Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles”
is a play about the effect of gender differences on perceptions of duty, law,
and justice. The asphyxiation murder of John Wright drew Sheriff Henry Peters
and his wife, local attorney George Henderson, and neighbor Lewis Hale and his
wife to the Wrights’ farmhouse to collect evidence against John’s Wife, Minnie,
the suspected killer. The title “Trifles” comes from Hale stating, “Well women
are used to worrying over trifles.” (86) While the men search for evidence in
the Wrights’ bedroom, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters discover Mrs. Wrights’ dead
bird, which was killed from a neck injury. Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale sympathized
with Minnie, realizing that Minnie’s husband was abusive and hid the dead bird
from their husbands. The continuous ridicule from the men about women being obsessed
with trifle details forced Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters to hide the bird so it
could not be used as evidence against Minnie. The men’s ridicule against Minnie
and all women in general ultimately united Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters to hide
the evidence they found so that Minnie could not be charged.
Looking over the
course of time, women have concurred many obstacles since the 1800s. Women were
franchised in every home, to be seen but not heard, to complete daily chores
such as cleaning, cooking, sewing and motherhood, and do as their husband asked.
The play “Trifles,” characterizes women in a position of judgment by men, who
examine them for their home economic skills, never being acknowledged, and
ridiculed to a breaking point of incompetence. Women in “Trifles” were judged
based on how well they took care of their home and while Hale, Henderson and
Peters searched the Wrights’ home, this was dramatized greatly. George Henderson
gallantly states, “Dirty Towels! … Not much of a housekeeper, would you say
ladies?” (91) Henderson was criticizing Minnie because her house roller-towel
was considered dirty to Henderson’s standards. Men wanted the best of the best
and if it was not good enough, it would be known. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters
were offended by the men’s remarks and Mrs. Hale stated to Mrs. Peters when the
men where no longer in hearing range, “I’d hate to have men coming into my
kitchen, snooping around and criticizing.” (118) Henderson, Hale and Peters
believe their duty is to look at Mr. Wrights point of view before his death. The
men see the Wright’s relationship from an outsider’s stance and they know Mr.
Wright to be a hard man but have no reason to believe that he abused his wife.
This causes the men to overlook Mrs. Wright’s living conditions or spousal
abuse as a motive. However, if abuse was considered in this case, it would most
likely be thrown out in the sexist society of the farm community. Meanwhile,
the women look at Mrs. Wright’s extremity and what it must have been like to
live in a house with no escape and no company other than the hard Mr. Wright,
who she was attempting to escape. They understate their thoughts by consoling
themselves, “Somehow we just don’t see how it is with other folks until-
something comes up.” (221)
In the play “Trifles”, Glaspell acknowledges the behavioral
difference between men and women. Henderson, Peters and Hale believe they have
the duty to find Mrs. Wright guilty of murder, however Mrs. Peters and Mrs.
Hale do not believe Mrs. Wright should be found guilty. The five main characters
arrive to the Wrights farmhouse to investigate the murder of John Wright. The
women are timidly waiting near the fire as the men discuss Hale’s encounter
from the previous day. The men are determined to find evidence inside the
Wrights bedroom but do not ask the women for assistance. With multiple trips to
the Wrights bedroom, the men have no success in finding any evidence that can
be used against Minnie. Unlike the men, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale were able to find
evidence against Minnie because of their ‘trifle’ attention to detail. The
women were able to uncover Minnie’s dead bird because as they were looking over
Minnie’s quilt she was sewing, they noticed that Minnie’s sewing became messy. “All
the rest of it has been so nice and even. And look at this! It’s all over the
place! Why, it looks as if she didn’t know what she was about!” (182)
Men and women have a time-honored difference in how they
view the law. The overlooked women, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, became the
delicate detectives who, discounted by the men, discovered all the clues that
displayed a female to be disillusioned. According to Mr. Henderson, “… a
sheriff’s wife is married to the law,” and is a reliable follower of the law.
Henderson is indicating that because Mrs. Peters is married to the sheriff, she
must follow the law to a ‘T’ or she is a lawbreaker.
Justice is defined differently from the men and women in “Trifles”.
The men want Minnie to be convicted of murder, whereas the women hide the
evidence of Minnie’s emotional state out of respect for the years of abuse
Minnie suffered at the hands of her husband. Mrs. Hale slightly blames herself
for the murder of Mr. Wright because she didn’t visit the Wright’s house
enough. Mrs. Hale believed that if she had visited more, if she made it
cheerful with her presence then the house wouldn’t have felt as hollow and miserable
to Minnie. When Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters discovered Minnie’s canary cage, they
both realized that neither of them new that she had a bird. Mrs. Hale and Mrs.
Peters believed that the canary, which of course had to be caged, was
represented as the old Minnie. The canary was a beautiful, free spirited bird
that had a sweet voice, as Minnie had at one time before Mr. Wright had
brutally killed the canary, just as he mentally killed Minnie. Minnie made the first and ‘final’ decision she
had ever been allowed to make and that was by killing her husband. The bird’s
cage was her jail, which Mr. Wright had created. The bird’s death was her
freedom for the fate of the bird was the fate of her husband. The discovery of John
with a rope tied around his neck symbolized the same fate that John had on
Minnie and her canary. Minnie could no longer be held down and taught Mrs. Hale
and Mrs. Peters that they were capable of more. Because of Mrs. Hale and Mrs.
Peters response to thinking like Minnie, they were able to acknowledge the deep
torture that Minnie was facing. Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale served as an
impromptu jury and chose to dismiss the murder charge against Minnie in the
name of justice.
Men and women have always been known to have uncanny differences.
Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles” defines these differenced in a play about the effect
of gender differences on perceptions of duty, law, and justice. The continuous
criticism and abuse that the women in “Trifles” faced prompted Minnie Wright to
take matters into her own hands. The death of Mr. Wright was solved by Mrs.
Hale and Mrs. Peters but Minnie will never be charged because Henderson, Peters
and Hale will never have the mindset to pay attention to the details that they
define as trifles.