Trifles Summary and Analysis of Part II


The men go upstairs after George Henderson agrees to let Mrs. Peters pick up some items for Mrs. Wright on the condition that she show him all the items retrieved. Mrs. Hale rearranges some pans moved by Henderson and criticizes the men for snooping and disparaging Mrs. Wright's kitchen. They look at some fresh bread and at the left-over preserves before bringing clothes out from Mrs. Wright's closet. Mrs. Hale suggests that Mrs. Wright kept to herself because she did not feel happy, and she contrasts Mrs. Wright's behavior with the way Mrs. Wright had been as the young, unmarried Minnie Foster, who loved to sing. They speculate about whether Mrs. Wright had killed her husband, with Mrs. Hale saying that only an innocent woman would ask for an apron and a shawl while worrying about fruit. Mrs. Peters says that her husband Henry Peters says it looks bad and that Henderson will hone in on her suspicious inability to wake up during the murder. Mrs. Hale reports that Lewis Hale had mentioned a gun in the house and could not understand why the murderer would have used a rope.

Henderson had said that the case needed a motive, and Mrs. Hale notes a lack of signs of anger, although she finds it strange that half of a dish-towel is clean. She looks again at the loaf of bread beside the breadbox before accusing the men's method of locking the suspect up and investigating her house as sneaky, but Mrs. Peters points out that "the law is the law." As they are examining an unfinished quilt, the men return and tease them for their foolishness, asking them if the blanket was quilted or knotted. After they leave to inspect the barn, Mrs. Hale again resents the men's patronizing manner, but Mrs. Peters apologetically defends them. They find one block of the quilt that is much less tidily made than the others, and Mrs. Hale decides to fix the sewing, although Mrs. Peters does not want to touch the evidence. Mrs. Hale wonders why Mrs. Wright had been nervous, and Mrs. Peters looks in a cupboard to find paper and string but instead finds a birdcage.

Mrs. Hale cannot remember if Mrs. Wright had a bird, although she remembers a man who sold canaries, and they wonder what would have happened to the bird. They note that a hinge on the cage's door is broken, and Mrs. Hale expresses regret for not visiting Mrs. Wright. Mr. Wright had been considered a good man, but he was also a hard man, and Mrs. Hale pities Mrs. Wright for having to live with him. Mrs. Peters never knew the young Mrs. Wright, but Minnie had resembled a bird in that she was pretty and sweet but also timid. They decide to take the quilt to occupy Mrs. Wright's time, but when they look through her sewing basket, they discover the dead bird in a fancy box whose head has been wrung in a similar manner to that of John Wright. They hide the box before the sheriff and Henderson arrive.


After the men leave the kitchen to search the bedroom, the women replace the men as the real protagonists of the play, wandering around the kitchen as they discover minor details that turn out to be clues over the course of the rising action. During this time, our initial sense of the conflict shifts as the women increasingly begin to empathize with Minnie Wright and develop an understanding of her life, while steadily approaching the point of crisis in their discovery of the dead canary. In the process, the women both follow and upset the typical progression of a murder mystery by displacing the official local law enforcement as amateur crime solvers while moving away from the focused, analytical techniques employed by Henderson and most male detectives. Even more significantly, the women succeed where the law does not despite their lack of a legal identity beyond that which they receive through their husbands, and in the process, they come to learn more about their own private identities.

At first glance, those details noted by Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale appear to be what the men refer to as "trifles," in that they do not have any obvious bearing on the physical facts of the case. However, although Mrs. Hale defends her right to think about "little things" while waiting for evidence, we see by the end that, ironically, the little things are by definition the evidence. Unlike the women, the men overlook the emotional implications of the unbaked bread, half-cleaned towels, and messy stitching on the quilt. Because they see that these objects represent a warping of domestic life, they notice Minnie's probable state of mind and turn from outside observers of the crime scene to increasingly active investigators. Simultaneously, over the course of the play, the two women suffer from their separate internal struggles, as Mrs. Hale tries to articulate her guilt at having abandoned Mrs. Wright while Mrs. Peters weighs her trust in the male-defined realms of duty and the law against her instinctive sympathy for Mrs. Wright's troubles.

As a motif, the quilt serves to emphasize Minnie Wright's loneliness as well as the uncertainty of her domestic role. The unfinished quilt indicates her unsatisfied wishes for warmth and love in their household, as temperature again proves a convenient symbol for the happiness of the Wrights' relationship. Furthermore, because knotting is easier to do by oneself than quilting, the men's ironic question -- whether Mrs. Wright quilted or knotted the blanket -- takes on a deeper significance. Minnie knots the quilt because she has no one to help her. In the era of Trifles, women learned to quilt at an early age, learning thriftiness and domesticity in the company of other women. The tragedy of Minnie's life is that she has learned to save scraps of cloth for quilts and to discipline herself without gaining the social benefits of quilting.

Because Minnie does not personally appear in the play, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Wright acquire the chance to show their worth as detectives and become unlikely main characters despite their lives as middle-aged farm-women. Nevertheless, we sympathize with Minnie rather than with John Wright; Minnie emerges as an every-woman who stands for the tribulations of all females, including Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters. The growing emotional bond between Minnie Wright and the two female protagonists is sufficient to tell her story without need for a strong physical presence. The empty birdcage hints at Minnie's mental struggles, and we come to see that Minnie's identity connects intimately to that of the canary, the death of which must have overwhelmed her previous forbearance.

When Mrs. Hale gives Minnie Wright a first name, she effectively gives Mrs. Wright an identity separate from, though still linked to, the identity of her husband. The name "Minnie" comes from the German term for "love," while her name shift from Foster to Wright suggests a shift from nurturing to an emphasis on duty and the law. The name "Wright" is doubly ironic since not only does Minnie have no rights under the law except as ascribed to her by her husband, but she also fails to find the right man to cultivate her happiness. Many in the town considered John Wright a good man, but he was also a hard one, and the name "Wright" may also refer to her moral, if not legal, right to free herself from her own birdcage, albeit through murder rather than through the songbird's death. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters unconsciously sense the latter conclusion and choose to hide the canary upon the men's return.

Each time the men enter the stage, they make a series of condescending comments toward the women. Even Hale retains a feeling of amicable arrogance when regarding Mrs. Peters and his wife, although he is a farmer and therefore of a lower class than the county attorney or the sheriff. By siding with the men in a show of masculine solidarity, Hale shows that the gender divide in this play is more pervasive than class or social differences, and he unconsciously sets the men against the women. However, the play ironically parodies the behavior of the men as they cross the stage at irregular intervals while literally finding nothing of interest and reaching no useful destination. The inadequacies of the professional Henderson belie his official authority, and his attempt to recreate the events of the murder through logic fail in comparison to the simple empathy of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters.