Trifles Summary & Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 23-page guide for “Trifles” by Susan Glaspell includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 15 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like In a sexist, patriarchal society, men continually underestimate the intelligence and capabilities of women—and ultimately sabotage themselves in so doing and Domestic life and items—as well as the strength and labor required to keep a home—are habitually dismissed by men as insignificant trifles.
Trifles is a one-act play by Susan Glaspell. The play covers the aftermath of the murder-by-strangulation of a farmer named John Wright. The Sheriff and County Attorney bustle around the farmhouse while Mrs. Minnie Wright is held in jail. The Sherriff’s wife, Mrs. Peters, and Mrs. Hale—the wife of a neighboring farmer—converse about Mrs. Wright’s lonely life and Mr. Wright’s fearsome harshness. Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale discover a canary with a snapped neck. They surmise that Mr. Wright killed the bird, which may be the missing piece in the case to prove motive. However, the two women ultimately hide the dead bird from the investigating men, who dismiss and condescend to the women throughout the play.
During the play’s first run in 1916 at the Wharf Theater in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Glaspell appeared as the character Mrs. Hale. The play was loosely inspired by the real-life, 1900 murder of John Hossack, an Iowa farmer who died due to axe wounds he sustained while sleeping in bed. His wife, Margaret Hossack, was subsequently tried and convicted—although the verdict was eventually overturned due to a technicality. Glaspell reported on the Hossack murder and the ensuing trial while employed at the Des Moines Daily News. Her journalistic work with the case inspired both Trifles and a short story titled “A Jury of Her Peers.”
The play opens in the somber and empty Wright farmhouse. The County Attorney—George Henderson—and Sheriff Henry Peters converse with Mr. Hale, a neighboring farmer. They repeatedly direct Mr. Hale away from speaking about Mr. Wright’s roughness and non-consideration of his wife, and toward recounting the details of his interaction with Mrs. Wright on the day that the murder was discovered.
Mr. Hale recalls that he stopped by the Wright farmhouse that day to ask if John would “go in with on a party telephone” (6). However, he discovered only Mrs. Wright in the kitchen, passively sitting and pleating an apron. After some prompting, Mrs. Wright informed Mr. Hale that her husband was dead—strangled. He recalled that she told him that she, being a heavy sleeper, slept through her husband’s murder and did not know who did it.
Henry and George rifle through the kitchen, and find there are preserves that have frozen and broken their jars. Mrs. Peters remarks that Mrs. Wright was correct to worry about and anticipate this happening when the gas fire went out, and Henry sarcastically marvels at Mrs. Wright’s frivolity amid facing a murder charge. George replies, “Well, women are used to worrying over trifles” (8). The two men also impugn Mrs. Wright’s housekeeping skills, and Mrs. Hale defends her, saying farms require a lot of work. She also says that Mr. Wright, too, had no homemaking instinct. George remarks that Mrs. Hale is “loyal to sex” (8), while also dismissing Mrs. Hale’s insinuations about Mr. Wright’s cruel, rough character and the unhappiness of his marriage.
The two men proceed up the stairs and the women remain in the kitchen, conversing. Mrs. Hale says, “I’d hate to have men coming into my kitchen, snooping round and criticizing” (13). She laments the loss of the preserves, and the hard work that must have gone into them. She also recounts a time, 30 years ago, when Minnie Wright was a young and lively girl. Mrs. Peters also remarks that Mrs. Wright requested an apron from jail: “There isn’t much to get you dirty in jail just to make her feel more natural” (14).
Mrs. Hale asks Mrs. Peters if she thinks that Mrs. Wright is guilty, and Mrs. Peters says that she doesn’t know. “Well I don’t think she did,” says Mrs. Hale, “sking for an apron and her little shawl. Worrying about her fruit” (14). Mrs. Peters remarks that prospects do not look good for Minnie, and the two women also agree that the way that Mr. Wright was rigged up “awful crafty and still” (15) was peculiar. Mrs. Hale also says that her husband is confounded that there was a gun in the house that went unused during the murder. Mrs. Peters remarks that George needs “a motive; something to show anger or—sudden feeling” (15). Mrs. Hale responds that she sees no signs of such things in the kitchen. “You know, it seems kind of sneaking,” she says, “Locking her up in town and then coming out here and trying to get her own house to turn on her!” (15). Mrs. Peters counters, “The law is the law” (15).
Mrs. Peters notices a quilt-in-progress laying on a table. Mrs. Hale wonders aloud whether Mrs. Wright planned on quilting or knotting the piece, and as Henry returns into the room, he says, “They wonder if she was going to quilt it or just knot it” (16), and shares a derisive laugh with George. The women shrink. After the men fall out of earshot, Mrs. Hale grouses about Henry’s derision, while Mrs. Peters makes the excuse that the men have important work to do.
Mrs. Hale, seeing a poorly sewn section of the quilt, promptly rips out the stitches and begins repairing it. Mrs. Hale wonders what could have made Mrs. Wright so nervous as to sew so poorly, and Mrs. Peters replies that it could very well have just been plain tiredness. While looking for a piece of paper and a string, she also happens upon a birdcage in a cabinet. Mrs. Hale recalls…