The Play "Trifles" by Susan Glaspell. A Look at Gender and Role

Essay, 2016

7 Pages


Uncovering the Mysteries Surrounding the Death of Mr. Wright in Trifles by Susan Glaspell

In a murder case, it is believed that the only person who knows the truth is the victim.The play composed by Susan Glaspell in 1916 is based on the murder of John Wright where the prime suspect is his wife, Minnie Foster. Henry Peters, the Sheriff, George Henderson, a lawyer, and Lewis Hale, a neighbor access the farmhouse to probe the killing of its former occupant, John Wright. Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale start their individual investigation, collecting items to take to the perpetrator, Minnie. The points to be discussed include various themes, setting of the play, genre, and the role of women in uncovering the mysteries surrounding the death of Mr. Wright. Even though some men believe that women are inferior to them, Glaspell proves otherwise through her usage of title, setting, themes, genres, and the position of females in uncovering the mystery surrounding the death of Mr. Wright.

The title of the play is ironic. Therefore, sending a message to the reader that things are not as they seem. The action in the play follows the murder of John Wright by her wife. It is ironic that the men consider women's role as Trifles, yet the victim is one of their own. Besides, the respectable men of the town mandated with the task of investigating the crime are unable to solve the mysterious murder of John. Instead, a group of uneducated women manages to join the various evidence found at the crime scene to unravel the events that led to the murder of John. Suzy Holstein Clarkson, author and former TV personality, considers, Glaspell’s Trifles adeceptive play. The reason for this is that it appears simple almost inconsequential yet "the play represents a profound conflict between two models of perception and behavior" (Holstein 282). The title of the short story followed by several remarks made by some of the characters depict the chauvinistic views of men toward women. Mr. Hale remarks that “women are used to worrying over Trifles” (Glaspell, Trifles, Ch 35 1114).In a way, the audience expects the county attorney as well as the sheriff to be the play's protagonist. However, they are presented as the antagonist because of their degrading criticism towards the female abilities. It is ironic that the men consider women as Trifles, yet the audiences view the latter as heroines in the play. Even in her absence, Minnie Foster is the play’s protagonist. The unseen character of Minnie Foster in the play gives the women a chance to take a position that eludes the men gaze that eroticizes and objectifies female characters. Despite her heinous action of killing her husband, she is still depicted as the play's heroine. All the characters are in her house because of what she did. Besides, both men and women are interested in knowing her, although for different reasons.

Moreover, the setting of the play shows that both men and women approach Mr. Wright’s house from different points of view. The action takes place in the kitchen. According to Yi-Chin, an Associate Professor at Tamkang University, brands Glaspell a feminist geographer (238). As a feminist geographer, Glaspell investigates the different experience of women and men in place and the construction of gender in place. Traditionally, the kitchen was a reserve of the female gender. For this reason, the men do not see anything of value for their investigation in the kitchen. The Sheriff says, "Nothing here but kitchen things" (Glaspell, Trifles, Ch 35 1109). While men views the kitchen as irrelevant in solving the murder of Mr. White, the women prove them wrong. This is a way of Glaspell questioning the men's authority and power. To Yi-Chin, “trifle is a manifestation of “two different modes of judging (244). According to Holstein, from the beginning, “the men and the women in the play perceive the setting from divergent perspectives” (283).On one hand, the men come to a scene of crime with a goal of unearthing the cause of the John’s murder. However, it is ironic that the men conduct the investigation methodologically yet find nothing that they can use against Minnie. This is seen in how the county attorney performs the investigation by the book by interviewing key witness such as Mr. Hale. The men perceive themselves as thorough in their investigation as they think that they have left nothing of importance. However, despite their method, they do not end up collecting any valuable piece of evidence that may connect Minnie Foster with the murder of Mr. Wright. However, the women approach the setting as a home as they try to place themselves in the shoes of Minnie Foster. The women are not interested in unearthing any evidence. It is evident that they encounter the evidence in the process of trying to get some few supplies for Minnie. In Minnie Foster’s sewing box, the women encountered her dead bird (Glaspell, Trifles, Ch 35 1114).Upon further examination of the dead bird, the women discover that it was violently strangled. By depicting women as more thorough and intelligent even when they are neither trained nor prepared while portraying men as incompetent, Glaspell is trying to challenge the gender-based prejudice that discriminates against the female gender.

In addition, Trifles is a murder story, which means that the theme of violence has to emerge definitely. It is a behavior which entails using physical force aimed at hurting, damaging, or killing someone. Generally, it is presumed that where there is death, there is violence.When it comes to this theme, events do not come out clearly. Normally, the audience is forced to perceive the violent killer as a bad person and the afflicted as the victim. In addition, the play brings another form of violence; domestic hostility. According to the women, Mr. Wright subjected his wife to vicious emotional abuses. The females, in defence of Minnie, pointed out that the death of her husband was a retaliation.That is, she was defending herself from the assault and unfortunately culminated in the death of her partner.

Furthermore, it is no secret that the play meets the attributes of a drama. In other words, it is a dialogue brought to life by the actors and actresses. Trifles also has a protagonist (Mr. Wright even though he is dead) and an antagonist (Minnie, the wife). The play is also a mystery; it is obvious that from the start, Minnie takes the life of her husband. Her justification does not make sense at all and is quite insubstantial. Compared to other mysteries, Trifles, is not a conundrum or a puzzle. The primary thing that the audience would love to see is why she snapps and eliminates him. Also, the play may be termed as a parable because it is a straightforward tale with a powerful message. All through, Glaspell strikes the audience with how discourteous and patronizing men may be towards women. Therefore, the use of drama in the play makes it interesting to the audience and readers when watched and read respectively.

Additionally, while men consider women as inept even in their domains, the latter prove them wrong. The women are depicted as having mastered the kitchen as seen in the way they find everything they are looking for with relative ease. Without considering her situation, the men are judgmental toward Minnie Foster. This is manifested in the way the county attorney view Minnie as a lousy housekeeper. The county attorney says about Minnie after kicking his foot against the pans under the sink, “not much of a housekeeper” (Glaspell, Trifles, Ch 35 1110). Besides, the attorney accuses Minnie of possessing no “home-making instincts” (Glaspell, Trifles, Ch 35 1110). However, there are several instances in the play that points to the contrary regarding Minnie Foster’s housekeeping skills. According to Pallaro, while the incomplete works in Minnie’s Kitchen send a message of an incompetent housekeeper to the male character, the women on the hand, interpret it as a sign of a disturbed consciousness. The discovery made by the female characters reveals that she was under duress following the murder of her canary by her husband. Before the death of her husband, Minnie still executed her household chores perfectly. For example, the spoiled fruits show that she had time to preserve food for her family’s future use. The incomplete work may also be a sign that Minnie did not plan for the murder of her husband. Instead, her action of strangling her husband was as a result of John provoking her by killing her bird. Throughout the play, the women do not refer to Minnie Foster as Mrs. Wright. Instead, they refer to her by her name, yet they keep it official when referring to each other. According to Pollaro,a social studies educator at Mariner Middle School, this may be because the women subconsciously consider Minnie Foster a free person after the death of her husband. This is supported by Mrs. Peters’ statement when she says, “Oh, her fruit; it did freeze. She worried about when it turned so cold. She said the fire’d for out and her jar would break” (Glaspell, Trifles, Ch 35 1109). The spoiled fruit symbolizes Minnie Foster’s predicaments at the hand of John Wright and the breaking of the jar depicts her getting the freedom to control her life. This shows that Minnie was a patient and persevering woman and things only gets bad when she is provoked or prevented from exercising her wishes which is to be free. This is not the image the county attorney wants the audience to get about the female characters. As such, while men consider Minnie a lousy keeper, the women reveal that she was mentally disturbed hence the reason for the incomplete work in her kitchen.

Besides, other than judging Minnie as inept, the men are not interested in knowing her situation while women reveal evidence that points to her lonely life that account for her action. Even if the men do not have any evidence that connects Minnie Foster to the murder of her husband, they seem convinced that she is guilty. Before Minnie married John Wright, Mrs. Hale reveals, "She used to wear pretty clothes and be livery, when she was Minnie Foster" (Glaspell, Trifles, Ch 35 1111). According to Yi-Chi, this shows that she was changing in personality. She underwent a metamorphosis that demonstrates that she is deteriorating mentally. There are several images that points to the lonely life that Minnie lives. For example, Minnie loved to sing as symbolized by the bird. According to Pallaro, the bird substitutes the unborn children in Minnie’s marriage. It also helps to ‘displace the silence of a coldly authoritarian’s husband’ (Pallaro). As such, when the women see the bird canary, they sympathize with Minnie. While Mr. Wright sees nothing wrong with killing the bird, the women view his action as symbolic of him strangling his wife. For the women, the caged bird represents Minnie and its strangling depicts her denial of the right to communicate with other women. Throughout the story, there is no evidence that may suggest that Minnie was ever physically abused by her husband. However, women unearth the other side of the story that reveals that she endured emotional torture as manifested by the jar of cherries. The jar of cherries symbolizes the kind of life that Minnie lived with her husband before she decided to kill him. In addition,the jar of cherries conveys the message of the coldness of Minnie’s marriage as well as her general life. Some of the emotional torture experienced by Minnie can be seen through a flashback of her life before her marriage till when she murdered her husband. However, although the men have come to investigate the motive for the murder of John, they seem to be convinced that Minnie maliciously killed her husband. This notion is challenged by women as they find evidence that shows that she did not plan to kill her husband. The women discover one of the pieces of clothing that Minnie was making, but it seems that it is not nicely done at the end. Mrs. Hale says “why it looks as if she didn’t know what she was about (Glaspell, Trifles, Ch 35 1113). This shows that Minnie tried to fathom the killing of her canary by her husband but was overpowered by emotions.

Similarly, while the men perceive Minnie as the criminal, the women view her as a victim. For the women,John subjected Minnie Foster to social isolation and psychological torture that makes him a criminal for ruining his wife’s life. For example, he failed to consent to the party-telephone that would have connected her to the rest of the society. For Mrs. Wright, the party-line telephone is unnecessary expenditure. John is considered a good man in the way he does not drink, pays his debts and keep his words. However, the women have a different view of him as upon the further investigation of the crime scene, “the women reveal that Minnie is restricted within the private without a social life” (Yi-chi 245). Mrs. Hale reveals to the women the true nature of John as she says, “But he was a hard man, Mrs. Peters. Just to pass the time of day with him. Like a raw wind that gets to the bone” (Glaspell, Trifles, Ch 35 1111). This information helps shape the events that happens at the end of the plays. Throughout the play, Mrs. Peters is depicted a strict follower of the law as seen in her statement “the law is the law” (Glaspell, Trifles, Ch 35 1112). She does not condone or sympathize with Minnie Foster. However, towards the end of the play, she seems to have changed her position on the issue of justice. This is after she learns of the strangled canary. The dead bird makes the women to view Mr. Wright as the greatest criminal for preventing Minnie from communicating with other women (Pollaro). Besides, Mrs. Peters resonates with Minnie Foster even if she did not know her prior to the incidence. When she sees the strangled canary, Mrs. Peters recalls her kitten that was killed by a boy while she was young. She shows her understanding of what a person can do when provoked or angry as she says that was it not for people who restrained her, she could have murdered the boy who killed her kitten. Besides, Mrs. Peters shows that she understandsMinnie’s lonely life when she recounts the death of her first baby (Yi-chin 245). After unveiling the cruel nature of Mr. Wright as well as the lonely life that Minnie Foster lived, the women’s perception of her changes. They are convinced that she is a victim while her dead husband is the criminal.

Finally, the play Trifles by Susan Glaspell is centered on the exploration of the social division brought about by the strict gender roles that allow both men and women to have competing perspectives on almost every issue. This is seen in the way the men disregard the kitchen as they consider it as not having anything of value. From the beginning, both women and men occupy different positions. For example, the women are mere visitors to Minnie Foster’s house while the men have come for official duty. Additionally, the men are convinced that Minnie is responsible for the murder of her husband, but women view her as a victim and the dead husband as the criminal. This is based on the events that resulted in Minnie actions. The women reveal that Minnie was provoked when she decided to kill her husband. The dead bird symbolizes Minnie’s only companion. As such, by strangling it, John Wright was inviting trouble, and as such he is the victimizer and not Minnie. From the title, the men consider women as unimportant. They even disregard the women's role in the society in the way they challenge Minnie's housekeeping skills. Besides, throughout the course of their investigation, they do not ask the women if at all they have found anything of value. However, Glaspell elevates the position of women by depicting them as more thorough and intelligent in the way they analyze the crime scene and come up with a plausible explanation. Besides, the women challenge the notion held by the men that Minnie was a lousy housekeeper by depicting her as someone who was mentally disturbed by the events surrounding the death of her canary. As such, Trifles has demonstrated that Susan Glaspell was interested in portraying the competing perspectives of men and women in their approach to different social issues.

Works Cited

Glaspell, Susan. Trifles. New York, NY : Frank Shay, the Washington Square Players, 1916. Print.

Holstein, Suzy Clarkson. "Silent Justice in a Different Key: Glaspell's"Trifles."The Midwest Quarterly 44.3 (2003): 282.

Pollaro, Cindy. "Glaspell". N.p., 2016. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.

Yi-Chin, Shih. "Place and Gender In Susan Glaspell’s Trifles and Woman’s Warrior", Humanitas Taiwanica, May 2013, 237-256.,10 Oct. 2016.

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The Play "Trifles" by Susan Glaspell. A Look at Gender and Role
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Selina Kolls (Author), 2016, The Play "Trifles" by Susan Glaspell. A Look at Gender and Role, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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