Farmer John Wright has been murdered. While he lay asleep in the middle of the night, someone strung a rope around his neck. And that someone might have been his wife, the quiet and forlorn Minnie Wright.
Written in 1916, Susan Glaspell’s one-act play Trifles is loosely based on true events. As a young reporter, Glaspell covered a murder case in a small town in Iowa. Years later, she crafted a short play inspired by her experiences and observations. Read this brief biography of playwright Susan Glaspell.
The sheriff, his wife, the county attorney, and the neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Hale, enter the kitchen of the Wright household. Mr. Hale explains how he paid a visit to the house on the previous day. Once there, Mrs. Wright greeted him but behaved strangely. She eventually stated in a dull voice that her husband was upstairs, dead.
Note: Though Mrs. Wright is the central figure in the play, she never appears onstage. She is only referred to by the on-stage characters.
The audience learns of John Wright’s murder through Mr. Hale’s exposition. He is the first (aside from Mrs. Wright) to discover the body. We also learn that Mrs. Wright claimed that she was sound asleep while someone strangled her husband. It seems obvious to the male characters that she killed her husband, and she has been taken into custody as the prime suspect.
The attorney and sheriff decide that there is nothing important in the room: “Nothing here but kitchen things.” (Feminist Criticism Hint: This line is the first of many disparaging comments said to minimize the importance of women in society.) The men criticize Mrs. Wright’s housekeeping skills, irking Mrs. Hale and the sheriff’s wife, Mrs. Peters.
The men exit, heading upstairs to investigate the crime scene. The women remain in the kitchen. Chatting to pass the time, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters notice vital details that the men would not care about:
- Ruined fruit preserves.
- Bread that has been left out of its box.
- An unfinished quilt.
- A half clean / half messy table top.
- An empty bird cage.
Unlike the men who are looking for forensic evidence to solve the crime, the women in Susan Glaspell's Trifles observe clues that reveal the bleakness of Mrs. Wright’s emotional life. They theorize that Mr. Wright’s cold, oppressive nature must have been dreary to live with. Mrs. Hale comments about Mrs. Wright being childless: “Not having children makes less work – but it makes a quiet house.” To the women, they are simply trying to pass the awkward moments with civil conversation. But to the audience, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters unveil a psychological profile of a desperate housewife.
What Happened to the Bird?
When gathering up the quilting material, they discover a fancy little box. Inside, wrapped in silk is a dead canary. Its neck has been wrung. The implication is that Minnie’s husband did not like the canary’s beautiful song (a symbol of his wife’s desire for freedom and happiness). So, Mr. Wright busted the cage door and strangled the bird.
Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters do not tell the men about their discovery. Instead, Mrs. Hale puts the box with the deceased bird into her coat pocket – resolving not to tell the men about this little “trifle” they have uncovered.
The play ends with the characters exiting the kitchen and the women announcing that they have determined Mrs. Wright’s quilt making style. (She “knots it” instead of “quilts it” – a play with words denoting the way in which she killed her husband.)
Theme: Men Do Not Appreciate Women
The men within this play betray a sense of self-importance. They present themselves as tough, serious-minded detectives, when in truth they are not nearly as observant as the female characters. Their pompous attitude causes the women to feel defensive and form ranks. Not only do Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters bond, but they choose to hide evidence as an act of compassion for Mrs. Wright. Stealing the box with the dead bird is an act of loyalty to their gender and an act of defiance against a callous patriarchal society.
Characters of Trifles:
Mrs. Hale: She had not visited the Wright household for over a year because of its bleak, cheerless atmosphere. She believes that Mr. Wright is responsible for crushing the merriment out of Mrs. Wright. Now, Mrs. Hale feels guilty for not visiting more often. She believes she could have improved Mrs. Wright’s outlook on life.
Mrs. Peter: She has tagged along to bring back clothes for the imprisoned Mrs. Wright. She can relate to the suspect because they both know about “stillness.” Mrs. Peters reveals that her first child died at the age of two. Because of this tragic experience, Mrs. Peters understands what it is like to lose a loved one (in Mrs. Wright’s case it was her songbird).
Mrs. Wright: Before she was married to John Wright, she was Minnie Foster. She was more cheerful in her youth. Her clothes were more colorful. She loved to sing. Those attributes diminished after her wedding day. Mrs. Hale describes Mrs. Wright’s personality:
"She was kind of like a bird herself – real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and – fluttery. How – she – did – change."