Editor's Choice

Can Trifles be considered a tragedy? Does it possess, or lack, tragic qualities and evoke Aristotle's "katharsis of pity and fear"?

Quick answer:

Trifles is not a tragedy but can be considered as one in some aspects. Trifles, by Susan Glaspell, is a play that revolves around the life of Minnie Wright and the events surrounding the death of her husband. It focuses on Minnie's interrogation by the sheriff and two men from town who are trying to find out what happened to her husband. The three men show no concern for Minnie and are only interested in what they can get from this event. In this sense, there is an element of tragedy in that these men have no sensitivity towards Minnie or any other woman who is living with abuse.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Some of the events discussed in Trifles can be considered elements of a tragedy, but the play itself is not a tragedy. It is a drama and might be classified as a melodrama or a detective drama.

One of the defining characteristics of tragedy is that one or more characters dies during the courses of the play. In classical Greek tragedy, the deaths usually occurred offstage, but the act itself was part of the ongoing action. In Trifles, the husband's death occurred before the play's action begins. The events that drove his wife to kill him are gradually reconstructed, but the killing itself is not part of the play.

In addition, none of the play's characters is a tragic hero. They do not show any tragic flaw that leads to their downfall. All of the characters seem emotionally healthy and are engaged in positive activities. The only exception would be Minnie Wright, and she is not actually a character, because she never appears onstage.

Susan Glaspell could easily have written a tragedy instead. A different play could begin the day before the murder and include the actions that provoked Minnie to violence. Much remains unknown in Trifles about the extent of his abuse, so a play focusing on their life together might be too violent to stage.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Several of the great Greek tragedies, most notably Oedipus Rex, have a forensic quality in which the mystery, when unravelled, turns out to be a truth too terrible for the protagonist to face. It is this that produces pity and terror, then catharsis, in the audience. In this sense, we might see Trifles as the tragedy of Mrs. Wright and, in a secondary sense, of Mrs. Hale as well, since she was a neighbor of the Wrights and had known Minnie Wright for many years. She now has to live with the knowledge that she might have been able to prevent the tragic event.

Further interrogation of what exactly constitutes the tragic event, however, brings out the difference in attitude between Trifles and classical tragedy. By the end of the play, the audience is unlikely to feel that there is anything particularly tragic about the murder of Mr. Wright. The tragic event, or series of events, so far as we are concerned, is the cruelty with which he treated his wife. This is not the case in, for instance, Aeschylus's Agamemnon, which also concerns the murder of a husband by his wife. It does not matter that Agamemnon may well have deserved his death as much as Wright did. After all, he murdered his own daughter in order to get his fleet to Troy. The tragic event, the climax of the play, is the murder of Agamemnon himself. In Trifles, the murder of Wright has already happened before the play begins and is deliberately not treated as tragic. It is Mrs. Wright who, in the end, is cast as the victim, while Clytemnestra certainly is not. This radical change in emphasis makes Trifles a response to, and perhaps an inversion of, classical Greek tragedy.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Yes, we can think of Trifles as having tragic qualities that align with Aristotle's idea of tragedy eliciting the emotions of pity and fear.

It does seem tragic that a gentle, good-hearted, ordinary farm wife felt so desperate, trapped, and angry in her situation that she murdered her husband. Minnie Wright is described by Mrs. Hale as a formerly kind, bright, lively, pretty, singing young woman who has been isolated and ground down by her silent, ill-tempered husband. While the men dismiss Minnie as a bad housewife for the disarray of her kitchen, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters can see that she was a good, hardworking woman who must have been under immense stress at the time of her husband's death.

Further, the little canary with the snapped neck that Mrs. Wright has tenderly wrapped in handkerchief raises our pity because it seems very much like Mrs. Wright herself: caged, innocent, and vulnerable. When Mrs. Peters recounts the story of how angry and grieved she felt when a boy chopped her kitten to death with an axe, we also feel pity and sympathy for Minnie. The violence in farm culture might raise our fear, too, of patriarchal aggression and what it can do to a person.

Although Mrs. Wright was not a royal or aristocratic person, as is part of Aristotle's definition of tragedy, her situation raises our fear and pity. I don't know how much emotional catharsis we feel, but there may be some sense of emotional release and relief that that men don't put two and two together to connect Minnie to the crime the way the women do.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

We, of course, are not using the word “tragedy” here strictly in the Aristotelian sense of the word—no high figure falling from a high place, etc.—but we can ask whether a tragedy has occurred here in the Webster’s dictionary sense of “a serious drama describing a conflict between a protagonist and a superior force.”  The oddity here is that the “tragedy” actually occurred in the exposition, before the stage action proceeds—the “protagonist” (Minnie Wright) has killed the “antagonist” (Mr. Wright) before the curtain rises.  We are only privileged with the staging of the denouement (de-nude-ment), the setting right, the final revelation that returns all to balance.  It is a remarkable feat of  Susan Glaspell that  she has here staged the revelation in such a way that we, the audience, are satisfied (a catharsis?), along with the silent women, while the “deus ex machina” (the police) are left ignorant.    

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial