What is the murder motive and how do the women discover it in Trifles by Susan Glaspell?

Quick answer:

Murder of John Wright, a husband by his wife Minnie. Motive for the murder was to stop his cruelty. Women discover the motive through their observations. Men do not recognize the clues that the women find as evidence.

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The short play Trifles by Susan Glaspell finds a home in feminist literature.  The male officials of the story presume that the wife of the victim committed the crime, and they do not know why.  The play takes place in about 1916 and is based on an actual crime that Glaspell wrote about when she was a reporter in Iowa.

The scene is the Wright home.  A neighbor has discovered the body of John Wright up in his bed dead with Minnie Wright sitting in a rocking chair downstairs.  The wife says that she was asleep in the bed and did not hear anything.  She found him with the rope around his neck.  The police take Mrs. Wright to Jail.  The next day, the county attorney, the sheriff, and the neighbor Mr. Hale come back to  the home looking for clues concerning the crime.  They really have found nothing.

The wife of the sheriff Mrs. Peters and the neighbor’s wife Mrs. Hale have come with their husbands to the scene. The county attorney makes a comment about the messy kitchen and insinuates that women only deal in unimportant things in life:

Sheriff: Nothing here but kitchen things

County Attorney: Here’s a nice mess.

Mrs. Peters: Oh, her fruit; it did freeze. She worried about the cans freezing.

Sheriff: Well, can you beat the woman! Held for murder and worrin’ about her preserves.

Hale: Well, women are used to worrying over trifles.

The ladies immediately begin to pick up around the room.  The inference that Minnie was not a good housekeeper does not sit well with the ladies.

The men go upstairs to look at the scene and try to find out about how the man was killed.

Each of the ladies represents different approaches to life: Mrs. Peters is hard-nosed and did not know the Wrights well. Initially, she does not give much sympathy to Minnie Wright. Mrs. Hale is compassionate and understanding of why this incident happened. She feels guilty because she did not visit Minnie more since they were neighbors.  Eventually, Mrs. Peters remembers events that happened in her own life and realizes that people can be pushed so hard that they snap and can do things that they ordinarily would not do.

Many details and clues about Minnie are discovered by the women as they look around the rooms.

  • Minnie did not participate in the local clubs because she did not have nice clothes. Minnie used to be a young girl and wore pretty clothes and sang in the choir. She was pretty and sweet and shy and bird-like.
  • Thinking about her having no children, made them realize what a lonely life Minnie must have led.  
  • She had been making a quilt and was obviously a good seamstress. Yet, on one of the blocks she had completely messed it up.
  • They discover an empty bird cage.
  • One of the hinges on a cupboard is broken off as though someone was rough with it.

In talking about the victim, Mrs. Hale indicates that John Wright was a hard man.

They discover a pretty box. Wrapped up in a piece of cloth was Minnie’s bird with its neck broken. Both ladies realize that this is the reason why John Wright was killed. He did not like the bird singing, and he knew that Minnie loved it.  His death was just like the bird's. This is the motive for murder.

The clueless men do not think that the women would have been able to discover anything other than clothes to take to Minnie. Instead, they have discovered the reason for the murder. The trifles these ladies discover would have convicted Minnie Wright, but the men will never know.

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