Trifles Essay Questions

  1. 1

    How does Trifles reflect and alter the plot formula of a typical murder mystery?

    In most fictional mystery novels and plays, the plot is androcentric and features an actively analytical male hero who discovers the identity of the murder by searching for evidence and reasons his way through the crime. Sherlock Holmes, for example, is generally dispassionate in his pursuit of murderers as he continually bests the police at their own jobs. Like Holmes, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale act as amateur detectives who circumvent the folly of official law enforcement, in the form of the sheriff and the county attorney. Unlike typical male crime solvers, however, the women of Trifles avoid the ruthless search for information that also characterizes Henderson and instead achieve their solution by the seemingly accidental observation of Minnie Wright's kitchen while simultaneously developing a desire to protect rather than condemn the perpetrator.

  2. 2

    Describe the inner conflicts of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, and explain how they resolve these conflicts.

    Of the two characters, Mrs. Hale begins the play with a greater suspicion of the designs of the men in their investigation of Mrs. Wright's crime. However, not until she compares the state of the Wright kitchen to her memory of Minnie Foster does she articulate that "we all go through the same things--it's all just a different kind of the same thing," and she comes to accept her portion of blame for not alleviating Minnie Wright's loneliness. On the other hand, Mrs. Peters commences with the assumption that because she is married to the sheriff, she must uphold male definitions of duty and law. By the end of the play, she protects Minnie because she has chosen to empathize with someone who reflects her own needs rather than with the identity imposed by her marriage.

  3. 3

    How does the cold temperature of the setting connect symbolically to the rest of the play?

    Initially, the cold outside the farmhouse establishes the bleak, contemplative mood that dominates much of the play. At the same time, it leads to a situation that physically and metaphorically separates the women from the men, as Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters refuse to join the men and take their traditional post next to the hearth. Finally, it reflects Minnie Wright's state of mind and the sense of loneliness that precipitated her murder. Significantly, her jars of preserves break from the cold, just as she loses her ability to preserve her emotional health in her unhappy household.

  4. 4

    Are the women justified in their choice to hide the evidence? (Please take a side although both points of view are covered in the answer key.)

    On the one hand, the women have chosen to protect Minnie Wright because they see themselves in her and do not want to be hypocritical and condemn her. Minnie has been desperately lonely and unhappy for many years, going through emotional and possibly physical abuse from her husband, and the killing of the only living thing that cares for her may have justified retribution in kind. On the other hand, one could contend that Mrs. Wright has still committed murder, and neither the death of an animal nor years of marital troubles excuses homicide. By aiding and abetting her, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are effectively accomplices who have condoned murder.

  5. 5

    Explain the significance of the title "Trifles."

    The name of the play refers specifically to Lewis Hale's casual statement that "women are used to worrying over trifles" near the beginning of the play, when Mrs. Peters' attention is drawn to the broken jars of fruit preserves. Hale offers this statement in an indulgently superior manner, but the fallacy of his assumptions becomes clear as the women proceed to solve the case precisely by looking at the minor details. In their search for external, smoking gun evidence outside of the kitchen and living room, the men do not recognize that all the necessary information about her motives rests in the domestic area at the center of Mrs. Wright's life. Mrs. Hale says defensively that nothing is wrong with looking at little things while waiting for evidence, but in reality, she is not waiting for evidence but actively discovering it as she develops a picture of Minnie Wright's dismal home life.

  6. 6

    Discuss Glaspell's use of foreshadowing in Trifles.

    At the beginning of the play, the unspoken stage directions that introduce the scene serve as foreshadowing for the rest of the play, as it hints at the personalities of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters while drawing attention to the evidence that will later become important in our understanding of Minnie Wright's psychology. Later, when the women discuss the quilt and the birdcage, these objects foreshadow the subsequent discovery of the dead canary. Meanwhile, Lewis Hale provides an early hint of marital discord when he suggests that Mr. Wright does not listen to his wife and that their household does not have a telephone. From his offhand comment, cut off mid-sentence by Henderson, we receive our first clue of Mrs. Wright's motive for murder.

  7. 7

    How does Glaspell undermine the attitude of the men toward the women over the course of the play?

    The three men uniformly treat Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale with indulgent condescension, as they make gentle fun of the women for worrying about "trifles." The men do not blame the women for what they perceive as incompetence precisely of the wives' gender. However, by the end of the play, the women have succeeded more fully than the men have in pursuing evidence for the murderer, and the men do not have the instincts necessary to discover their wives' subversion of their authority. Henderson touches upon key subjects that might lead him to the murder but in the end regards them as insignificant, and he mistakes Mrs. Peters as "married to the law" and absolves her of possible complicity.

  8. 8

    How does Henderson and Mrs. Hale's clash over the meaning of Mrs. Wright's dirty kitchen encapsulate their opposing views of the world?

    Whereas Henderson sees Mrs. Wright's unkempt kitchen and concludes that Mrs. Wright must have been an incompetent homemaker, Mrs. Hale defends her and suggests that the bleakness of the Wright farmhouse might actually have been John Wright's fault. Henderson is taking a representative male view, in that he believes that a woman's main duty is to take care of her home and that John Wright was a good man who suffered a horrible fate. Mrs. Hale, on the other hand, intuitively understands more of Minnie Wright's situation and feels that the state of the kitchen is partly a result of being abruptly removed from her house and partly a response to something wrong in the household. After she finds the canary, she realizes that she was right, but like the men in general, Henderson never discovers the inadequacy of his assumptions.

  9. 9

    Explain how Glaspell identifies Minnie Wright with objects in her household.

    The three objects to which Minnie Wright connects most closely are the jars of preserves, the quilt, and the canary. The jars of preserves explode from the cold, despite her best attempts to prevent that fate, and she too loses her calm because of the coldness of her husband, although she never discovers the fate of the jars because the women choose to protect what remains of the preserves just as they choose to protect her. Second, quilts are a symbol of love and warmth, both of which Minnie lacked, and her faulty stitching on the last section of the quilt suggests her breakdown in her attempt to create order out of metaphorical scraps. Finally, the canary and its beautiful singing comes to represent the young Minnie Foster who loved life and loved to sing, and when her husband strangles it, she feels that she has lost part of her identity and decides to exact revenge.

  10. 10

    What does Minnie Wright's absence contribute to the plot?

    In part, Minnie's absence is a theatrical device that allows the two woman sleuths to solve the riddle of the murder by themselves, thus bringing them closer together and showing their worth. At the same time, because Mrs. Wright has no physical presence, she becomes an everywoman, who represents the extreme of the struggles of all women in her era and region of the country. The audience, Mrs. Hale, and Mrs. Peters all come to identify with Minnie Wright, thus giving the protagonists the moral ability to forgive her for her crime. We do not need her existence on stage to sympathize with her because the objects in her kitchen speak for themselves.