Uncovering the Mysteries Surrounding the Death of Mr. Wright in Trifles by Susan Glaspell
In a murder case, it is believed that the only person who knows the truth is the victim.The play composed by Susan Glaspell in 1916 is based on the murder of John Wright where the prime suspect is his wife, Minnie Foster. Henry Peters, the Sheriff, George Henderson, a lawyer, and Lewis Hale, a neighbor access the farmhouse to probe the killing of its former occupant, John Wright. Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale start their individual investigation, collecting items to take to the perpetrator, Minnie. The points to be discussed include various themes, setting of the play, genre, and the role of women in uncovering the mysteries surrounding the death of Mr. Wright. Even though some men believe that women are inferior to them, Glaspell proves otherwise through her usage of title, setting, themes, genres, and the position of females in uncovering the mystery surrounding the death of Mr. Wright.
The title of the play is ironic. Therefore, sending a message to the reader that things are not as they seem. The action in the play follows the murder of John Wright by her wife. It is ironic that the men consider women's role as Trifles, yet the victim is one of their own. Besides, the respectable men of the town mandated with the task of investigating the crime are unable to solve the mysterious murder of John. Instead, a group of uneducated women manages to join the various evidence found at the crime scene to unravel the events that led to the murder of John. Suzy Holstein Clarkson, author and former TV personality, considers, Glaspell’s Trifles adeceptive play. The reason for this is that it appears simple almost inconsequential yet "the play represents a profound conflict between two models of perception and behavior" (Holstein 282). The title of the short story followed by several remarks made by some of the characters depict the chauvinistic views of men toward women. Mr. Hale remarks that “women are used to worrying over Trifles” (Glaspell, Trifles, Ch 35 1114).In a way, the audience expects the county attorney as well as the sheriff to be the play's protagonist. However, they are presented as the antagonist because of their degrading criticism towards the female abilities. It is ironic that the men consider women as Trifles, yet the audiences view the latter as heroines in the play. Even in her absence, Minnie Foster is the play’s protagonist. The unseen character of Minnie Foster in the play gives the women a chance to take a position that eludes the men gaze that eroticizes and objectifies female characters. Despite her heinous action of killing her husband, she is still depicted as the play's heroine. All the characters are in her house because of what she did. Besides, both men and women are interested in knowing her, although for different reasons.
Moreover, the setting of the play shows that both men and women approach Mr. Wright’s house from different points of view. The action takes place in the kitchen. According to Yi-Chin, an Associate Professor at Tamkang University, brands Glaspell a feminist geographer (238). As a feminist geographer, Glaspell investigates the different experience of women and men in place and the construction of gender in place. Traditionally, the kitchen was a reserve of the female gender. For this reason, the men do not see anything of value for their investigation in the kitchen. The Sheriff says, "Nothing here but kitchen things" (Glaspell, Trifles, Ch 35 1109). While men views the kitchen as irrelevant in solving the murder of Mr. White, the women prove them wrong. This is a way of Glaspell questioning the men's authority and power. To Yi-Chin, “trifle is a manifestation of “two different modes of judging (244). According to Holstein, from the beginning, “the men and the women in the play perceive the setting from divergent perspectives” (283).On one hand, the men come to a scene of crime with a goal of unearthing the cause of the John’s murder. However, it is ironic that the men conduct the investigation methodologically yet find nothing that they can use against Minnie. This is seen in how the county attorney performs the investigation by the book by interviewing key witness such as Mr. Hale. The men perceive themselves as thorough in their investigation as they think that they have left nothing of importance. However, despite their method, they do not end up collecting any valuable piece of evidence that may connect Minnie Foster with the murder of Mr. Wright. However, the women approach the setting as a home as they try to place themselves in the shoes of Minnie Foster. The women are not interested in unearthing any evidence. It is evident that they encounter the evidence in the process of trying to get some few supplies for Minnie. In Minnie Foster’s sewing box, the women encountered her dead bird (Glaspell, Trifles, Ch 35 1114).Upon further examination of the dead bird, the women discover that it was violently strangled. By depicting women as more thorough and intelligent even when they are neither trained nor prepared while portraying men as incompetent, Glaspell is trying to challenge the gender-based prejudice that discriminates against the female gender.
In addition, Trifles is a murder story, which means that the theme of violence has to emerge definitely. It is a behavior which entails using physical force aimed at hurting, damaging, or killing someone. Generally, it is presumed that where there is death, there is violence.When it comes to this theme, events do not come out clearly. Normally, the audience is forced to perceive the violent killer as a bad person and the afflicted as the victim. In addition, the play brings another form of violence; domestic hostility. According to the women, Mr. Wright subjected his wife to vicious emotional abuses. The females, in defence of Minnie, pointed out that the death of her husband was a retaliation.That is, she was defending herself from the assault and unfortunately culminated in the death of her partner.
Furthermore, it is no secret that the play meets the attributes of a drama. In other words, it is a dialogue brought to life by the actors and actresses. Trifles also has a protagonist (Mr. Wright even though he is dead) and an antagonist (Minnie, the wife). The play is also a mystery; it is obvious that from the start, Minnie takes the life of her husband. Her justification does not make sense at all and is quite insubstantial. Compared to other mysteries, Trifles, is not a conundrum or a puzzle. The primary thing that the audience would love to see is why she snapps and eliminates him. Also, the play may be termed as a parable because it is a straightforward tale with a powerful message. All through, Glaspell strikes the audience with how discourteous and patronizing men may be towards women. Therefore, the use of drama in the play makes it interesting to the audience and readers when watched and read respectively.
Additionally, while men consider women as inept even in their domains, the latter prove them wrong. The women are depicted as having mastered the kitchen as seen in the way they find everything they are looking for with relative ease. Without considering her situation, the men are judgmental toward Minnie Foster. This is manifested in the way the county attorney view Minnie as a lousy housekeeper. The county attorney says about Minnie after kicking his foot against the pans under the sink, “not much of a housekeeper” (Glaspell, Trifles, Ch 35 1110). Besides, the attorney accuses Minnie of possessing no “home-making instincts” (Glaspell, Trifles, Ch 35 1110). However, there are several instances in the play that points to the contrary regarding Minnie Foster’s housekeeping skills. According to Pallaro, while the incomplete works in Minnie’s Kitchen send a message of an incompetent housekeeper to the male character, the women on the hand, interpret it as a sign of a disturbed consciousness. The discovery made by the female characters reveals that she was under duress following the murder of her canary by her husband. Before the death of her husband, Minnie still executed her household chores perfectly. For example, the spoiled fruits show that she had time to preserve food for her family’s future use. The incomplete work may also be a sign that Minnie did not plan for the murder of her husband. Instead, her action of strangling her husband was as a result of John provoking her by killing her bird. Throughout the play, the women do not refer to Minnie Foster as Mrs. Wright. Instead, they refer to her by her name, yet they keep it official when referring to each other. According to Pollaro,a social studies educator at Mariner Middle School, this may be because the women subconsciously consider Minnie Foster a free person after the death of her husband. This is supported by Mrs. Peters’ statement when she says, “Oh, her fruit; it did freeze. She worried about when it turned so cold. She said the fire’d for out and her jar would break” (Glaspell, Trifles, Ch 35 1109). The spoiled fruit symbolizes Minnie Foster’s predicaments at the hand of John Wright and the breaking of the jar depicts her getting the freedom to control her life. This shows that Minnie was a patient and persevering woman and things only gets bad when she is provoked or prevented from exercising her wishes which is to be free. This is not the image the county attorney wants the audience to get about the female characters. As such, while men consider Minnie a lousy keeper, the women reveal that she was mentally disturbed hence the reason for the incomplete work in her kitchen.
Besides, other than judging Minnie as inept, the men are not interested in knowing her situation while women reveal evidence that points to her lonely life that account for her action. Even if the men do not have any evidence that connects Minnie Foster to the murder of her husband, they seem convinced that she is guilty. Before Minnie married John Wright, Mrs. Hale reveals, "She used to wear pretty clothes and be livery, when she was Minnie Foster" (Glaspell, Trifles, Ch 35 1111). According to Yi-Chi, this shows that she was changing in personality. She underwent a metamorphosis that demonstrates that she is deteriorating mentally. There are several images that points to the lonely life that Minnie lives. For example, Minnie loved to sing as symbolized by the bird. According to Pallaro, the bird substitutes the unborn children in Minnie’s marriage. It also helps to ‘displace the silence of a coldly authoritarian’s husband’ (Pallaro). As such, when the women see the bird canary, they sympathize with Minnie. While Mr. Wright sees nothing wrong with killing the bird, the women view his action as symbolic of him strangling his wife. For the women, the caged bird represents Minnie and its strangling depicts her denial of the right to communicate with other women. Throughout the story, there is no evidence that may suggest that Minnie was ever physically abused by her husband. However, women unearth the other side of the story that reveals that she endured emotional torture as manifested by the jar of cherries. The jar of cherries symbolizes the kind of life that Minnie lived with her husband before she decided to kill him. In addition,the jar of cherries conveys the message of the coldness of Minnie’s marriage as well as her general life. Some of the emotional torture experienced by Minnie can be seen through a flashback of her life before her marriage till when she murdered her husband. However, although the men have come to investigate the motive for the murder of John, they seem to be convinced that Minnie maliciously killed her husband. This notion is challenged by women as they find evidence that shows that she did not plan to kill her husband. The women discover one of the pieces of clothing that Minnie was making, but it seems that it is not nicely done at the end. Mrs. Hale says “why it looks as if she didn’t know what she was about (Glaspell, Trifles, Ch 35 1113). This shows that Minnie tried to fathom the killing of her canary by her husband but was overpowered by emotions.
Similarly, while the men perceive Minnie as the criminal, the women view her as a victim. For the women,John subjected Minnie Foster to social isolation and psychological torture that makes him a criminal for ruining his wife’s life. For example, he failed to consent to the party-telephone that would have connected her to the rest of the society. For Mrs. Wright, the party-line telephone is unnecessary expenditure. John is considered a good man in the way he does not drink, pays his debts and keep his words. However, the women have a different view of him as upon the further investigation of the crime scene, “the women reveal that Minnie is restricted within the private without a social life” (Yi-chi 245). Mrs. Hale reveals to the women the true nature of John as she says, “But he was a hard man, Mrs. Peters. Just to pass the time of day with him. Like a raw wind that gets to the bone” (Glaspell, Trifles, Ch 35 1111). This information helps shape the events that happens at the end of the plays. Throughout the play, Mrs. Peters is depicted a strict follower of the law as seen in her statement “the law is the law” (Glaspell, Trifles, Ch 35 1112). She does not condone or sympathize with Minnie Foster. However, towards the end of the play, she seems to have changed her position on the issue of justice. This is after she learns of the strangled canary. The dead bird makes the women to view Mr. Wright as the greatest criminal for preventing Minnie from communicating with other women (Pollaro). Besides, Mrs. Peters resonates with Minnie Foster even if she did not know her prior to the incidence. When she sees the strangled canary, Mrs. Peters recalls her kitten that was killed by a boy while she was young. She shows her understanding of what a person can do when provoked or angry as she says that was it not for people who restrained her, she could have murdered the boy who killed her kitten. Besides, Mrs. Peters shows that she understandsMinnie’s lonely life when she recounts the death of her first baby (Yi-chin 245). After unveiling the cruel nature of Mr. Wright as well as the lonely life that Minnie Foster lived, the women’s perception of her changes. They are convinced that she is a victim while her dead husband is the criminal.
Finally, the play Trifles by Susan Glaspell is centered on the exploration of the social division brought about by the strict gender roles that allow both men and women to have competing perspectives on almost every issue. This is seen in the way the men disregard the kitchen as they consider it as not having anything of value. From the beginning, both women and men occupy different positions. For example, the women are mere visitors to Minnie Foster’s house while the men have come for official duty. Additionally, the men are convinced that Minnie is responsible for the murder of her husband, but women view her as a victim and the dead husband as the criminal. This is based on the events that resulted in Minnie actions. The women reveal that Minnie was provoked when she decided to kill her husband. The dead bird symbolizes Minnie’s only companion. As such, by strangling it, John Wright was inviting trouble, and as such he is the victimizer and not Minnie. From the title, the men consider women as unimportant. They even disregard the women's role in the society in the way they challenge Minnie's housekeeping skills. Besides, throughout the course of their investigation, they do not ask the women if at all they have found anything of value. However, Glaspell elevates the position of women by depicting them as more thorough and intelligent in the way they analyze the crime scene and come up with a plausible explanation. Besides, the women challenge the notion held by the men that Minnie was a lousy housekeeper by depicting her as someone who was mentally disturbed by the events surrounding the death of her canary. As such, Trifles has demonstrated that Susan Glaspell was interested in portraying the competing perspectives of men and women in their approach to different social issues.
Glaspell, Susan. Trifles. New York, NY : Frank Shay, the Washington Square Players, 1916. Print.
Holstein, Suzy Clarkson. "Silent Justice in a Different Key: Glaspell's"Trifles."The Midwest Quarterly 44.3 (2003): 282.
Pollaro, Cindy. "Glaspell". Itech.fgcu.edu. N.p., 2016. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.
Yi-Chin, Shih. "Place and Gender In Susan Glaspell’s Trifles and Woman’s Warrior", Humanitas Taiwanica, May 2013, 237-256. Web:homepage.ntu.edu.tw/~bcla/e_book/78/7808.pdf,10 Oct. 2016.
Trifles by Susan Glaspell
This is a one-act play that revolves around investigations into the murder of a farmer named John Wright. He was strangled while he slept and his wife Mrs. Minnie Wright is being held in custody as a suspect. The sheriff (Mr. Henry Peters) and the prosecutor (George Henderson) are leading the investigation. They go to the Wrights' house accompanied by Mr. Hale, the neighbor who first discovered the murder, to try and look for clues. They are accompanied by two women; Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters who are not really expected to contribute in any way to the investigation. Mr. and Mrs. Wright do not actually appear in the play but we learn about them from the other characters especially the two women when left on their own. The center stage is Mrs. Wright's kitchen and this where the story unfolds.
I noticed that the author, Susan Glaspell has used a lot of symbolism in the play and to good effect. We never get to meet Minnie Wright but the canary perfectly represents her life in this story. Mrs. Hale says this of her before she was married – "She used to wear pretty clothes and be lively, when she was Minnie Foster, one of the town girls singing in the choir." In comparison to the canary Mrs. Hale says that Minnie "used to sing real pretty herself." More to the point, she says further that "she was kind of like a bird herself, real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and- fluttery. How she did change." The women find the cage where the canary used to be kept, rather symbolic of Minnie's marital years as Mrs. Wright, a time in which she was "caged" herself. The two women notice the door to the cage had been broken, and when they find the dead bird with its neck wrung, they conclude that Mr. Wright must have killed it. Mrs. Hale says; "Wright wouldn't like the bird- a thing that sang. She used to sing. He killed that too." This implies that Mr. Wright "killed" the lively spirit of Minnie Foster due to his mistreatment of her in the marriage.
There are also other aspects of symbolism used in the play. The use of the title "Trifles" is very symbolic. It represents the little things that the women are worried about. The play is about a murder investigation and it turns out all the clues are in the "trifles" which the male investigators ignore. The cold and gloomy weather also symbolizes the life led by Mrs. Wright while she was married to Mr. Wright. The setting of the play in the kitchen reflects the position of women in the society at that time. Furthermore, Mrs. Wright asks to be brought for her apron in jail, and Mrs. Peters says "I suppose just to make her feel more natural." The "natural' position of women at that time was that of housewife and home-maker.
One major external conflict in the book is the position of women in the society. Glaspell was not just out to highlight the gender roles in society, but to make the reader question how it is we understand others and their stories. I believe the author wrote this play to highlight the plight of women during that time. Women were starting to question their traditional roles in society and Mrs. Glaspell tries to justify their reason for doing so. Even though Mrs. Wright murdered her husband, the author still tries to portray her as the victim and succinctly justifies her crime. First, Mr. Wright is portrayed as a cruel cold-hearted man who has made his wife's life miserable. Mrs. Wright's only ray of hope is her canary and when Mr. Wright kills it, Mrs. Wright just cannot stand the cruelty any longer and kills him in the process. The author also makes the male characters look incompetent as they fail to solve the murder. Instead, it is the women who unravel the mystery. This is in line with the feminist ideology that was taking root at that time. Mrs. Glaspell is trying to push that women were capable of taking up other roles apart from home-making. Their opinions and ideas were worth taking note of.
I would give the book a rating of four out of five. The use of different literary terms like setting, symbolism, and irony makes the story in a powerful, awesome way. As we read, we are made to think at the same time. The author does not use many words in a bid to tell everything. Instead, she paints a vivid picture of the circumstances in a way that readers can easily identify with. The author has used the element of setting to cover time, location and events surrounding the murder. The setting here not only supports the main background of the story but also justifies the props used in the play. The play was written in 1916 at a time when women had started questioning the traditional roles thrust upon them by a highly patriarchic society. Their roles were more or less that of homemakers and even most issues touching directly on their welfare were decided by men. Women had started to realize they were oppressed and it was up to them to speak out for their welfare. Feminism was well on the rise albeit slowly. In the play we see the men trivialize the women's concerns in typical chauvinistic approach to things. The women are too timid to speak out their minds freely, but we see them bonding and joining forces to protect their own. One other important aspect is that it sets the tone of the story.
The whole play is full of irony in its various forms; verbal, situational and dramatic. An example of verbal irony is seen when the county attorney asks the sheriff; "You are convinced that there is nothing important here- nothing that would point to any motive?" and the sheriff replies- "Nothing but kitchen things." Little do they know that the clues they are looking for are in those kitchen things! Furthermore, we expect that this team of male investigators comprising of the sheriff, the county attorney, and Mr. Hale would be the ones to solve the case yet, in the end, it is the women who do so, even though they don't reveal so. The plot and use of stylistic devices are very good to warrant a rating of four out of five.
The ending of the book really surprised me because it came so abruptly. The official murder investigation is being conducted by the sheriff and the county attorney. The story ends before they conclude their investigations, even though the women have already solved the mystery. We don't know whether the men went on to solve the murder at the end of their investigations or not. Perhaps they just could not figure things out and were forced to give up. We also don't get to know the final fate of Minnie Foster Wright. Was she finally brought to justice, or was she released due to lack of evidence?
The play ends with the women having decided to side with their own and keep quiet about their findings. Will they manage to keep it that way in the face of on-going investigations, especially Mrs. Peters who is "married to the law"? We are also left to wonder if they will ever reveal what they know to Minnie Foster Wright herself. The author leaves us with so many questions unanswered and I think this was on purpose so that the readers themselves can be the judges.
If the book had another chapter at the end, it would most probably continue with its main feministic theme. The whole story seems designed not only to make the reader sympathize with the situation women find themselves in but also to raise their stature as important members of the society. When the county attorney asks Mrs. Hale why she never visited Minnie frequently, she says;"Farmer's wives have their hands full". The men, on the other hand, have been portrayed as chauvinistic and sloppy. When the county attorney asks the sheriff; "You are convinced that there is nothing important here- nothing that would point to any motive?" and the sheriff replies- "Nothing but kitchen things." The sheriff says; "Well you can't beat women! Held for murder and worrying about her preserves." With such an attitude, there is no way they were going to get to the bottom of things in their investigations. Mr. Hale adds; "Women are used to worrying about trifles."
An additional chapter would most probably see the men going round in circles in their investigations until they give in to their frustrations. It is highly unlikely that they will enlist the help of the women. The men walk into the women's conversation and the sheriff says;"They wonder if she was going to quilt it or just knot it" (and the men laugh while the women look abashed). As the men come down from their inspection upstairs, the county attorney asks "Well ladies have you decided whether she was going to quilt it or knot it?" and Mrs. Peters replies "We think she was going to knot it." His assumption is that they are talking about Mrs. Wright's sewing only, yet the ladies had already decided that Mrs. Wright actually strangled her husband. The men regard the women's concerns as unimportant, not only in this investigation but life in general. The book would have most likely ended with Minnie Foster being released for lack of evidence.
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