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Susan Glaspell's Trifles: Summary, Symbolism, and Analysis

Susan Glaspell's Trifles: Summary, Symbolism, and Analysis

'Trifles' is one act play, the storyline of which revolves around a murder. This play successfully provides a perspective about the plight of contemporary women, and gives the scope of their status in society. A look at Trifles' summary and analysis.
Anup Patwardhan
Did You Know?
In 1936, Susan Glaspell was the director of the Midwest Play Bureau for Federal Theatre Project in Chicago.
Susan Glaspell (1876 - 1948) graduated from high school in 1894. After her graduation, she had started working as a journalist for a local newspaper. After a three-year stint at the newspaper house, she took admission in Drake University as a Philosophy Major student. After graduating from university, she started working full-time for Des Moines Daily.

During her career with the daily, she had reported about the murder of John Hossack. Her one act play 'Trifles'  is inspired from this incident. She wrote the play close to a decade after the murder had first come to light. John Hossack's wife, who had claimed that the murderer had slain her husband with an ax, was the main accused in the murder case. She was later convicted. However, her conviction was overturned after an appeal.

An overview of Susan Glaspell's one-act play through Trifles' summary and analysis.
George Henderson
George is a county attorney. He is called in to investigate the murder of John Wright. He is young and a professional, but is also a male chauvinist. The role was originally played by Michael Hulgan.

Henry Peters
Mr. Peters is a local sheriff. He is a middle-aged man who is at the house of the deceased to examine the crime scene. Robert Conville had originally essayed this role.

Mrs. Peters
She is the wife of the sheriff. Mrs. Peters is new in town, and has no acquaintance with Mrs. Wright. She is sympathetic to the emotional plight of Mrs. Wright. This role was originally played by Alice Hall.

Lewis Hale
Lewis is a farmer. He is the neighbor of the Wrights. He enters the Wrights' house to use a telephone, where he finds Mr. Wright strangled, and his wife acting weirdly. George Cram Cook had originally played this role.

Mrs. Hale
She is wife of farmer Lewis. She knows Mrs. Wright from before she had become Mrs. Wright. She dislikes the chauvinism shown by men around her. Susan Glaspell had originally played this role.

John Wright
He is the victim of the murderous assault. The story revolves around the motive of his murder. He is a farmer who has neglected his wife's happiness time and again.

Mrs. Wright
She is Minnie Foster before her marriage to John Wright. Minnie is a happy girl. Post-marriage, Mrs. Wright is a sad woman. She is the prime suspect of the murder investigation.
The play is about the murder investigation of John Wright, who is found dead, strangled by a rope, in the kitchen of his farmhouse. His wife, Mrs. Wright, is found acting strangely by Lewis Hale, their neighbor, when he enters their house hoping to use their telephone. Mrs. Wright informs him that her husband died while she was sleeping. Lewis Hale alerts the local sheriff, Henry Peters.

The play starts with Lewis Hale and Henry Peters entering the kitchen of the Wrights' farmhouse, the crime scene. They are accompanied by George Henderson, the county attorney. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters stand by the kitchen door. Hale starts to explain to the sheriff and attorney the events that had transpired since he had entered the farmhouse earlier in the evening.

When Mr. Henderson starts looking around the kitchen, he finds a jar containing fruit preserve in the cupboard to be broken because of the cold, and the resulting mess. When Mrs. Peters tells the attorney that Mrs. Wright is worried about it, he says, "Well, women are used to worrying over trifles".

Henderson's bickering about women helps Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale bond with one another. On a couple of occasions, Mrs. Hale is also shown defending Mrs. Wright. She also indicates that Mr. Wright was a rather unwelcoming personality.

Mrs. Peters wants to pick up a few things for Mrs. Wright, on her request. Henderson, before going upstairs with the other men, agrees to it only if he is allowed to check all the retrieved items. Mrs. Hale starts rearranging the kitchen to its tidy condition before the men had entered it. She becomes retrospective and speculates that Mrs. Wright was unhappy and sad, unlike Minnie Foster who loved to sing. From the odd behavior of the wife since her husband's murder, she thinks that Mrs. Wright must be the killer. This prompts both the ladies to start their own investigation.

The men, who are also investigating the case, and oblivious to what the ladies are up to, pass a few snide sexist comments along with some patronization. The women find the sewing on a quilt to be wrong, and want to fix it. They start looking for a string. Instead, they find an empty birdcage. The hinge on its door is broken. Both of them start wondering what must have happened to the bird within.

When looking through the sewing basket, they find a dead bird canary inside. They notice the head of the bird is in the same condition as that of Mr. Wright. The women decide to hide the box before either the sheriff or attorney come back.
Canary Bird
The canary bird, a singsong bird, represents the free spirit of Mrs. Wright from the days she was Minnie Foster. While its death signifies the diminished spirit of Mrs. Wright.

Broken Jars
The jars are broken due to the cold weather. It signifies the how life of Mrs. Wright is broken apart after being subject to a life with a person having cold heart.

'Knot It'
The play ends with Mrs. Hale saying,"We call it... Knot it, Mr. Henderson". The men, through their final dialogs, indicate that they know who the real killer is and it also refers to the knot around Mr. Wright's neck that was fatal. While according to the women it signifies their bonding and solidarity through the scenario.
The play was written during the times of the 'Suffragette Movement'. It relates to the status of women in contemporary society. It speaks of the male mentality, and how they were considered the dominant gender in society. The play tries to break the then stereotypical considerations about female gender. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, each having the backing of the other, have sympathy for Mrs. Wright, which shows that they share a strong bond.

The women also stand through the male domination and try and maintain the power equilibrium between the genders. The plot may start off with its focus on the male characters, but this changes as the story proceeds. Mrs. Wright, the main accused, becomes the central figure of the play. There is portrayal of the havoc wreaked by a cold relation in domestic life.

The title of the play is focused on the mentality of men considering women matters to be 'Trifle'. The characters around whom the main plot revolves, Mr. and Mrs. Wright, do not have a screen presence. Their story is presented through the characters that make an appearance on stage.
Susan Glaspell has won many awards, including the 'Pulitzer Prize'. She is also remembered for discovering Nobel laureate Eugene O'Neill. In all, she has written fifteen plays.