“Trifles” is a one-act play by Susan Glaspell who depicts the casual things in the casual environment but everything is not as trivial as it seems on the surface. The drama talks about a murder committed by a woman and the gender conflict that stands behind it. Glaspell focuses on the differences between man’s and woman’s point of view and different perception of the same things. In the play, men are described as rude and authoritarian and place women in the secondary position. Indeed, in the nineteenth century, women were subservient to men and had to take care of them and concern with the homemaking and kitchen. The author also portrays women who are able to feel sympathy and emphasize with another woman when she confronts her husband’s violence and domination. In the play, Glaspell provides Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters with numerous symbols, which help to understand Minnie’s thoughts and justify her actions. In addition, these symbols are open to each reader’s interpretation because the author does not state clearly what she implies but just hints at the possibility. Multiple symbols of the play can be divided into four groups such as the symbolic names, the symbolic setting, the symbolic objects, and, finally, the symbolic actions. In “Trifles”, men identify women’s thoughts and feelings as trifles; however, these trifles are the important symbols and clues to the whole understanding of Minnie Wright’s reasons for murdering her husband.
The surname of the main characters of “Trifles” is Wright that has the same pronunciation as the word “right”. It means that all actions were appropriate and acceptable in those circumstances. “Right” also has a meaning of something that has to take place and must be justified. The symbolic name of the main heroine is Minnie, which implies someone small, weak, and minor. Minnie was oppressed by her husband, and her name is the first hint at this fact. After murdering her husband, the woman rests in the rocking chair. This item of furniture may symbolize the place where she feels comfortable and calm and escapes reality for a while. Possibly, it was also her place of consolation during the living with John because the rocking chair and its monotonous movements help to abstract from the depressing thoughts. In addition, after the murder, the woman tried to return to the natural atmosphere because, undoubtedly, she was frightened.
Another symbolic object is the cherry preserve, which was found by Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, and had already been broken. A ripe cherry may stand for a young Minnie who was a happy and cheerful girl. After got married, she could not do whatever she wanted like cherries that were kept in the preserve. In addition, the cherry preserve had been broken because of temperature and pressure just like Minnie was oppressed by her husband. As a result, her heart cracked and she decided to go to extremes. The quilt is multi-layered textile made of numerous patches of fabric in the form of a square. The quilt is not finished in the play that symbolizes the fact the fate of Minnie was not defined and was still in the air. Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale wonder how Minnie was going to finish it and stop on knotting. "Well, Henry, at least, we found out that she was not going to quilt it. She was going to - what is it you call it, ladies?" Mrs. Hale replied, "We call it - knot it, Mr. Henderson" (Glaspell). "This image conveys the sense of knotting the rope around the husband's neck: they have discovered the murderess. And they will 'knot' tell," (Alkalay-Gut, p.8).In this case, the quilt symbolizes Minnie’s patience and thoughts to make another knot on her husband’s neck.
When Mrs. Hake and Mrs. Peters were looking for string and paper, they found a birdcage that had been broken. The broken birdcage symbolizes Minnie’s way of life with her husband, John. “Minnie was symbolically caged, confined in her isolated home and her abusive marriage” (Angel, 561). She was caged because without children, the husband was all she had. He was a harsh and cold man who did not allow Minnie to make new acquaintances and socialize. In addition, there was no telephone, and Minnie did not have contact with the outside world, “I’m going to see if I can’t get John Wright to go in with me on a party telephone he put me off, saying folks talked too much anyway, and all he asked was peace and quiet— I guess you know about how much he talked himself” (Glaspell). Therefore, the woman lived like a bird that was trapped in the cage. Minnie could do nothing except housekeeping that made her gloomy and sad. However, when the birdcage was found by the women, it was in the damaged condition that symbolized the fact of Minnie’s final liberation from her husband’s domination and oppression. The birdcage is similar to a prison that resembles Minnie’s married life but she managed to get out of it.
Another finding of the women was a dead bird wrapped in silk in a beautiful box. They also discovered that the bird’s death was not natural because someone had broken its neck. “No, Wright wouldn’t like the bird - a thing that sang. She used to sing. He killed that, too” (Glaspell). Actually, it was a canary, which is a symbol of beauty and happiness, and it sings because of joy and sense of well-being. Mrs. Wright stated, "She was kind of like a bird herself-real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and-fluttery," (Glaspell). The singing canary gave Minnie a sense of freedom and hope that were banned for the woman. Indeed, the canary represented Minnie who first was free and cheerful, later was caught and kept in the birdcage, in John’s house, and, when her husband’s oppression reached its maximum, he himself killed the bird and Minnie’s hopes for the better life. Covering the bird with silk means that the canary is dear and special for Minnie and served as a reminder of her happiness.
The setting has also a symbolic meaning. The actions of the play take place in winter, which is the season when nature dies. The same happened to bird and John, thus, the author depicts winter to foreshadow the death. Moreover, the cold and freezing weather symbolizes John’s treatment and attitude towards Minnie that was rude and exacting. The cold and abandoned house stands for a family drama and predicts a tragedy. The cold weather also symbolizes the coldness from the woman’s loneliness because women did not visit her and, probably, she did not want them to see because of the harsh nature of John. Even after the murder, she seems cold and indifferent, “’Yes”, says she, “he’s home”. “Then why can’t I see him?” “Cause he’s dead” (Glaspell). Those five people who came there to investigate the place of murder first entered the kitchen, which was in a mess, “The kitchen in the now abandoned farmhouse of John Wright, a gloomy kitchen, and left without having been put in order - unwashed pans under the sink, a loaf of bread outside the bread - box, a dish - towel on the table - other signs of incomplete work” (Glaspell). In fact, the kitchen is the place where women spend a lot of time cooking, washing the dishes and other homemaking, thus, it always must be clean and spotless. Such dirty and messy kitchen in the Wright’s house may symbolize Minnie’s rebellion against her husband’s domination and authority and, obviously, her liberation from the burden of a housekeeper because John is dead and will not complain about the mess.
Susan Glaspell uses symbols to emphasize the distressful position of women of that time. Moreover, she centers on the idea that simple and banal have a very important meaning if people would look at the core of the things. Undoubtedly, Minnie Wright’s life was lonely and isolated because her husband was emotionally unavailable for the woman and even killed her precious canary. As the reader can see, symbolism is everywhere in the play, and even the title is not an exception. Oppression, isolation, and freedom are the notions expressed symbolically through the simple things or trifles that are important to identify Minnie’s motives for the murder. In general, the story reflects how women were treated by men in the nineteenth century. It is ironic because the men were searching for clues whereas the women discovered them very quickly. The symbolism also helps the author to develop the feminist theme and state that the man’s superiority and oppression will not be tolerated forever.
Angel, Marina. “Teaching Susan Glaspell's A Jury of Her Peers and Trifles”. Journal of Legal Education 53.4 (2003): 548–563. Web 02.07. 2016
Glaspell, Susan. “Trifles and Six Other Short Plays”. London: E. Benn, 1926. Print.
Alkalay-Gut, Karen. "Jury of Her Peers: The Importance of Trifles." Studies in Short Fiction 21 (Winter 1984): 1-9. Web 02.07. 2016
Smith, Beverly A. "Women's Work--Trifles? The Skill and Insights of Playwright Susan Glaspell." International Journal of Women's Studies 5 (March 1982): 172-84. Web 02.07.2016