Michael J. Cummings...©
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."
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.
he home?" Hale asked.
why can’t I see him?"
‘Cause he’s dead," she said.
Hale asked what he died of, she replied, “He died of a rope around his
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
room during the night and strangled him. She didn’t hear anything, she
said, because “I sleep sound."
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
guess that’s all I know that you don’t," Hale tells 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
Well, can you beat the women! Held for murder and worryin' about her preserves.
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
ATTORNEY. I guess before we're through she may have something more serious
than preserves to worry about.
Well, women are used to worrying over trifles.
Hale points out in Mrs. Wright's defense that there is a lot of work to
be done on a farm.
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
never seemed a very cheerful place," she says. She adds that John Wright
wasn’t exactly a cheerful person.
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.
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."
Peters says, “Do you think she did it?"
don't think she did. Asking for an apron and her little shawl. Worrying
about her fruit."
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?"
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.
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.
all over the place! Why, it looks as if she didn't know what she was about!"
Mrs. Hale says.
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
as if someone must have been rough with it," Mrs. Hale says.
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."
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.
the sheriff and the county attorney enter, the latter notices the cage
and says, “Has the bird flown?"
Hale says she thinks a cat got it, then ran away.
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
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
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
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.
decide to wrap the jar of preserves with her other belongings and allow
her to think that all of her canned fruit remains intact.
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."
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.
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!"
call it—knot it, Mr. Henderson," Mrs. Hale says..Setting
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.
Minnie Foster Wright:
Wife of John Wright and his accused murderer. She is being held in the
county jail. The dialogue in the play suggests that her husband, though
honest and clean-living, was a taskmaster and a miser who made life miserable
for his wife. Apparently, he wrung the neck of a canary that his wife kept
in a cage to sing and brighten her dreary life. In retaliation, the dialogue
suggests, Mrs. Wright killed her husband in similar fashion, wringing his
neck with a rope.
Mr. Hale: Man who
tells the the sheriff and the county attorney that he stopped at the Wright
place on his way to town with a wagonload of potatoes. With him was his
helper Harry. Hale planned to ask John Wright to share with him the cost
of a party telephone line. After entering the Wright farmhouse, Hale and
Harry discovered the body of John Wright. The county attorney calls upon
Hale to recount what he saw.
Harry: Mr. Hale's
Sheriff Peters: County
lawman who holds Mrs. Wright in jail.
County attorney. He and Peters scour the farmhouse for clues that will
hold up in a court trial.
Mrs. Hale: Wife of
Mr. Hale. While the sheriff and the county attorney search the Wright property
for evidence, Mrs. Hale and the sheriff's wife discover clues to the murder
among trivial items they find in the kitchen.
Mrs. Peters: Wife
of the sheriff.
Frank: Deputy sheriff.
Dr. Lloyd: County
of Work and Year of Publication
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.
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
Cage: John Wright's
oppression (or immuration) of his wife and her spirit.
Stove, Cold House, and
Broken Jars: When the stove fire goes out, the house temperature drops
below freezing and all but one of the jars of preserves break. The stove
fire appears to represent John and Minnie Wright's marriage. The fire probably
goes out just before or immediately after the murder. The resulting freezing
temperatures crack the jars of preserves, apparently representing Minnie's
mental well being. The jar that remains intact seems to symbolize the modicum
of sanity left to her and the hope for a brighter future that Mrs. Hale
and Mrs. Peters envision for her.
Unevenly Sewn Quilt Block:
Mrs. Wright's disturbed mental condition.
Rope: Minnie Wright's
usurpation of male power. Strangulation is a man's method of killing. In
her rebellion against her domineering husband, Minnie musters the strength
to murder like a man, thus perversely asserting her equality.
Casting Off Male Oppression
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.
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.
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:
(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!
MRS. HALE (her hand against
her pocket). We call it—knot it, Mr. Henderson.
Study Questions and Writing
the following passage from the play, then answer the question that follows
MRS. HALE. Well,
I guess John Wright didn't wake when they was slipping that rope under
didn't Mrs. Peters use the gun instead of the rope to kill her husband?
MRS. PETERS. No, it's strange.
It must have been done awful crafty and still. They say it was such a --funny
way to kill a man, rigging it all up like that.
MRS. HALE. That's just what
Mr. Hale said. There was a gun in the house. He says that's what he can't
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.
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.
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.
Mrs. Wright is found innocent for lack of incriminating evidence, do you
believe her conscience will eventually make her confess the ....crime?
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?.