Trifles Themes

The main themes in Trifles are gender, isolation, and justice.

  • Gender: the male characters only want to gather evidence of Minnie's crime, whereas the women come to understand the emotional pain that drove Minnie to murder her husband.
  • Isolation: Minnie Wright is isolated from her friends and family by her controlling, abusive husband. This has devastating psychological effects on Minnie.
  • Justice: The men and women have different conceptions of justice. The men want Minnie to be convicted of murder, whereas the women hide the evidence that would have convicted Minnie out of respect for the years of abuse Minnie suffered.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 410

Though its plot focuses on a single moral choice, that of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters deciding whether or not to expose why Mrs. Wright killed her husband, Trifles is thematically complex. It addresses the abiding issue of justice and contemporary issues of gender and identity politics. Susan Glaspell’s power comes from the way she interweaves these issues until they are impossible to separate. When they enter the farmhouse, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are there as wives, adjunct to their husbands’ roles in society. However, through the process of attempting to help another woman by gathering items from her household that might comfort her in jail, they learn to identify themselves first as women and only secondarily as wives. Each woman recognizes her own life in Mrs. Wright’s suffering, and each comes to see that given the wrong circumstances, she, too, would have killed the man that so damaged her. These women symbolize all women, and this growing awareness suggests the possibility of personal transformation that decades later emerged in feminist consciousness-raising groups. When they decide to hide the evidence of Mrs. Wright’s motive for the murder, the two women are condoning the crime, or declaring that it is not a crime, but justice for the suffering that John Wright inflicted on his wife.

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This stance creates a tremendous moral dilemma. The ideal of justice is that a truly just society is impartial. All the male characters are blind to what is going on and are even condescending to the women. The county attorney is the worst example of this. He is so certain that he knows what the situation entails that he will not even let other characters finish speaking. Yet, he and all the male characters cannot see the truth that is literally right in front of their faces. Mr. Hale and the sheriff cannot see that the women they live with are keeping something from them. This suggests that the entire concept of justice is flawed. Either there are different justices for different groups, according to their experience of the world, or, worse, there are different realities, invisible to those who do not share them. The choice to hide a dead bird may symbolize the death knell for the Western political system: How can a fair and functioning society be constructed in such circumstances? At the very least, the play casts doubt on all existing legal structures unless the female perspective is integrated.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 671

Gender Differences
Perhaps the single most important theme in Trifles is the difference between men and women. The two sexes are distinguished by the roles they play in society, their physicality, their methods of communication and—vital to the plot of the play— their powers of observation.

In simple terms, Trifles suggests that men tend to be aggressive, brash, rough, analytical and selfcentered; in contrast, women are more circumspect, deliberative, intuitive, and sensitive to the needs of others. It is these differences that allows Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale to find the clues needed to solve the crime, while their husbands miss the same clues.

Glaspell differentiates between her male and female antagonists as they enter the Wright farmhouse at the beginning of the play. The men stomp through the door first, and head purposefully toward the stove for warmth. They are the leaders of the community—the sheriff, the local prosecutor, and a neighboring farmer. They get to business immediately, discussing the facts of the case.

Meanwhile the women, perhaps sensing the gloom and terror in the house, enter timidly and stand close to each other just inside the door. They are partly identified by the roles their husbands play. An important detail is they are always referred to by their married names only, and no first names are used.

As the investigation commences, the men seek obvious clues that might suggest a motive for the crime—perhaps indications of alcoholism or physical abuse. Henderson overlooks the small, but significant, clues that tell the real story. He ignores Lewis, who tells him that John never seemed to care what his wife wanted, and dismisses the mess in the kitchen as the result of shoddy housekeeping. When the women rise to Minnie’s defense, he even mocks them for simply trying to be ‘‘loyal to your sex.’’

When the men leave the room to examine other parts of the house, the real detective work begins. The women discuss Minnie as she used to be—a happy, young girl in pretty clothes who sang in the town choir. Because their lives are also focused on the home, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale are able to interpret some of the silent cries for help that the men were unable to see or hear.

By the time they find the damaged birdcage and the dead canary, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale know the truth: John Wright drove his wife to murder him by isolating her from her friends and depriving her of beauty and song. The ‘‘trifles’’ of the play embody the possessive, patronizing attitude men sometimes have toward the lives of women.

Isolation
The devastating effects of isolation—especially on women—is another theme of the play. The men seem better suited to the loneliness and isolation of rural farming. John Wright, for example, is described as a hard-working farmer who kept to himself. He did not share a telephone line, and no one other than his wife knew him very well.

The women, on the other hand, are deeply affected by isolation. Mrs. Peters remembers with dread when she and her husband were homesteading in the Dakota countryside and her only child died, leaving her alone in the house all day while her husband was out working the farm. Mrs. Hale, who has several children of her own, imagines how terrible it would be to have to live in an empty house, like Minnie, with nothing but a canary and a taciturn man for company.

For Minnie, isolation drove her to murder. Remembered by Mrs. Hale as a happy, outgoing young girl in pretty clothes, Minnie Foster’s whole life changed when she married John. They lived in a gloomy farmhouse ‘‘down in a hollow’’ where Minnie couldn’t even see the road. No one came to visit, and she did not go out. The couple was childless, and John killed the only other life in the house: the canary his wife bought to sing to her and ease her lonely mind.

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