Trifles Summary, Characters and Themes | Susan Glaspell

“Trifles,” a one-act play by Susan Glaspell, is an exploration of gender roles and the subtlety of human relationships, set against the backdrop of a murder investigation in rural America. 

The play, inspired by the real-life 1900 murder of Iowa farmer John Hossack, delves into the overlooked details – the ‘trifles’ – that reveal a deeper truth.

Summary

The story unfolds in the cold, empty Wright farmhouse, immediately following the strangling of John Wright. Among the central characters are the County Attorney George Henderson, Sheriff Henry Peters, and Mr. Hale, a neighbor.

Their dialogue reveals the dismissive attitudes towards women at the time, as they trivialize Mrs. Wright’s concerns and domestic efforts. They are oblivious to the significance of the clues that Mrs. Wright’s environment holds.

In contrast, the women characters, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, display empathy and insight as they uncover crucial evidence in the kitchen. While the men are upstairs, the women discuss Mrs. Wright’s life, piecing together a picture of her unhappy marriage. 

They find a quilt Mrs. Wright was working on, with some sections poorly sewn, hinting at her disturbed state of mind. Their discovery of a birdcage and a dead canary wrapped in silk suggests a symbolic connection to Mrs. Wright’s life – the loss of her own freedom and joy.

The play reaches its climax when the women, having understood the motive behind the murder, choose to conceal the evidence (the dead canary) from the men. 

This decision reflects their silent solidarity with Mrs. Wright, acknowledging the oppression she endured.

trifles summary

Characters

George Henderson (County Attorney)

George Henderson is the county attorney involved in investigating John Wright’s murder.

He is depicted as professional and focused on the legal aspects of the case, often overlooking the emotional and domestic details that might be crucial to understanding the crime. His dismissive attitude toward the women’s perspectives reflects the gender biases of the time.

Henry Peters (Sheriff)

Henry Peters, the sheriff, is tasked with investigating the crime scene alongside George Henderson. He shares Henderson’s perspective, largely ignoring the domestic space and its significance.

Peters is also the husband of Mrs. Peters, one of the key figures in uncovering the true motive behind the murder.

Lewis Hale

Lewis Hale is a neighboring farmer who discovered John Wright’s body. His recounting of the events leading to the discovery is crucial to the narrative.

He represents the outside world’s intrusion into the Wright household, initiating the investigation. His observations and interactions with Mrs. Wright provide key insights into the day of the murder.

Mrs. Hale

Mrs. Hale is a neighbor of the Wrights and plays a pivotal role in unveiling the motive behind John Wright’s murder. She empathizes with Minnie Wright’s plight, reflecting on the hardships faced by women.

Her understanding of domestic life and her observations in the Wright household help piece together the emotional and psychological context of the murder.

Mrs. Peters

Mrs. Peters is the wife of Sheriff Henry Peters and becomes an unlikely investigator alongside Mrs. Hale. Although initially hesitant to oppose the law, her sympathy for Minnie Wright grows as she uncovers evidence of John Wright’s abuse.

Her transformation from a law-abiding citizen to an empathetic ally to Mrs. Hale highlights the power of female solidarity.

John Wright

John Wright, the murdered farmer, is depicted posthumously through the characters’ discussions. Known for his hard and cold demeanor, his treatment of his wife, Minnie Wright, is central to understanding the motive behind his murder.

He represents the oppressive force in Minnie’s life, leading to a desperate act of violence.

Minnie Wright

Minnie Wright, the wife of John Wright, is the central figure around whom the story revolves, despite never appearing on stage. Her life and transformation from a young, lively girl to a subdued and isolated wife form the crux of the investigation.

The evidence found by Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters reveals her as a victim of domestic abuse, culminating in the murder of her husband as a desperate act of liberation.

Themes

1. The Significance of ‘Trifles’ in Understanding Human Experiences

One of the key lessons of “Trifles” is the importance of paying attention to small details or ‘trifles’ in understanding the full spectrum of human experiences and emotions. 

The play demonstrates how seemingly insignificant objects and observations – like the broken jars of preserves, the unfinished quilt, or the dead canary – can be deeply symbolic and reveal underlying truths about a person’s life. 

This lesson extends beyond the realm of detective work to everyday life, emphasizing that understanding someone’s actions or character often requires observing and valuing the nuances and subtleties in their behavior and environment.

2. The Impact of Gender Roles and Societal Expectations

“Trifles” vividly portrays the gender dynamics of the early 20th century, highlighting how societal expectations and gender roles can profoundly impact individuals’ lives. 

The play shows the dismissive attitudes of the male characters towards the female characters and their domestic environment, which ironically leads them to overlook crucial evidence. 

This lesson underscores the danger of underestimating individuals based on gender stereotypes and reminds us of the need to recognize and challenge such biases in society. 

It also illustrates how women’s experiences and contributions, especially in domestic settings, have historically been undervalued or ignored, leading to a lack of understanding and empathy towards their struggles.

3. Empathy as a Path to Truth and Solidarity

A profound theme from “Trifles” is the power of empathy in uncovering the truth and fostering solidarity. 

The female characters, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, exhibit a deep understanding and empathy towards Mrs. Wright’s situation. 

This empathy allows them to perceive and interpret the evidence in a way the men cannot, leading them to the likely motive behind the murder. The play suggests that empathy is not just a social virtue but a crucial tool in truly understanding and connecting with others. 

It also highlights the solidarity that can arise from shared experiences, as seen in the women’s decision to protect Mrs. Wright by hiding the evidence, acknowledging the oppression and suffering she endured in silence. 

This lesson reminds us of the importance of empathy in our interactions with others, urging us to look beyond the surface and connect with the deeper human experiences that shape actions and decisions.

Final Thoughts

Glaspell’s play is a masterful critique of the gender dynamics of her time, revealing how societal norms can blind people to the truth. The title “Trifles” is deeply ironic, as the play shows that what men consider trivial can actually hold the key to understanding profound human experiences. The play remains a powerful commentary on how easily the depth of women’s lives and experiences can be overlooked.

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