08 May 2002
Trifles: A Gender Play
Susan Glaspell’s Trifles explores the classical male stereotype of women by declaring that women frequently worry about matters of little, or no importance. This stereotype makes the assumption that only males are concerned with important issues, issues that females would never discuss or confront. The characters spend the entirety of the play searching for clues to solve a murder case. Ironically, the female characters, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, uncover crucial evidence and solve the murder case, not the male characters. The men in the play, the Sheriff, County Attorney, and Hale, search the scene of the crime for evidence on their own, and mock the women’s discussions. The women’s interest in the quilt, broken bird cage door, and dead canary, all of which are assumed to be unimportant or trifling objects, is what consequentially leads to their solving of the crime. The women are able to discover who the killer is by paying attention to detail, and prove that the items which the men consider insignificant are important after all.
At the start of the play, all of the characters enter the abandoned farmhouse of John Wright, who was recently hanged by an unknown killer. The Sheriff and County Attorney start scanning the house for clues as to who killed Mr. Wright, but make a major error when they search the kitchen poorly, claiming that there is nothing there “but kitchen things.” This illustrates the men’s incorrect belief that a kitchen is a place of trivial matters, a place where nothing of any importance may be found. Mrs. Peters then notices that Mrs. Wright’s fruit froze in the cold weather, and the men mock her and reveal their stereotype of females by saying “women are used to worrying over trifles.” The men then venture to the upstairs of the house to look for clues, while the women remain downstairs in the kitchen where they discuss the frozen fruit and the Wrights. Mrs. Hale explains that Mrs. Wright, whose maiden name was Minnie Foster, used to be a lively woman who sang in the choir. She suggests that the reason Mrs. Wright stopped being cheerful and active because of her irritable husband.
The women discover their first clue when they find a quilt that Mrs. Wright was sewing. The men make disparaging comments when they are questioning whether or not Mrs. Wright was going to “quilt it or just knot it.” If the men weren’t so occupied with teasing the women, they wouldn’t have overlooked the importance of this item. The women take a good look at the quilt, and notice how one of the sections is very sloppy and “looks as if she doesn’t know what she was about.” This section is very different from all of the other sections, and the women infer that Mrs. Wright was nervous when she was sewing that piece. They begin to wonder what would make Mrs. Wright so uneasy that she would start sewing carelessly.
Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale then search for more sewing supplies, which leads them to find the next clue, a broken bird cage door, inside of a cupboard. The women wonder why someone would break such a thing, and are curious as to where the bird is that lived inside of the cage. Mrs. Hale then explains how lonesome Mrs. Wright must have been, with her husband at work all day and having no children in the household. Mrs. Hale says that Mr. Wright was a “hard man,” and she shivers when thinking about what it would be like “just to pass the time of day with him.” The women then understand why the lonely woman would want a pet, such as a bird, around the house to keep her company.
Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale find their next clue, a dead canary, when they are looking for more sewing materials. The lifeless bird is found in a sewing basket wrapped in a piece of silk, and it looks as if someone choked the life out of the poor creature. The men then interrupt the women, and speak to them mockingly once again. The men notice the bird cage, but fail to take a closer look at it and miss another important clue.
After the men leave, Mrs. Peters tells Mrs. Hale about a time when a boy killed her kitten when she was younger, and recalls how she was so angry at him that if no one held her back she would have “hurt him.” Mrs. Hale then affirms her earlier belief that Mr. Wright turned Mrs. Wright into an unhappy woman, and goes on to say that he was also the person who killed the bird: “No, Wright wouldn’t like the birda thing that sang. She used to sing. He killed that, too.” The women think about how awful it must have been for Mrs. Wright to discover the dead bird, to find that the one thing that was providing her company and happiness in the house was killed.
Mrs. Peters also relates to the dead canary, comparing the stillness of the creature to the stillness of her child who died at the age of two. The women have both decided that Mrs. Wright did choke the life out of her husband, just as he did to the bird, but they are sympathetic towards Mrs. Wright. Mrs. Peters, Mrs. Hale, and Mrs. Wright are all connected by the shared emotion of suffering: “We all go through the same thingsit’s all just a different kind of the same thing.” This is when the women decide that they will stick together, and keep their knowledge of the murder to themselves.
The men come back from searching the upstairs of the house, and the County Attorney jokingly asks the women once again whether Mrs. Wright was going to “quilt it or knot it.” Mrs. Hale replies that she was going to “knot it,” which can symbolically represent how Mrs. Wright knotted the rope around her husband’s neck and murdered him.
In their discussion of supposedly unimportant items, such as the ill-stitched quilt, broken bird cage door, and dead canary, the women are able to collect important evidence and know enough information about Mrs. Wright to give her a motive for murdering her husband. The men, though, are clueless as to who killed Mr. Wright and why, even after they thoroughly search the house for clues. They believe that they possess superior intelligence and knowledge of the world in comparison to women, but cannot find enough evidence to convict Mrs. Wright. Even if the men did uncover the same clues as the women, it is highly unlikely that they would understand how that would make for a motive for Mrs. Wright, as they simply cannot relate to her as a female. Glaspell’s Trifles shows how women reveal basic truths about life by paying close attention to detail, and shows the true importance of the things which men generally find to be trivial.