Susan Glaspell’s play, Trifles, reflects her fixation with culture-bound notions of gender roles and the complexities of inequality prevalent in the home as well as the public sphere during 1916. The competing roles and perspectives of men and women work to create a social division by confining women to the home where the contributions go unnoticed and undervalued. Glaspell’s use of symbolism in Trifles works to represent how false assumptions about women lead to a dysfunctional society.
The symbolism of the setting represents the isolation of women in society, as well as emphasizes the kitchen as a domain for women. The opening description of the kitchen as “ gloomy” and “ left without having been put in order” denotes a sense of despair (73). The coldness and isolation of the region also plays an important role. When the group first enters the house, they note the coldness and the men flock to the fire. As Hale recalls his conversation with Minnie, he asks her, “ How do, Mrs. Wright, it’s cold, ain’t it?” and she responds, “ Is it?” (74). The coldness correlates with John Wright’s callous actions towards Minnie, and the fact that Minnie doesn’t recognize the coldness foreshadows her husband’s death since she doesn’t feel his cold-heartedness anymore. Furthermore, Mrs. Hale describes the house as lacking cheer, saying “ I’ve never liked this place. Maybe because it’s down in a hollow and you don’t see the road. I dunno what it is, but it’s a lonesome place and always was” (79). The house being “ down in a hollow” underscores how isolated Minnie Wright’s house is, making it a desolate place to live. Additionally, this play speaks to the male-dominated society, in which females are delegated to the kitchens. In “ The Cult of True Womanhood,” there is a passage that states, “ A wife should occupy herself ‘ only with domestic affairs—wait till your husband confides to you those of a high importance—and do not give your advice until he asks for it’” (Welter 161). This further exemplifies that women belong in a domestic setting, not speaking their mind until asked to do so by their husbands. The men judge the women by their housekeeping skills and are dismissive of the hard work a woman faces in maintaining a home. For example, when the County Attorney asks the Sheriff if there is anything significant to the crime on the first floor, the Sherif responds, “ Nothing here but kitchen things” (75). Knowing the kitchen is the woman’s domain, the men ignore it—rejecting the notion that anything of value could be found in the kitchen. The men’s disregard for a woman’s role in the kitchen reflects how women were treated at that time. They linger on the edges of society and lose themselves in the care that they give others, being dismissed as inferior beings.
The characterization is symbolic throughout the play because it represents a patriarchal society, manifested in law and citizenry, as well as the effect it has on the women. At the beginning of the play, the character list is significant in supporting men’s status above women:
George Henderson, county attorney Henry Peters, sheriff Lewis Hale, a neighboring farmer Mrs. Peters Mrs. Hale (73)
Not only are the men’s first names added while the women’s are omitted, but the occupations of each man is listed; this represents how the identities of women are irrelevant, reducing them to property owned by their husbands. The descriptions of the characters read significant as well. In the stage directions, the men are depicted as coming in first, bundled up and flocking to the fire, while Mrs. Peters is described as a “ slight wiry woman” with “ a thin nervous face” and Mrs. Hale is “ larger and would ordinarily be called more comfortable looking, but she is disturbed now and looks fearfully about as she enters” (73). The illustrations of the women depict opposite personalities and are consistent throughout the play. While Mrs. Peters is less outspoken than Mrs. Hale, they each know their place underneath the men. Instead of going to the fire with the men, they “ stand close together near the door”, signifying the societal divide between men and women (73). The men coming in first represents their higher position in society, whereas the women are seen as secondary, coming in after them. The women do not follow the men to the fire because they were not asked, indicating men’s authority and how women are dependent on their husbands.
Throughout the play, the men’s condescending attitudes try to overpower the women, demonstrating how men subjugate women in society at that time. After Mrs. Peters find Minne’s frozen fruit jars and expresses her concern, Mr. Hale comments that “ women are used to worrying over trifles” (75). Right after this, the stage directions tell us that “[t]he two women move a little closer together,” showing that Mr. Hale’s words negatively affected them (75). Another key example of the men’s contempt concerns the quilt that Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale find. Mrs. Hale says this of the quilt: “ It’s log cabin pattern. Pretty, isn’t it? I wonder if she was goin’ to quilt it or just knot it?” (78). While she says this, the men descend the stairs, and the Sheriff repeats her words, drawing a laugh from the men. Their ridicule paints a clear picture on the cruel nature of men directed toward women at that time. While John Wright isn’t physically in the play, he is mentioned as being a good man that “ didn’t drink and kept his word as well as most”; however, Mrs. Hale continues on saying “ he was a hard man, Mrs. Peters. Just to pass the time of day with him—(Shivers.) Like a raw wind that gets to the bone” (80). This illustration of John Wright highlights his dominance over Minnie, and while he puts up a moral façade, underneath it is a harsh, hard man who controlled the household. Dealing with marriage, “ The Declaration of Sentiments” states that “[i]n the covenant of marriage, she is compelled to promise obedience to her husband, he becoming, to all intents and purposes, her master—the law giving him power to deprive her of her liberty” (Stanton 3). In Minnie’s marriage, John deprives her of contact with society, stifling her voice, and forces his dominance on her, making her obey his orders. The men’s unsympathetic treatment towards women extinguishes the chance of equality in society, asserting themselves above the subordinate women.
The women’s actions as a result of the men’s callous treatment towards them reflect the different stages of rebelliousness performed by the women in society. When the County Attorney comments on the dirty towels in the Wrights’ kitchen and how Minnie is “ not much of a housekeeper”, Mrs. Hale “ stiffly” replies with “ There’s a great deal of work to be done on a farm” (76). Clearly, the men have no respect for what women do in the kitchen, and Mrs. Hale makes sure to challenge the lawyer, showing she isn’t afraid to speak her mind by insulting the men who dare intrude in the kitchen where they believe they have no business. While Mrs. Hale sees no issues in being crude, Mrs. Peters refuses to join Mrs. Hale in making derisive statements. Instead, she tells Mrs. Hale that “ it’s no more than [the men’s] duty,” indicating her obedience towards her husband (76). Mrs. Hale is resentful of the way the men think they can come in and meddle with things, “ trying to get [Minine’s] house to turn against her”; yet, Mrs. Peters disagrees with Mrs. Hale, saying “ the law is the law” (78). Mrs. Peters defends the law and serves to represent women’s blind obedience to their husbands, whereas Mrs. Hale stands to represent the rebellious side of women at that time, not backing down from the patriarchal society. Interestingly, towards the end of the play, Mrs. Peters undergoes an internal conflict that serves as a turning point for her. After the women discover the bird and hide it from the approaching men, it is Mrs. Peters who disobeys their questioning about where the bird went. After this exchange, the stage directions say that “[t]he two women sit there not looking at one another, but as if peering into something and at the same time holding back. When they talk now it is in the manner of feeling their way over strange ground, as if afraid of what they are saying, but as if they cannot help saying it”, which represents the tension they feel because the women know they just lied (81). The women’s way of knowing leads them not simply to knowledge, but also to the decision on how to act on that knowledge. As a result of adopting this way of knowing, the women are able to gain power in being devalued, for their low status allows them to keep quiet.
Minnie Foster’s life spirals downward after her marriage to John Wright, clearly evident in the lack of upkeep in the kitchen. Mrs. Hale seems to have a cherished memory of Minnie singing in the choir wearing a “ white dress with blue ribbons”, underscoring her being well-known among other girls back in the day (81). The color white symbolizes purity and innocence, while blue indicates truth; Minnie’s dress represents her clinging to the truth of the innocence she had before marriage. Mrs. Hale also recalls Minnie’s activeness in the community, apparent when she says, “ I heard she used to wear pretty clothes and be lively, when she was Minnie Foster” (77). From this information, the inference can be made that Minnie entered her marriage automatically and without giving it much thought. As Mrs. Hale later points out about the women of her society, “ We live close together and we live far apart. We all go through the same things—it’s all just a different kind of the same thing” (81). Minnie perhaps married because, as with other women, any other options to do something else were null. Shortly after her marriage, Minnie adopted the attitude of a battered woman. John Wright assumes control over Minnie, marked by Mrs. Hale saying, “ Wright was close. I think maybe that’s why she kept so much to herself. She didn’t even belong to the Ladies’ Aid. I suppose she felt she couldn’t do her part, and then you don’t enjoy things when you feel shabby” (77). The women find evidence of this in Minne’s unfinished housework, representing Minnie’s incomplete life in her marriage. After further examination of the kitchen, the women find all but one broken jars of cherry preserves. Cherries symbolize protection, and the one jar that didn’t freeze represents Minnie’s hope of escaping. After Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters realize what Minnie has done, Mrs. Hale comes to understand her actions behind it. She tells Mrs. Peters, “ If I was you I wouldn’t tell her her fruit was gone. Tell her it ain’t. Tell it’s all right” (81-82). This works to show the women’s understanding and protection over Minnie, vowing to keep her hope alive. Because of their shared gender, the women can empathize with Mrs. Wright’s pain, and they decide to conceal her crime, concluding that her actions were justified.
Minnie’s state of mind deteriorates, becoming more evident in her abandonment of the joys of her home, and in what seems to be a daily battle of survival. The women realize the crazy patterns denote Minnie’s disturbed state of mind, which can only belong to a battered woman. Mrs. Hale finds the stitching and and comments, “[T]his is the one she was working on, and look at the sewing! All the rest of it has been so nice and even. And look at this! It’s all over the place! Why, it looks as if she didn’t know what she was about!” (78). The transformation of the stitching represents Minnie’s spirit breaking when she couldn’t take her husband’s abuse any longer. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters find the bird cage, and they note that the door “ looks as if someone [has] been rough with it”, and Mrs. Hale gets distracted of a memory of Minnie, relating her to a bird, being “ real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and—fluttery. How—she—did—change” (79-80). Birds symbolize freedom and the soul, and Minnie owning a bird represents her longing to be free, but because John kept it in the cage, just as he kept Minnie in the house, both fell short of the freedom they desire. The canary represents joy, and the women believe it brightened Minnie’s attitude, provided with a new sense of hope. When the women find the bird wrapped in silk with a wrung neck, they realize that John killed it, robbing Minnie of her happiness and renewed expectations (80). Along with the brutal death of Minnie’s only joy at the hands of her husband, the many years in a desiccated marriage drives Minnie to strike back at her husband, killing him in the same manner he killed her soul.
At the play’s end, the women unite to work together to right the wrongs of Minnie’s crime. Once the men’s backs are turned, the two women try to conceal the box with the dead bird before the men notice it. When Mrs. Peters tries to put the box in her purse, it doesn’t fit, causing Mrs. Hale to snatch the box and stuff it in her coat pocket. Because it takes both women to hide the evidence of Minnie’s actions, it represents how unity between women is needed to overcome the patriarchal society. In a continued show of gender unity, the men jokingly patronize the women’s involvement throughout the play, thus, encouraging the women to prevail in hiding the bird because they are devalued, meaning they can hide the evidence without being questioned. The play ends on the pun “ knot it”, which suggests that the women are “ not it” and will not be pinned for murder because they have knotted away their knowledge, referencing the bonds tying them together (82). As the title suggests, Trifles insinuates that the concerns of women are often considered to be unimportant issues that bear little or no importance to the true work of society, which is being carried out by men.