Trifles is a famous one-act play by Susan Glaspell, first performed in 1916 and is widely acclaimed by the critics as the feminist drama.
The play presents a story of two Midwestern women who by accident discover the revealing details of the John Wright’s murder, a farmer who was strangled in his sleep. Even though the two women uncover that farmer’s wife, Minnie, killed her husband, they, united by their sense of female companionship against arrogance of men who scorn and disrespect them, decide to conceal the evidence from their husbands and the authorities.
This paper analyzes the matter of symbolism in Trifles, explaining how it helps the female characters in the play to justify their actions of concealing the critical evidence about the murder from their husbands. Furthermore, the paper discusses the symbolism in Trifles in an attempt to explain how men’s disdain and haughtiness prompted their women to move “closer together” in their fight against male dominance in the society.
Gender symbolism in Trifles is very pronounced, which carries a deeper meaning to the readers who are prompted to analyze the characters’ words, the objects, and actions in the play (Ben-Zvi 142).
Notably, Glaspell empowers her characters to fight male dominance without any form of aggression, while only using their cleverness and unity in their struggle. The play turns out to be a game of intelligence between men and women, each confined in their own domestic space (Al-Khalili 132).
The disrespectful attitude of men to undermine and ignore the women’s space as unimportant or trivial make the Sheriff Peters and others miss the crucial piece of evidence located in the kitchen (Hinz-Bode 57). The women, on the other hand, take advantage of the men’s ego and decide to hide the evidence, which provides the important clues in the case.
Glaspell introduces the marked division between men and women from the opening lines of the play. Quite symbolically, as the door opens into the kitchen, the Sheriff and other men enter the house; while they are merely followed by Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale who remain standing by the door. Immediately, the County Attorney shows his authority by inviting the women to the fire, “Come up to the fire, ladies” and starting to question the individuals present in the room; the woman (Mrs. Peters) denies the invitation, also illustrating humbleness, “I'm not cold” (line 1-3). To continue, the story’s unequal relationships between genders become evident when the County Attorney discovers Mrs. Wright's broken jars of fruit preserves, exclaiming “Here's a nice mess” (36). Such disrespectful comment serves as the motivation for one of the woman to make a gentle remark, “Oh, her fruit; it did freeze”, which nevertheless leads to an even more arrogant commentary on the men’s part and which serves as the basis for the play’s title:
County Attorney: I guess before we're through she may have something more serious than preserves to worry about.
Hale: Well, women are used to worrying over trifles. (The two women move a little closer together) (42-43).
The above lines are critical to the reader in understanding and making sense of the story’s symbolic fight between the men and women. Even though the play only begins to unfold at this stage, the set of the events are already predetermined. The women behave in the polite and respectful manner; at the same time, they are deeply suffering and acknowledging the male disdain towards them.
Such state of affairs prompts them to rapidly unite and “move a little closer together”, creating a firm female companionship to help and support each other.
The above passage clearly illustrates the clash between genders, which is present in the society despite not being openly stated or discussed (Ben-Zvi 144).
Furthermore, it is this very arrogance and scorn illustrated by men towards the women, which prompts the last to unite and eventually conceal the evidence, showing sympathy towards another female, Minnie Wright. Initially, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are portrayed by Glaspell as the two women who have little in common. At the same time, the haughty remarks of the men serve as the trigger for the women to start uniting and building companionship.
The comment of the County Attorney regarding the state of the Minnie’s kitchen is a vivid symbol of the male dominance and disdain towards women in the society of those days.
The act of the women to move closer together and the subsequent decision to conceal critical evidence in the murder case is a defense against direct male superiority, “not necessarily on the grounds of a supposedly innate femaleness” (Hinz-Bode 58).
By ignoring kitchen as the useless women’s space, the men move to the bedroom where they believe they can find evidence related to the murder. Interestingly, the division between male and female space in the household is also supported by women.
Not only do men feel uncomfortable getting near the kitchen because it is a woman's space, but the women too dislike the presence of men in their domain, “I’d hate to have men coming into my kitchen, snooping around and criticizing” (63).
Hence, men are focused on searching for evidence in the bedroom because in this space men have the particular authority to dominate women.
Notably, throughout the play women are seen to be reluctant to openly interact with their husbands and keep distance from them.
The physical space between men and women also symbolizes the gender gap and division that exists in the society (Ben-Zvi 150).
It is clear that females feel dominated and emotionally abused by men, while having no means of expressing their true feelings. To continue, Glaspell marks a clear contrast between the competing behavior of the men and the supporting atmosphere of companionship that exists between women. Even though the character of Minnie Wright is absent from the stage, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters show great care for her by hiding evidence, which would ultimately lead to her conviction for the husband’s murder.
Men in the play focus on dominance and authority directed towards women, while also competing among themselves. At the same time, the women, feel uncomfortable to invade the privacy of another female’s house who is accused of killing her husband; as a result, they rapidly form a close a bond that offers them the chance to calm and support each other (Ben-Zvi 151).
The play implies that there are several origins for such close relationship between the female characters; nevertheless, the most apparent reason is the fights against men in response to their disrespectful attitude and the inability to voice their protest in any form.
For example, even the presence of Mrs. Hale is a great relief and support to Mrs. Peters when they must come with the husbands to get clothes for Minnie who is put in jail at this stage, “But I'm awful glad you came with me, Mrs Hale. It would be lonesome for me sitting here alone” (72-73).
Such close interaction is shown in stark contrast to the atmosphere of rudeness and rivalry, which exists between men, with each trying to illustrate his authority and power.
When searching for the clothes, the women discover a broken cage and realize that John Wright killed the bird, prompting Minnie to murder him; the story reaches its climax at this point (Hinz-Bode 62). Clearly the dead bird can be used as evidence against Minnie, but the two female companions decide to help another woman in protest to the way men treat them. They protect a fellow woman against men despite being guilty of murder. Mrs. Hale feels guilty, suggesting that her presence would have prevented the murder; her pain and regret symbolize the importance of the close relationship between women to withstand the dominance of men.
Glaspell presents a brilliant story when the scornful and haughty men who abuse and disrespect their wives ignore the women’s space in the kitchen as a world of trifles and, as a result, fail to find murder evidence that would support the accusation of Minnie Wright in court. Trifles, quite boldly for the society of those days, portrays women as emerging in strength and gaining power to fight against male dominance and control.
The use of symbolism helps Glaspell to brilliantly present the struggle between men and women without appearing aggressive in her remarks. The author uses creativity to make the women appear powerful to the readers who closely follow the events and characters in the play. Trifles opened a whole new chapter in the representation of women, prompting many females to question male dominance and eventually fight for their rights.
Al-Khalili, Raja. “Representations of Rural Women in Susan Glaspell’s Trifles”. Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 6, no. 1 (2013): 132-135.
Ben-Zvi, Linda. “Murder, She Wrote: The Genesis of Susan Glaspell’s Trifles.” Theatre Journal,
vol. 44, no. 2 (1992): 141–162
Glaspell, Susan. Trifles: A Play in One Act. New York: Baker's Plays, 2010.
Hinz-Bode, Kristina. Susan Glaspell and the Anxiety of Expression: Language and Isolation in the Plays. New York: McFarland, 2015.