Discussion Topic

Irony and Inferences in Trifles


In "Trifles," irony is evident as the men dismiss the women’s concerns as trivial, while the women uncover crucial evidence. The women infer the emotional state of Mrs. Wright through subtle domestic clues, leading to the discovery of her motive for murder, which the men overlook due to their condescending attitudes.

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What is the irony in Trifles?

Situational irony occurs when events turn out in a way that runs contrary to expectations. Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows what one or more of the characters in a text do not. In Trifles, Glaspell uses both situational and dramatic irony.

The chief situational irony in Trifles is the reversal of gender roles. The men, such as George Henderson, the county attorney, and Henry Peters, the sheriff, are expected to be smarter and more competent at crime-solving than the women who come along to pack a bag to take to Minnie Wright in prison. The men are patronizing towards the women and the domestic world the women occupy, laughing at the kinds of details, or "trifles," the women notice about the kitchen.

The irony is that the solution to the crime lies in these details, which the men dismiss as worthless. The women, treated as silly, are able to solve the crime exactly because they are alert and attentive to details that the men overlook. They know that Minnie must have been interrupted in the hard work of being a farm wife because of the kitchen's disarray, and they find the carefully wrapped dead canary that Minnie has saved, which the men miss. They are able to piece together that Minnie, isolated and abused, snapped and killed her husband after he killed her canary in a fit of rage.

The dramatic irony is that the audience knows what happened but that the men never do, as the women don't tell them out of sympathy for all Minnie has endured being married to her husband.

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What is the overall irony in the play Trifles?

"It is, of course, a trifle, but there is nothing so important as trifles," said Sherlock Holmes in "The Man with the Twisted Lip" and again in the "Boscombe Valley Mystery": "You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles."

Sherlock Holmes insisted that the most important clues always appear trifling, but one does not have to be the world's greatest detective to reach this conclusion. Obviously, clues seem like trifles, or criminals would never leave them behind. The overall irony in Susan Glaspell's play, therefore, is well expressed by its one-word title. The county attorney and the sheriff are professional lawmen but they do not know their business well enough to search for or appreciate the importance of trifles. The two women are the ones who resemble Sherlock Holmes, using imagination, intelligence, and the observation of trifles to reconstruct the murder of John Wright while the male characters fail to understand their methods.

There is another level of irony, however. Though the clues are trifling, abuse, cruelty, and murder are far from being trifles. Mrs Hale and Mrs. Peters, through their observation of trifles, are empowered to make the great moral decision of the play, allowing Mrs. Wright to get away with murder as they judge that her husband was suitably punished for his mistreatment of her.

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What is the overall irony in the play Trifles?

Irony is rampant in the play Trifles. The title itself is ironic, as there are absolutely no trifles to the situation that unveils in the play. As a literary device, irony moves the plot forward by serving as a contrasting way to illuminate the obvious facts that are evident everywhere in the scenery. At the same time, irony helps cover those very facts from the prying eyes of those who could use the evidence to further damage the accusation against Minnie Wright.

Irony 1: COUNTY ATTORNEY: "Well, women are used to worrying over trifles."

When John Wright is found murdered, his wife enters in a state of deep shock. This is because, since she snaps and kills him after years of abuse, her internal mental processes render her unable to process what has really happened.

Hence, she still finds a compartment in her mind to ask for the everyday things that she usually works with, namely, her fruit compotes, and the other many things she is responsible for.

Right before she goes into custody, she asks about these things. The county attorney dubbed these worries as "trifles", and did not care much about them. What the county attorney does not realize, and neither do any of the men, is that these "trifles", such as the messed up kitchen, the dirty towels and the broken compotes, are not indicative of Minnie's bad housekeeping habits. On the contrary, they are clear signs of a chaotic and ongoing abusive relationship in the household that prevents Minnie from carrying on with things normally.

This collective information is the quintessential smoking gun that the men, thinking that women only worry about trivial things, do not understand. Those trivial things: the compote, the kitchen, and everything else which is in a state of disarray, happens to be the very circumstantial evidence the men are looking for.

Irony 2: The unfinished stitching, the broken canary cage, the canary's dead body stuffed in the drawers are at plain sight, and yet, none of the men can find anything.

Again, all the cues that the men need to put the case together are right in front of their eyes. Since they have decided that these things are not important--because they are "women's things"-- they do not even bother looking at what is right in front of their eyes.

Irony 3: It is the women who discover everything, and they are merely bystanders in the whole affair.

Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are neither police officers, nor detectives. They are not even farm hands! And yet, they were able to put together the entire case for Minnie Wright, from start to finish, by simply using their female intuition and their common sense.

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What ironies can be found in Trifles by Susan Glaspell?

One of the biggest central ironies relates to the title of this play. It is hard to ignore the way that the men strut around the home of the Wrights and look for evidence, and the rather demeaning remarks they make about the women and their comments about preserving and quilting. However, crucially, what the men dismiss as mere "trifles," the exclusive knowledge of the kitchen and home that Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters possess, is what enables the women to unlock the mystery of the murder of John Wright and keep the men in ignorance. It is they that find the quilt with the poor sewing that indicates a considerable distress on the part of Minnie Wright, and it is they that find the dead bird with its neck broken. It is the men who stomp around ineffectually making snide remarks and joking about quilting or knotting.

The central irony therefore is the way in which the men, in spite of their attitude towards the women as being individuals who know nothing, are shown to be the people who know nothing, whereas the women, precisely through their knowledge of housekeeping, are able to do what the men are unable to do. The "trifles" are shown to be not so trifling after all. This play therefore presents a challenge to patriarchal attitudes that dismiss women as being inferior to men.

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How does irony contribute to the theme or message of the play Trifles by Susan Glaspell?

Irony is central to the play Trifles by Susan Glaspell and is seen from the start in the play's title. The "Trifles" referred to in the title are details of the home that is being searched after the murder of Mr. Wright. The sheriff comes to the house along with an attorney and a neighbor to look for typical kinds of evidence. These men look for evidence of motive, a weapon, and signs of a break-in: in other words, anything that a detective would normally look for when investigating a crime scene. The wives of the sheriff and neighbor come along to the house to help gather some items for Mrs. Wright, who is being held at the local jail. As the women wander around the kitchen and living room of the home, they pick up on clues that tell them about Mrs. Wright's mental state when the crime was committed; this, of course, leads them to discover that she killed her husband as well as to learn of and sympathize with her motive. The title is ironic because the details the wives notice are mere "trifles" to the male characters; they do not see the kitchen—with its unfinished tasks of making bread and canning fruit—or the partially botched quilt in the living room as valid clues to the crime. However, the women notice that the flawed stitches in the quilt indicate that Mrs. Wright was upset or disturbed. They pay attention to details their husbands do not even think to look for, like the broken door of a bird cage. Ultimately, the women, who are not professional officers of the law, solve the crime. Furthermore, it could be considered ironic that when they do discover Mrs. Wright killed her husband, they decide to cover her tracks rather than confess to their husbands. They side with the wife, whose life and motives they fully understand. 

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Comment on the dramatic irony and inferences in the play Trifles.

The dramatic irony in this excellent and thought-provoking short play lies around the crucial fact that the men are completely unable to find a motive for the killing of John Wright whilst the women are, although they are disparaged by the men for concerning themselves with "trifles", which clearly in their opinion can hold no interest to their "serious" investigations.

You will want to look at how the men mock the women and infer that they know nothing, only concerning themselves with "womanly" activities. A key example of this, and one that is referred to again and again at various points in the play to highlight the irony, concerns the quilt that Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale find. Mrs. Hale says of this quilt:

It's log cabin pattern. Pretty, isn't it? I wonder if she was goin' to quilt it or just knot it?

Note then that the men descend the stairs, and the Sherrif repeats her words, drawing a laugh from the men. It is highly crucial then, that straight away after this, whilst Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are taking up their time with "little things" as Mrs. Hale says, that they find the motive in the piece of crooked sewing, that gives evidence of "anger, or - sudden feeling", as Mrs. Peters reports Mr. Henderson saying. Note how Mrs. Hale describes what she sees:

Mrs. Peters, look at this one. Here, this is the one she was working on, and look at the sewing! All the rest of it has been so nice and even. And look at this! It's all over the place! Why, it looks as if she didn't know what she was about!

The women, by engaging in their "trifles", have found the motive that the men have been looking for, whilst they have been stomping ineffectually all around the house. The answer was under their noses all the time, but needed a woman's knowledge to piece it together.

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