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‘Trifles’ is a play by Susan Keating Glaspell, an American playwright, actress and bestselling novelist who died on 27 July 1948. It is based on the murder of John Wright, which Susan reported on while working as a journalist. Margaret, Hossack’s wife was accused of killing her husband, a fact which she denied, arguing that John had been killed by an intruder with an axe (Bryan).
This play describes the suffering that women are made to go through in their marriages. The women in the play end up having the upper hand as they use cleverness to retain the power from the men. Just as the title infers, the women are accused of worrying over trifles, small and petty things which did not add up to any importance. Ironically, it is in these small unimportant things that the women solve the crime. The theme of vengeance is portrayed in as the revenge of suppression, women being portrayed as unintelligent and unsophisticated.
The play, a real life murder case heavily employs symbolism to help solve the mystery surrounding John’s death. There are several symbols that help the reader figure out who was responsible for the murder of Mrs. Wright’s husband. An erroneously stitched quilt and incomplete housework which the visitors discover when they visit Mrs. Wright’s farmhouse are some of the symbols. Mr. Henderson, the County Attorney, upon observing the Wright’s kitchen concludes that Mrs. Wright did not have “the homemaking instinct”. On the other hand, the other women, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale interpret this as the struggle that had occurred between Mrs. Wright and her husband. Henderson fails to read the incomplete and disorganized housework as evidence leading to the death of Mr. Wright, which was a form of revenge for the killing of Mrs. Wrights canary bird by her husband.
Isolationism can also be viewed as another symbol which links Mrs. Wright to the murder of her husband. Mrs. Wright’s farmhouse is located down the woods, in a hollow, implying that she was in a secluded place, and that Mr. Wright did not want anyone to have contact with himself or his wife. Mrs. Wright’s isolation is the ultimate cause of her unhappiness in the marriage. As Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale note, Mr. Wright was a hard man who did not provide the warmth and companionship needed. Both women conclude that the pet bird had been a substitute for Mrs. Wright’s lack of children and friends, implying loneliness as an important element of Mrs. Wright’s condition. It is this loneliness, which is also common to the other women, that connects them and makes them support Mrs. Wright’s act of murdering her husband, making them seek their own form of vengeance by covering up the evidence they came across.
Throughout the story, Mrs. Wright is portrayed as having been inferior to her husband, a fact which she struggles to live with. Even though John maintained a respectable image in the public, it was obvious that behind closed doors, he abused his wife. The discovery of a broken door and Mrs. Wright’s canary bird which had a broken neck can only conclude that John was very anguished and physical. The canary, a beautiful free- spirited bird with a sweet voice represented Minnie Foster, Mrs. Wright’s maiden name, at one time. Just as the bird had a sweet voice, so did Minnie, when she could sing in her church. But the bird was caged, which symbolized Minnie since she got married, as she was rarely seen outside the house.
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The bird’s cage was Minnie’s jail, and its death symbolized her freedom, for the fate of the bird was also the fate of her husband. The implementation of women’s power is revealed when John is discovered with a rope tied around his neck, symbolizing that women were tired of being held down by their husbands. The rope around Mr. Wright’s neck, just as the canary bird was found with a twisted neck reveals Mrs. Wright’s vengeance, and symbolizes the ultimate rejection of the suppression from her husband.
The other women in Mrs. Wright’s home play an important role as well. In the play, the ‘professional’ detectives, the men, are busy about the house, trying to find evidence to indict Mrs. Wright of the murder of her husband. They constantly ridicule the women by referring to them as typical ladies, always worried about small and useless ordeals. The authorities laugh at the women’s conversation when Mrs. Hale notes the stitches in the quilt as being irregularly stitched, as if something was not right. The authorities identify the stitches as merely something unimportant that only women could concentrate on, not realizing its importance to the case.
Later, the women discover the mangled body of the bird and its cage while the men were busy upstairs finding a material motive. They notice that the canary’s neck was broken, instantly linking this incident with the murder. The women realize that Mrs. Wright’s murder of her husband did not solely result from her unhappiness in the marriage, but from an obligatory return to solitude by the killing of her canary bird. It is evident that Mrs. Wright killed her husband as she could not come up with a more fitting revenge than to inflict the same kind of damage that had been done to her bird by her husband.
It is this realization that catalyzes the women’s sense of empathy. One of the women, Mrs. Peters, recalls having had similar emotions when a boy killed her kitten many years ago. The pain resulting from the death of a loved one to these women is so great, that it deserves any necessary punishment. It is for this reason that they take some measures to cover up the evidence which could have led to the realization of Mrs. Wright as the killer of her husband. Their actions are triggered by the understanding of the oppression Mrs. Wright was made to go through in her marriage. They understood that Mrs. Wright had been denied a lot of freedom by her husband as they too were treated by their husbands the same. It is for this reason that they conspired to cover up for their fellow woman, who according to them, had been prompted to take ‘appropriate’ action.
At the end of the play, when the county Attorney asked if the women had found out what Mrs. Wright intended to do with the quilt, they mockingly claim that she was going to ‘knot’ it. Even in the end, the men who ridiculed women as always worrying about trifles did not realize the importance of these ‘trifles’ in linking the murder to Mrs. Wright. Keeping quiet about the evidence they discovered was the revenge of the women (Sawyer).
Though that was the only time that they could claim ultimate victory over the men, they eventually do so by outsmarting the male’s authority. The play depicts Mr. Wright as having been abusive, smothering Mrs. Wright’s youth and vitality and that the killing of her pet bird had pushed her over the hedge (Susan). Similarly, the play leaves the reader to decide if vengeance is a sufficient motive for murder.
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