened to her. Even though they probably...
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would not be able to name what they are doing, these two women use the deductive method to figure out that Minnie probably did kill her husband—although they are unwilling to say for certain. They look at the details, the little things that their husbands and Mr. Henderson overlook but that mean so much to a woman, and they draw a general conclusion from them. They also use their intuition to try to enter into Minnie’s mind. Mrs. Hale recognizes how lonesome Minnie must have been. Mrs. Peters can relate to that as well and to Minnie’s probable anger at the cruel death of her bird. Mrs. Peters remembers her own kitten and how she wanted to hurt the boy that killed it. Indeed, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters blend reason and emotion as they try to understand what happened to Minnie Wright and what she did about it in return.
Finally, there is significant irony in this play, especially with regard to the eponymous concept trifles. The men scoff at the trifles the women notice and worry about. To them, the affairs of domestic life, of cooking and kitchens and pet birds and sewing, are unimportant, even meaningless. Yet it is these trifles that lead Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters to the knowledge they discover. It is the trifles that solve the case, and it is the trifles that the women keep to themselves, for the men do not want to know about them anyway.