Symbolic realism in Susan Glaspell’s 'Trifles'

Seminar Paper, 2005

20 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Minnie’s Misery and Her Brutal Way out
A. The Signs of Isolation and Silence
B. A Marriage without Love
C. Minnie’s Suppressed Creativity
D. John’s Strangling as the Symbolic Revenge

III. Glaspell’s Critique on Gender Roles
A. Symbolic Characters’ Names
B. Women’s Superiority in the Investigation Process
C. The Quilt as a Text to Be Read

IV. Conclusion

V. Bibliography
A. Primary Sources
B. Secondary Sources

I. Introduction

Susan Glaspell’s (1876-1948) literary career increased in significance when she and her husband George Cram Cook moved to their summer residence in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 1915. They founded the Provincetown Players, a group of dramatists who were about to change the development of American literature considerably.[1] Against the more commercial and conventional Broadway plays, they shifted, as a part of the "’little theatre’ movement,"[2] the stage into a fisher’s house and performed experimental plays. One of these plays was Trifles,[3] Susan Glaspell’s most reputed dramatic piece, which was first produced in 1916 and published in 1920.[4] Her "first solo one-act play"[5] is based on the Hossack’s case, a real murder incident in Iowa on December 2, 1900 when she was a news reporter.[6] Her reflection of this incident deals with an investigation process which takes place in the farmhouse of the murdered John Wright and his imprisoned wife Minnie. The officials, Mr. Peters (the Sheriff), the County Attorney and the neighbour Mr. Hale, search for evidences in this house to convict Minnie of the murder. At the same time, the Sheriff’s and Mr. Hale’s wives, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, are supposed to collect clothes for Minnie. While they are in the kitchen, they encounter the important evidences to draw conclusions of Minnie’s miserable life, her deed and, hence, take the opportunity to influence the case by concealing the most crucial evidence from the men.

The play is innovative, among other things, in the respect that the main characters are absent and that Glaspell, as a consequence, creates a second explanatory level by means of symbols underneath the plot surface. This level circumscribes in detail Minnie’s misery and the reasons for killing her husband. By the same means Glaspell also generally criticizes the traditional gender roles by empowering the female characters and undercutting male authority. In the following, I will analyze the role of symbols in the play in this thematic order. In the first part, I will consider the motives of isolation and silence, a marriage without love and Minnie’s suppressed creativity that lead to the symbolic revenge. In the second part, the characters’ names, their actions and stage properties will give more insight on Glaspell’s view on gender relations.

II. Minnie’s Misery and Her Brutal Way out

A. The Signs of Isolation and Silence

The first impression of Minnie’s isolated life is conveyed by means of the setting, in detail by the abandoned farmhouse and the kitchen. Before the action takes place, Glaspell especially attaches importance to the description of the gothic scene. The "now abandoned farmhouse"[7] creates the impression that there must have been people, maybe a whole family, and possibly animals. When Glaspell comes closer to the actual place of action, the kitchen, it is "gloomy"[8], empty, dark and things are half-done – on the whole an uninviting place. In the course of the play, the recipient recognizes that the farm is far away from the road in midst of a harsh nature in Iowa. Mrs. Hale characterizes the place by stating that she "stayed away because it weren’t cheerful […] [She] never liked this place. Maybe because it’s down in a hollow and you don’t see the road […] [a] lonesome place."[9]

These circumstances reveal a lot about Minnie and her life. As the farmhouse, she lived far away from neighbours and, hence, did not have interhuman contact. That made an uncheerful and cold person of her. Hedges found out that the "isolation induced madness in many. The rate of insanity in rural areas, especially for women, was a much discussed subject in the second half of the nineteenth century."[10] Indeed, the half-done things such as the "unwashed pans under the sink, the loaf of bread outside the bread box [and] a dish towel on the table"[11] signalize that the housewife must have had an unsettled state of mind or, as Noe states, "these props help to establish the presence of a disturbed consciousness."[12] In addition, the unfinished daily tasks disclose that Minnie must have killed John shortly after the strangling of her beloved bird.[13]

Moreover, within these four walls Glaspell establishes a symbol-system of ordinary kitchen things to indicate Minnie’s entrapment and her lack of communication. When Mr. Hale is interviewed by the County Attorney in the initial part of the play, he says that he and other neighbours planned a party-telephone and that they intended to include the Wright family to that circuit. However, John Wright refused that proposal stating that he only needs "peace and quiet."[14] This break in communication and solidarity with the houses in the vicinity of the farmhouse shows that this "party-line telephone was more than an unnecessary expense [for] [John]; it was a threat to the growing sense of exclusivity and possession. […] Minnie was his alone."[15] He cut Minnie’s opportunity to communicate and, hence, to break out of his prison. Ironically, this takes place at a time in the early twentieth century when innovative communication technologies, such as the telex, started to connect previously abandoned places.[16] This circumstance can lead to the question in how far Minnie was responsible for the murder. One can argue if she was just a helpless executioner and, thus, John the "greater criminal."[17] On the one hand, this is true since it is inhuman to cut communication with others, however, on the other hand, it can be doubted if solely this fact justifies such a deed.

Other objects standing for isolation are the preserves on the shelf. Minnie herself was "bottled up" in the house and in the kitchen as cherries in a jar. Indeed, she must have felt like a jar of cherries on a shelf herself, far away from the city and quietly living down in a gloomy house.[18]

Moreover, that concept of loneliness and isolation can be observed by considering Minnie’s bird cage. In it the bird, the symbol of freedom, is being trapped until it dies. The same is due for Minnie who lives, caged by John, in silence and isolation away from other people. It also resembles her poverty, a fact that is indicated by her shabby clothes.

A symbolic action, which also gives more insight on her isolated situation, is that she used to knot in the kitchen on her own. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century most women were aiming at collective activities in order to have a change from their daily routine, to share experiences or to talk about daily events. Hedges finds more reasons for joining, for instance, a quilting club: "[In] the Ladies Aid women would have spent their time sewing, braiding carpets, and quilting, in order to raise money for the foreign missionaries."[19] In contrast to that, Minnie did neither have social contacts nor raised money for charities. Accordingly, she is in a way antisocial and out of societal life. Before she was taken to jail, she was sitting, according to the story of Mr. Hale, "queer"[20] on the rocking chair in the corner of the room. This place reaffirms her "marginalized and outlaw status."[21] When Mrs. Hale touches the empty chair during the investigation it "rocks back and forth"[22] which gives the feeling that Minnie’s spirit is still in the room, that she somehow witnesses the place of action and supervises if justice is done to her.

Finally, there is more to the fact that Minnie wants her apron for jail. Mrs. Peters wonders that it is a "funny thing to want, for there isn’t much to get you dirty in jail."[23] Some critics found that the apron also stands for Minnie’s imprisonment. According to Alkalay-Gut, the apron is not essential for Minnie in prison. However, it is decisive for her personal belief that she is a serving slave.[24] It is forceful that she needs the archetypical symbol of a good housewife in a real prison, however, not for practical use but to symbolize that she moved from one prison to another.[25]


[1] Donna Winchell, "Susan Glaspell,"The Wadsworth Casebook Series for Reading, Research, and Writing: Trifles, ed. Donna Winchell (Boston: Wadsworth, 2004) 13-14, here: 13.

[2] Donna Winchell, "’Trifles’: Making It New,"The Wadsworth Casebook Series for Reading, Research, and Writing: Trifles, ed. Donna Winchell (Boston: Wadsworth, 2004) 3-9, here: 7.

[3] Susan Glaspell, "Trifles,"Plays by American Women 1910-1930 (New York: Applause, 1985) 70-86. Henceforth, all page numbers refer to this edition.

[4] Donna Winchell, "’Trifles’: Making It New," 3.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Trifles, 72.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Trifles, 81.

[10] Linda Hedges, "Small Things Reconsidered. ‘A Jury of Her Peers’," In: Linda Ben-Zvi, Susan Glaspell – Essays on Her Theatre and Fiction (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995) 49-69, here: 59.

[11] Trifles, 72.

[12] Marsha Noe, "Reconsidering the Subject/Recuperating Realism: Susan Glaspell’s Unseen Woman,"American Drama 4 (Spring 1995) 36-54, here:39.

[13] Beverly A. Smith, "Women’s Work – Trifles ? The Skill and Insights of Playwright Susan Glaspell,"International Journal of Women’s Studies 5 (March 1982) 172-84, here: 182.

[14] Trifles, 73.

[15] Smith, 180.

[16] Hedges, 54.

[17] Karen Alkaly-Gut, "’Jury of Her Peers’: The Importance of Trifles,"Studies in Short Fiction 21 (Winter 1984) 1-9, here: 7.

[18] Smith, 175.

[19] Hedges, 61.

[20] Trifles, 73.

[21] Veronica Makowsky, Susan Glaspell’s Century of American Women (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) 63.

[22] Trifles, 78.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Karen Alkalay-Gut, "Murder and Marriage: Another Look at Trifles,"The Wadsworth Casebook Series for Reading, Research, and Writing: Trifles, ed. Donna Winchell (Boston: Wadsworth, 2004) 51-60, here: 52.

[25] Hedges, 65.

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Symbolic realism in Susan Glaspell’s 'Trifles'
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An extensive analysis of the symbol system in Susan Glaspell's drama "Trifles".
Symbolic, Susan, Glaspell’s, Trifles
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Mathias Keller (Author), 2005, Symbolic realism in Susan Glaspell’s 'Trifles', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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