A Play by Susan Glaspell (1876-1948)
A Study Guide
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2008
.......On a very cold morning, Sheriff Peters enters the dreary kitchen of murder victim John Wright’s farmhouse with a man named Hale and the county attorney, George Henderson. With them are the wives of Peters and Hale. After they gather around the kitchen stove to warm themselves, the sheriff asks Hale to recount for Henderson what he saw in the house the previous morning, when he found Wright's body. However, Henderson first wants to know whether anything at the crime scene has been disturbed. The sheriff assures him that everything is the same as it was the day before. He notes, though, that he had sent his deputy, Frank, to the farmhouse earlier to build the stove fire, “but I told him not to touch anything except the stove—and you know Frank."
.......Hale then tells his story. While he and a helper, Harry, were on their way to town with a load of potatoes, Hale stopped his wagon at the farmhouse just after eight o’clock to try to persuade Wright to go in with him on a party telephone line. He knocked, thought he heard someone tell him to enter, and went in. He then saw Mrs. Wright in her rocker fidgeting with her apron. She seemed preoccupied. When he asked to see John, she laughed. He repeated his request, and she told him he could not see John.
.......“Isn’t he home?” Hale asked.
.......She said yes.
.......“Then why can’t I see him?”
.......“ ‘Cause he’s dead,” she said.
.......When Hale asked what he died of, she replied, “He died of a rope around his neck.”
.......Hale fetched Harry, and the two men went upstairs and found Wright's body lying on the bed. Mrs. Wright, seemingly unconcerned, said someone must have entered the room during the night and strangled him. She didn’t hear anything, she said, because “I sleep sound.”
.......At that point, Hale says, Harry went to the Rivers place nearby to call the coroner, Dr. Lloyd. Meanwhile, Mrs. Wright moved to another chair. Shortly thereafter, Harry returned and a little while later Dr. Lloyd and the sheriff arrived.
.......“I guess that’s all I know that you don’t,” Hale tells Henderson.
.......Henderson looks around the kitchen, then opens a cupboard door and finds a sticky substance. The women go over and take a look, and Mrs. Peters says, .“Oh, her fruit; it did freeze,” she tells Mrs. Hale. Then she tells Henderson that Mrs. Wright used to worry that her jars of fruit would freeze and break if the stove fire went out. The men then poke fun at the women for showing concern about the preserves at a time when they are investigating a murder.
.......SHERIFF. Well, can you beat the women! Held for murder and worryin' about her preserves........“And yet, for all their worries, what would we do without the ladies?” Henderson says, washing his hands. Noting how disorderly the kitchen looks—with its unwashed pans, a dish towel on the table, and the dirty towels with which he wipes his hands—he comments, “Not much of a housekeeper, would you say ladies?”
.......Mrs. Hale points out in Mrs. Wright's defense that there is a lot of work to be done on a farm.
.......When Henderson questions her about her relationship with Mrs. Wright, Mrs. Hale says she hadn’t seen the woman in more than a year even though they were neighbors.
.......“It never seemed a very cheerful place,” she says. She adds that John Wright wasn’t exactly a cheerful person.
.......The sheriff notes that his wife will be picking up some clothes for Mrs. Wright and taking them to the jail. Henderson gives his approval but says he will want to see what she takes. After the men go upstairs to view the crime scene, Mrs. Hale defends Mrs. Wright for “not having things slicked up when she had to come away in a hurry.” She also retrieves a jar of cherry preserves and says Mrs. Wright will feel bad when she finds out it is the only jar of fruit still intact after she worked so hard on her canning.
.......After they gather the clothes—including a shawl and an apron that Mrs. Wright requested—Mrs. Hale examines a skirt, then observes that Mr. Wright was a penny-pincher. That may have been the reason that Mrs.Wright kept to the house rather than taking part in local social activities. Before she married John Wright, she says, Minnie Foster wore pretty clothes and belonged to the church choir. “But that—oh, that was thirty years ago.”
.......Mrs. Peters says, “Do you think she did it?”
.......“I don't think she did. Asking for an apron and her little shawl. Worrying about her fruit.”
.......Mrs. Peters says her husband wants to find a motive for the murder, like anger, but Mrs. Hale says she sees no signs of anger. She adds that “it seems kind of sneaking” to lock her up and then come out and go through her house. As they examine piecework that Mrs. Wright apparently planned to use to make a quilt, Mrs. Hale notes, "It's log cabin pattern. Pretty, isn't it? I wonder if she was goin' to quilt or just knot it?"
.......Just then, the men come downstairs. The sheriff, overhearing the women's conversation, says, "They wonder if she was going to quilt it or just knot it." The three men laugh. Then they go out to the barn to investigate.
.......While the women sit at the kitchen table, Mrs. Hale examines the blocks to be used for the quilt. All had been sewn evenly except one.
.......“It's all over the place! Why, it looks as if she didn't know what she was about!” Mrs. Hale says.
.......She pulls out some stitches, threads a needle, and begins to finish it properly. Meanwhile, while looking in a cupboard for paper and string with which to wrap Mrs. Wright’s belongings, Mrs. Peters finds a bird cage and asks her companion whether Minnie had a bird. Mrs. Hale doesn’t know, but she remembers that a man was in the neighborhood the previous year selling canaries. Mrs. Peters notes that a hinge on the cage door had been pulled a part.
.......“Looks as if someone must have been rough with it,” Mrs. Hale says.
.......She puts down her sewing and expresses regret that she did not visit Mrs. Wright in the past year. She says John Wright was an upright man who didn’t drink and was good to his word. However, he was also a “hard man,” she says, “like a raw wind that gets to the bone.”
.......Mrs. Hale suggests that Mrs. Peters take the quilting material to the jail with her so Mrs. Wright will have something to do. Mrs. Peters thinks it’s a good idea. When they rummage through the sewing basket for the required material, Mrs. Hale finds a box containing a piece of silk wrapped around a dead bird with a wrung neck. The women are horrified. When they hear the men approaching, Mrs. Hale hides the box under quilting pieces.
.......As the sheriff and the county attorney enter, the latter notices the cage and says, “Has the bird flown?”
.......Mrs. Hale says she thinks a cat got it, then ran away.
.......Henderson reports that there was no sign that anyone broke into the house and that the rope appeared to belong to the Wrights. When he and the sheriff go back upstairs, Mrs. Hale tells Mrs. Peters that Mrs. Wright apparently liked the bird and was going to bury it in the box. It was John Wright who killed it, she concludes, because he didn’t like it—“a thing that sang. She [Mrs. Wright] used to sing. He killed that, too.” Mrs. Peters says, “We don’t know who killed the bird . . . [and] we don’t know who killed him [Wright].”
.......To have a bird sing for you in such a dreary house, Mrs. Hale says, must have lifted Mrs. Wright’s spirits. It must have seemed very quiet after the bird died.
......."I know what stillness is," Mrs. Peters says. "When we homesteaded in Dakota, and my first baby died—after he was two years old, and me with no other then—"
.......But, she says, “The law has got to punish the crime, Mrs. Hale.” Mrs. Hale recalls when Minnie sang in the choir and wore nice clothes. “Who’s going to punish that?” she says, implying that John Wright was responsible for causing Minnie to withdraw from society.
.......They decide to wrap the jar of preserves with her other belongings and allow her to think that all of her canned fruit remains intact.
.......When the men come down, Henderson remarks that “everything is perfectly clear” except the motive. The jury will need a motive. Hale reenters from the outside and says the team of horses is ready. Henderson says he will remain behind to study the crime scene more carefully. When the sheriff asks him whether he wants to inspect the items the women gathered for Mrs. Wright, Henderson says, “Oh, I guess they're not very dangerous things the ladies have picked up.”
.......At the sheriff's suggestion, he and Henderson check the windows in another room for clues. Meanwhile, Mrs. Hale snatches up the box containing the canary and puts it in her coat pocket.
.......When the men return to the kitchen, the sheriff says jokingly, “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!”
.......“We call it—knot it, Mr. Henderson,” Mrs. Hale says..Setting
.......The time is the early twentieth century during cold weather. The action takes place in the kitchen of a farmhouse in the American Midwest. The author describes the scene and the characters as follows:
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 breadbox, a dish towel on the table—other signs of incompleted work. At the rear the outer door opens, and the Sheriff comes in, followed by the county Attorney and Hale. The Sheriff and Hale are men in middle life, the county Attorney is a young man; all are much bundled up and go at once to the stove. They are followed by the two women—the Sheriff's Wife first; she is a slight wiry woman, a thin nervous face. Mrs. Hale is larger and would ordinarily be called more comfortable looking, but she is disturbed now and looks fearfully about as she enters. The women have come in slowly and stand close together near the door. (Glaspell)Characters
John Wright: Murder victim who lived with his wife in a farmhouse. He was said to be an upright but "hard" man.
Trifles is a one-act play centering on two women who discover murder clues that county officials regard as trivial. But the play is not a murder mystery. Rather, it is a cultural and psychological study that probes the status of women in society and their intuitive grasp of reality. Glaspell wrote the play in 1916 for the Provincetown Players, a Massachusetts acting group that she and her husband, George Cram Cook, founded in Massachusetts in 1915.
The Title's Meanings
The title refers to more than the items in the Wright home that Peters, Henderson, and Hale regard as irrelevant and Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale regard as significant. It also refers to the men's view of the women as trifles and their observations as unimportant. It is likely also that the murder victim regarded the bird as an annoying trifle. To Mrs. Wright, it was apparently one of her few sources of joy.
.......The climax occurs when the two women discover the dead bird, enabling them to envision the events leading up to the murder of John Wright.
Bird: Mrs. Wright's spirit.
Casting Off Male Oppression
.......In 1916, when Glaspell wrote Trifles, male-dominated society continued to deny women the right to vote and severely limited their opportunities in offices, industries, legislatures, and the marketplace. In the home, the husband was king and the wife a mere vassal. In carrying out one of the most important and demanding tasks in all of society, rearing children, she frequently received little or no help from her spouse. The typical lower- or middle-class wife spent much of her time in the kitchen, cooking, baking, canning, and stoking the stove fire. In "leisure" hours, she sewed, knitted, darned, and quilted. Women who worked outside the home usually held jobs as secretaries, clerks, waitresses, nannies, housekeepers, washerwomen, and manual laborers in factories. There was no minimum wage for these women. Rare was the female physician, lawyer, archeologist, business executive, or professional athlete. However, thanks in large part to pioneering work by women social reformers in the nineteenth century, the women of the early twentieth century began to demand fairer treatment and equal rights. Glaspell's play presents one radical woman rebel, Mrs. Wright, who goes to the extreme to free herself of male domination. It also presents two quiet rebels, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, who side with Mrs. Wright and withhold evidence that the sheriff and the county attorney need to establish a motive for Mrs. Wright's alleged crime.
.......So-called women's intuition demonstrates its power in this play when Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters discover household items, which the men regard as trifles, that lead to the establishment of a motive for Mrs. Wright's crime. The implication here is that women possess abilities that can complement and augment those of men. A society that limits women's use of their talents is the poorer for doing so.
.......Sheriff Peters and County Attorney George Henderson pride themselves on their powers of detection and logical reasoning. But it is the two women, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, who discover the clues and establish a motive amid seemingly innocuous items in the Wright home. The trifles with which the men say the women concern themselves turn out to be the key evidence that the men are looking for. The story ends with an ironic exchange between Henderson and Mrs. Hale:
COUNTY ATTORNEY (facetiously). 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!
Study Questions and Writing Topics
1..Analyze the following passage from the play, then answer the question that follows it:
MRS. HALE. Well, I guess John Wright didn't wake when they was slipping that rope under his neck.....Why didn't Mrs. Peters use the gun instead of the rope to kill her husband?
2..Mrs.Peters hesitates to cover up for Minnie Wright, twice reminding Mrs. Hale that the killer must answer for the crime. However, she ....has a change of heart. Find the passage in the play (near the end) indicating that she has decided to go along with a coverup.
3..Imagine what life was like for Minnie Wright when John Wright was alive. Then write a page of dialogue that begins when Mrs. Wright ....asks her husband for money to buy new clothes.
4..Write an essay that compares and contrasts life for a typical American wife of the early twentieth century with life for a typical ....American wife of the twenty-first century.
5..If Mrs. Wright is found innocent for lack of incriminating evidence, do you believe her conscience will eventually make her confess the ....crime?
6..If Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters change their minds and decide to testify against Minnie Wright, would the evidence they discovered be ....enough to conflict Mrs. Wright of murder?.