“Trifles” by Susan Glaspell
“Trifles” by Susan Glaspell is a play replete with symbolism. While the men go and search the crime scene for forensic evidence, their two wives solve the crime by examining the small trifling details in the kitchen. Each of these is symbolic of a greater truth in another woman’s life. More by what is left unsaid than spoken it is clear they can do this because they relate to the small details of a marriage turned bleak. They can do this because the symbolism of these trifles is so strong that the third woman never appears on stage.
The symbolism in “Trifles” tends to appear in two forms, objects and actions. The objects are things like household items and furniture. These include an unfinished quilt, broken dishes and jars, a dead canary and a rocking chair. The actions are primarily those of the women as they move around the kitchen. As they do this they bond, then, in an act of solidarity, conceal the dead canary that not only constitutes circumstantial evidence, it also symbolizes the wife herself. “She was kind of like a bird herself – real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and – fluttery. How – she – did – change.”.
The play concerns the murder of a farmer, Mr. Wright and the apparent guilt of his wife. It opens in the farmhouse kitchen, now abandoned as the wife of the dead farmer is already in jail. The room is bleak and cluttered. Nothing was put into order before Mrs. Wright was carried away. The men enter first, two of their wives follow, which in itself is symbolic of the order of that society. The men are examples of the justice system in the county. The sheriff enters followed by the county attorney and a neighboring farmer, Lewis Hale. In this, the men are personifications of investigation, prosecution and jury. The men give a cursory examination of the kitchen briefly question the farmer, then move quickly on to the crime scene where they expect to find enough evidence to convict the dead farmer’s wife. They dismiss the trifles as “nothing important” “Nothing here but kitchen things.” .
The women initially cluster at the door, then move into the room more slowly and at the invitation, and command of the men. Before he leaves, the Sheriff discovers broken jars of fruit and degrades Mrs. Wright as being concerned for broken jars when she herself was being held for murder. While the men go and search the crime scene for forensic evidence, the women solve the crime. More by what the women leave unsaid than spoken it is clear they can do this because they relate to the small details of a marriage turned bleak. The film of dust, smudges on towels and dirty pans all seem to the men to be trivial things. To the women they speak of a life of quiet containment with no visitors or guests to break the monotony of a callous husband. Women tend to tidy things up as they move about, in the normal course of life that would include dusting and setting out fresh towels. This is not something the dead farmer Wright, nor any of the living men, noticed as absent, but was telling in the women’s eyes. Other details, a loaf of bread left on the counter instead of in the bread box, one remaining jar of cherries add to the growing store of information about the woman from the farmhouse kitchen.
The emphasis subtily shifts when they discover a broken birdcage and then a pretty box with its former denizen a canary, now dead its throat wrung. They talk about the joys lost in their lives and John Wright’s character, but Mrs. Wright’s guilt or innocence is no longer a part of the conversation. It is no longer necessary to speak of it; the broken birdcage and the dead canary are the evidence needed to convict Mrs. Wright. The ladies conceal it. A final piece of ironic symbolism is shared when the Sheriff and the Count Attorney discuss the quilt style. The farmer was found with a rope knotted around his neck. The quilt was not sewn, it was knotted.
In the legal system of the time, juries were all male. However, the original title of the play was “A Jury of Her Peers,” in this instance it is the women who are the peers, it is they who examine the evidence and pass judgment.”Trifles” by Susan Glaspell is about the inferences a group of women make, discussing the symbolism of the trifles of another’s life. It looks at the deep truth women explore through the small details, what they mean and their significance.
Gaspell, Susan. “Trifles.” 1916. One Act Plays. 29 10 2012