Susan Glaspell’s one-act play “Trifles” takes place in a farmhouse where a man has just died. The county attorney, the sheriff, a neighbor, and the neighbor and sheriff’s wives are all gathered in the house and Mrs. Wright, the wife of the man who has died, is accused of his murder. According to her, she was asleep in bed next to her husband when someone came and killed him by tying a rope around his neck. Naturally, once the neighbor explains what he found when he entered the house to try to talk to Mr. Wright, the men’s’ suspicion immediately falls on Mrs. Wright.
The women, however, believer that there may be more to the story. While the men are investigating the bedroom and the rest of the house, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters begin their own investigation in the kitchen and the hallway, finding an unfinished quilt and an empty, bent birdcage. They wonder aloud to one another what happened to the bird, as there is no cat in the house. Soon, however, they find it gently wrapped in fabric and tucked away, clearly being prepared for burial. As they speak more, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters begin to understand that Mrs. Wright was being abused by her husband and he likely killed the bird, then she killed him in a fit of either rage or being fed up at his treatment of her.
Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale hide the bird, as it is evidence against Mrs. Wright. They know that the men would do little more than look at the cold, hard facts of the case, regardless of the backstory. Rather than tell the men what they found, they allow them to believe they spent the whole time they were alone talking about how they would fix the unfinished quilt. These women make it clear where their allegiances lie. At the time of this play’s publication, women were not allowed to vote for four more years. Women were not treated as equal partners in marital relationships, but as live-in maids, cooks, and bearers of children. One of the women even observes that before she was married, Mrs. Wright was lively and happy, singing and dancing and being a social butterfly.
It is clear when the men are speaking that they have little regard for the feelings or humanity of the women in their lives. The county attorney takes the opportunity of being in the Wrights’ kitchen, criticizing Mrs. Wright’s homemaking and then turning around and saying “well, women are used to worrying over trifles” (Glaspell). After a while more of the county attorney complaining that the towels aren’t clean enough and the house not welcoming enough, Mrs. Hale makes it clear that she is very irritated by the men’s callous attitude.
During one of the attorney’s complaint sessions, Mrs. Hale pointedly says, “men’s hands aren’t always as clean as they might be” (Glaspell). She is very clear about her feelings as to how the men are handling this case; men aren’t innocent in situations such as this, regardless of who killed who. While Mrs. Wright did murder her husband, it was after likely decades of abuse. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, by hiding evidence, may be breaking the law but are doing what they believe to be morally right.
Almost without words, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale agreed to break the law and hide evidence so that their friend could have a chance at happiness and freedom. She wasn’t even a close friend, really, but the two of them understood exactly what Mrs. Wright was going through. They understood how it felt to be oppressed by men and have one’s identity taken by the force of marriage, and so they enable Mrs. Wright to escape without punishment.
This play is a searing critique of the way women were treated in the early 20th century. Rather than being equal citizens, they were maid and cooks the man of the house could sleep with without his wife finding out, because the woman in question WAS his wife. Mr. Hale says at one point that “women are used to worrying over trifles” (Glaspell). While this statement in and of itself may not seem so bad, he was saying it in the context of mocking Mrs. Wright’s homemaking while simultaneously accusing her of murder. Despite the seriousness of the situation, the men see fit to joke and make light of Mrs. Wright’s suffering. None of the women are taken seriously, which when combined with a dead bird could have made Mrs. Wright finally snap.
What makes Mrs. Wright’s unfortunate descent even sadder is that she used to sing and dance and was loved by many throughout the town. Mr. Wright is described as a hard man, and Mrs. Hale observes that whatever light was in his wife was snuffed out once they were married. She says, “Wright wouldn’t like the bird—a thing that sang. She used to sing. He killed that, too” (Glaspell). Considering the county attorney’s words about homemaking and Mr. Hale’s comment about women concerning themselves with trifles, it is not a stretch to say that what was unimportant to the men during this time was viewed as frivolous and silly, no matter what it was.
“Trifles,” then, is an accurate and loaded title. It refers not only to the “trifles” the women supposedly occupy their time thinking about, it encompasses the feeling of the entire work. If it didn’t concern men or masculinity, any activity was deemed a trifle. The county attorney and Mr. Hale did their best to delegitimize Mrs. Wright’s “trifles,” such as quilting and making jam. Constantly being ridiculed for “trifling” interests, combined with the death of her bird, combined with likely abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband was more than enough to make Mrs. Wright decide enough was enough.
- Glaspell, Susan. “Trifles.” Trifles. Ed. Frank Shay. New York City: n.p., 1916. N. pag. Trifles. One-actplays.com. Web. 13 Mar. 2017.