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Trifles Summary and Analysis

by Susan Glaspell

Part I

Summary:

(Note: Because the play is not officially split into scenes, artificial divisions have been created at convenient points for the purposes of analysis.)

The sheriff Henry Peters, the young county attorney George Henderson, and the neighbor Lewis Hale enter the gloomy, disordered kitchen of John Wright's farmhouse, followed by the thin, wiry Mrs. Peters and the larger Mrs. Hale. The men warm themselves up by the stove, but the women hover fearfully by the door, and Mrs. Peters refuses Henderson's invitation to join them at the stove. Peters steps away from the stove and takes off his coat as he asks Hale to describe what he saw yesterday morning. Before Hale answers, Henderson and the sheriff have a conversation explaining that no one had touched anything but the stove, but that the site of the crime had been unattended for most of the previous day.

Hale states that he was going to town with Harry but stopped on the way to visit John Wright's house to ask about acquiring a telephone. Although Wright had previously disliked the notion, Hale was considering the unlikely chance that Wright's wife would be able to persuade him otherwise. Sometime after eight o'clock, Hale knocked on the door and, upon hearing what he thought was an invitation to enter, he opened the door to find Mrs. Wright rocking in confusion on the rocking chair and nervously pleating her apron. She did not look at Hale or ask him to sit down, and when he asked about John, she informed him that he could not see her husband because he was dead from strangulation by rope. Hale called for Harry, and they went upstairs to see the body. When they returned, Mrs. Wright told them that she had not notified anyone and that she did not know the culprit because she had been asleep.

After Harry went to find the coroner, Mrs. Wright moved to a different chair and stared at the floor. Hale tried to talk to her, but when he mentioned the telephone, she began to laugh before stopping and looking scared. At this point, Henderson looks around the kitchen and finds the fruit preserves making a mess in the cupboard because the jars broke from the cold. Mrs. Peters explains that Mrs. Wright had been worried, and Hale dismissively says, "Well, women are used to worrying over trifles," which causes Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale to draw closer together. Henderson also criticizes Mrs. Wright's dirty towels, but Mrs. Hale defends her, although she has not visited the Wright farmhouse for over a year because it was not cheerful. Henderson blames it on Mrs. Wright's homemaking abilities, but Mrs. Hale hints that Wright was the real cause.

Analysis:

Trifles begins with stage directions that introduce the five speaking characters of the play as well as the dismal setting of the disheveled kitchen in a recently abandoned farmhouse. Susan Glaspell got her inspiration for Trifles from her real-life visit to the dreary kitchen of Margaret Hossack, whose trial for the murder of her husband formed the basis for the plot, and accordingly, the setting establishes the melancholy, thoughtful mood of the play. Furthermore, although Trifles is in essence a murder mystery, the play takes place in the kitchen instead of at the crime scene of the bedroom or in a more official domestic setting such as the police station. As a result, the play exists in a private, domestic, and female domain rather than what in the early twentieth century was the primarily male public domain, foreshadowing the focus of the work on the women.

Although Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale later become the central characters of Trifles, the first third of the play concentrates on the male characters, especially Lewis Hale and George Henderson. Their entrance into the farmhouse and Hale's account of his discovery of the murder serves as the exposition of the story, where the murder is the inciting force of the plot. Within the context of the opening section of the play, the main conflict appears to revolve around a search for the murderer, whether such a person is John Wright's wife or some other individual - although later events will cause our understanding of the conflict to shift during the course of the play. Nevertheless, at this point, the scene consists of male figures who treat the kitchen as the scene of a crime and not a home, an identification that Mrs. Hale in particular comes to resent.

Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale initially appear in a separate group that trails the men into the kitchen, thus immediately suggesting a distance between the two genders that becomes increasingly prominent throughout the play. Whereas the men appear confident and businesslike, the women are fearful and nervous, indicating their sense of isolation and distress. Instead of joining the men at the stove, they remain at the door and implicitly declare themselves as spectators rather than actors. They do not share the men's task, having come to the Wright homestead for a different reason, to offer a bit of comfort to Mrs. Wright by collecting a few minor objects. At the same time, only the men receive a first name in Trifles, while the play refers to the women by their husbands' last names, hinting at the false intrusion of male identity in the female self with which the two women struggle throughout the play.

Despite the sense of male dominance that exists throughout the majority of this part of the play, the women seem to resist the status quo imposed by the men. By declining Henderson's invitation to join Hale and Peters at the stove, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale also symbolically deny their obligation to stand in the traditionally female area of the hearth. Mrs. Hale quickly shows herself to be the more outspoken of the two women when protesting against the male view of the world, as shown when Henderson belittles the state of Mrs. Wright's kitchen and implies that she was not skilled enough to take care of a home. Mrs. Hale dislikes his rather supercilious accusation and turns around his hypothesis that the kitchen's appearance must be the woman's fault by hinting that John Wright might have been at the root of the problem. Lewis Hale echoes Henderson's androcentric interpretation of events by saying, "Well, women are used to worrying over trifles," when the conversation turns to preserves. At the foundation of the gender disconnect lies the assumption that both women and women's affairs are trifles.

In addition to helping create the mood of the play and providing an opportunity to highlight the separation of the genders in Trifles, the cold temperature also foreshadows our interpretations of Mrs. Wright's life and psychology. Mrs. Hale hints that Mr. Wright did not have "the homemaking instinct," and Mrs. Wright lives in a cheerless home that is as cold as the outside weather. In fact, her jars of preserves break from the lack of warmth, which parallels Mrs. Wright's own situation as the women later realize that her mental preserves have shattered because of the house's emotional winter. Hale admits himself that Mrs. Wright has no influence over Mr. Wright, and because the lack of a telephone in the house further cuts Mrs. Wright off from the world, it becomes a sign of her solitude as well as a reason for Hale to have entered the house.

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