Drama as Literature (EL 250)

31 Aug 2005

Glaspell, ''Trifles"

(Gwynn.) Also available online at http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/eng384/trifles.htm

MRS. PETERS. (in a whisper). When I was a girl--my kitten--there was a boy took a hatchet, and before my eyes--and before I could get there--(Covers her face an instant.) If they hadn't held me back, I would have-- (Catches herself, looks upstairs, where steps are heard, falters weakly.)--hurt him.

MRS. HALE (with a slow look around her.) I wonder how it would seem never to have had any children around. (Pause.) No, Wright wouldn't like the bird--a thing that sang. She used to sing. He killed that, too.

MRS. PETERS (moving uneasily). We don't know who killed the bird.

MRS. HALE. I knew John Wright.

Read, React, Respond, and Reflect (as explained on the "Heart in the Ground" page.).

If you Google for notes on this play, recognize that many online resources will be talking about "A Jury of Her Peers," which is Glaspell's short story version of the play we are studying. A statement that might accurately describe the short story might not apply to the play.

The events depicted in the play are loosely based on a real event.

As a young woman, Susan Glaspell covered the 1901 trial of an Iowa farm wife charged with killing her husband with a hatchet while he slept. The wife pled not guilty, claiming she was asleep in bed with her husband but did not awaken quickly enough to see the real killer.

Angel, Marina. “Susan Glaspell’s Trifles and A Jury of Her Peers: Women Abuse in a Literary and Legal Context.” (1997) Buffalo Law Review 45 (1997): 779-808. Edited version available at <http://www.lawsite.ca/WLSC/Angel_w.htm>. 31 July 2005.

While learning about the historical events that inpsired the drama may be interesting, understand that our task is to study the script that Glaspell wrote. We cannot use details that do not appear in the script in order to "prove" anything about the character Minnie Foster, who only exists within the context of a dramatic work.

We can, however, examine the historical record in order to identify which details a playwright exaggerated, which details she invented, and which details she left out, in order to learn precisely what the playwright did in order to present the conflict that she wanted to present.

Literary study is an investigation of the representation of truth, and that representation is always deeply affected by the author's chosen medium.

Think about it... if Glaspell had wanted to tell a completely factual and accurate account of the events, why didn't she just re-publish her newspaper articles? Why, after she wrote her one-act play, did she feel the need to write it again as a short story?

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Gina Burgese has already posted some thoughts on the connection between Glaspell's political views and the role of art in education.


Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at August 12, 2005 04:29 PM

Not only do characters elucidate the meanings of the story, but also characters aid in underscoring stereotypes readers, or viewers, may have. Depending on what era or culture one grew up in, certain stereotypes are applicable to certain times and regions. Glaspell uses Sheriff Peters in the oft portrayed role of the small town Andy Griffith, ‘good ole boy’ cop. He was “…to a dot the kind of man who could get himself elected sheriff – a heavy man with a big voice, who was particularly genial with the law-abiding, as if to make it plan that he knew the difference between criminals and non-criminals” (678). Here the reader is given a picture of a portly fellow, with a measure of authority in his voice, but he still has the back patting, hand shaking, and baby kissing skills to get himself elected to the post of town sheriff. Even when he speaks, he uses a “semi-official voice” (679). He is so sure of himself and his decision about the lack of evidence in the kitchen that he dismisses the scene as “insignificant kitchen things” (682). His oversight to the kitchen, thus “women’s” territory, rectifies that he is more concerned with important ‘men’s’ territory. He even elucidates his thoughts on women: he says, “…can you beat women! Held for murder, and worrying about her preserves” (682). Clearly, Mrs. Wright’s concerns are of no interest to him; though it is his duty to fetter out clues and identify suspects, Mrs. Wright still has not been accused of the crime. She has a right to be concerned about her “women’s” work. The sheriff even laughs at the county attorney’s joke about being “married to the law” (691). He is the physical incarnate of the law, and decidedly so, he is to keep order in the town; however, he will not even conduct an investigation plunging beneath the superficial because some of the present evidence is related to women who should find things “more serious to worry about than preserves” (682).

Isn't it curious how the author uses male/female stereotypes in the play? Also, more curious the play's title was later changed to, "A Jury of Her Peers?"

Posted by: Katie Aikins at August 16, 2005 06:34 PM

So right you are. The male stereotype of acting above domestic affairs is clearly illustrated by the sheriff's and other men's neglect towards investigating the intamacies of home management. They refuse to "lower" themselves to the position of Mrs. Wright, even in the interest of better understanding her possible motivation for murder. It is the in the nuances of her daily life that the real evidence is found.

Posted by: David Denninger at August 29, 2005 02:33 PM

(To accompany my agenda item posted above)

County Attorney: "You're convinced that there was nothing important here--nothing that would point to any motive"

Sheriff: "Nothing here but kitchen things."

Posted by: David Denninger at August 29, 2005 03:56 PM

I do agree with Katie, I believe that this play is definetly help the stereotypes that about domestic relations between men and women at the time it was written. As I was reading this play, I noticed how the court attorney and the sheriff had meaning to undermind the women that was present. (For example, when the women noticed something odd with the quilt, Sheriff had said "They wonder if she was going to quilt it or just knot it.") And just as incosiderate as the sheriff one could purpose that both of them thought less of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters. (lol) It's funny how the men we looking for clues as the women where about one step in front of them. We must understand that this was written before women could even vote. So this must have been a controviersal play. I think Glaspell choose to write the play that was based on a true story because she wanted to show that women was not and never will be helpless. How Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters described the murdered husband's character is almost as if they were saying that he had it coming. As the men looked for a motive and concrete evidence that Mrs. Wright was just another murderer.

Posted by: Kevin Hinton at August 29, 2005 04:37 PM

Dr. Jerz,

I'm not quite sure I understand this reading. If you could write back and give me some kind of clue on what's goin on that would be greatly appriciated!!

Posted by: Jessica at August 29, 2005 04:43 PM

Dr. Jerz,
Sorry my email isn't working. my campus connect won't even work. I'll get that cleared up tuesday.

Posted by: josh gogolsky at August 29, 2005 07:15 PM

It seems significant that although the play is very much about Mrs. Wright, that she is not actually in it. Everything we as readers learn about her, we learn about through the words and actions of the other characters. We are left to make inferences and ideas about Mrs. Wright's character based soley on what the others first perceive. Why doesn't Glaspell want us to actually "come in contact" with Mrs. Wright directly? Why must we see Mrs. Wright through the other characters' eyes?

Posted by: Lorin Schumacher at August 29, 2005 10:55 PM

I can see where Lorin is coming from. The entire play I wondered why Mrs. Wright wasn't given a major role since it is about her and the suspicious death of her husband.

Maybe Glaspell's purpose was to leave the audience wondering what kind of person Mrs. Wright really was.

Posted by: Amanda at August 30, 2005 12:49 PM

The county attorney seems set against convicting Mrs. Wright. He keeps avoiding discussing any topic that shows John Wright in an unfavorable light:

“COUNTY ATTORNEY. Let's talk about that later, Mr. Hale. I do want to talk about that, but tell now just what happened when you got to the house.”

“COUNTY ATTORNEY. I'd like to talk more of that a little later. I want to get the lay of things upstairs now.”

When the county attorney asks the sheriff if he’s found any sort of motive, the sheriff informs him that he hasn’t, the attorney then changes tactics starts to nitpick the housekeeping skills of Mrs. Wright as if that was evidence enough.

Despite the lack of motive, the county attorney seems to be dead set on Mrs. Wright’s conviction:

“COUNTY ATTORNEY. I guess before we're through she may have something more serious than preserves to worry about.”

Posted by: Kayla Sawyer at August 30, 2005 01:12 PM

I think that the county attorney was also ready to jump the gun of convicting Mrs. Wright just on the evidence of her lack of housekeeping skills. Which in my mind really wouldnt make me think that she was the killer based on just that "evidence". He could find nothing in the house that could be clearly shown as evidence against Mrs. Wright in the killing of her husband.

Posted by: Denamarie at August 30, 2005 02:08 PM

MRS. HALE. I might have known she needed help! I know how things can be--for women. I tell you, it's queer, Mrs. Peters. 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.

I felt that Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters really had a epiphany about the life of their neighbor. It was depressing to find out that this woman they had known forever seemed to be having some of the same problems they were having, and they did not even know it. IF they had known, could they have helped?

Posted by: Rachel Prichard at August 30, 2005 02:18 PM

I see now what Kayla was noticing in the sherriff. He did seem to be dwelling on the little things Mrs. Wright did and did not do. As if to be purposely putting her in the hotseat.

Posted by: Rachel Prichard at August 30, 2005 02:22 PM

What was with the men in this play laughing and poking fun at the things women did. the things i might add that women DID FOR THEM. Such as making sure the fruit was preserved, cleaning the towels, and sewing quilts. Dave was right, they do refuse to lower themselves to the role the women have.

Posted by: Rachel Prichard at August 30, 2005 02:26 PM

I did a little bit of research on the author, and it turns out that much of her writing is, "strongly feminist" (www.learner.org).

If the play is indeed loaded with a feminist agenda it would explain the weak character development of the men as well as their failure to construct anything but short demeaning quips about the women.

Posted by: David Denninger at August 30, 2005 02:37 PM

I totally agree with everyone talking about the roles that men and women have, and the men refusing to "lower themselves." David is completely right when he says that by their not willing to look through the kitchen, they missed a crucial element to their case against Mrs. Right. The indirect characterization that Lorin mentions did not really mean much to me. Indirect characterization is used frequently in Literature, and it's simply that, a twist in the way that we get to know a character. It makes it more interesting when we as readers get to learn other's perceptions of a character. I think we learn more about that character that way.

Posted by: Chera Pupi at August 30, 2005 02:44 PM

I agree with Kayla as well. To me it looks like the County Attorney is dead set on convicting Mrs. Wright for unrealistic evidence.

"COUNTY ATTORNEY. I'm going to stay here awhile by myself (To the Sheriff). You can send Frank out for me, can't you? I want to go over everything. I'm not satisfied that we can't do better."

In another perspective I feel that Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale have an unbearable feeling about what is goin on in the the Wright's house. The two ladies seem to be terrified of what they're perceiving but are appearing to speak nicely of the couple. I also think that the incident with the bird is an undiscovered clue to what happened to her murdered husband.

"MRS. PETERS. Somebody--wrung--its neck."

Maybe the bird was used as a voodoo to killing her husband?

Posted by: Jessica at August 30, 2005 02:49 PM

As far as weak characters go, do you think that Mrs. Peter's is kind of a weak character? Or just one hoping for the best? I may be reading too much into her character, but I found it interesting that she was sort of naive, whereas Mrs. Hale is more willing to accept things the way that they logically appear.

Also, I loved when Mrs. Hale said, "We all go through the same things-it' all just a different kind of the same thing." Isn't that so true? I know that you girls know what I'm talking about!

Posted by: Chera Pupi at August 30, 2005 02:49 PM

I think the women were better investigators than the men. The men seemed to just being going through the motions. Their method is just about finding evidence for a motive, as oppose to trying to understand the situation from alterative points-of-view.

Mrs. Hale discovers an irregular and seemingly agitated sewing pattern:

“MRS. HALE: (examining another block.) Mrs. Peters, look at this one. Here, this 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!”

She is also able to look beyond it and see it as an odd behavior:

“MRS. HALE: What do you suppose she was so nervous about?”

Mrs. Peters finds the birdcage and questions what happens to it. She and Mrs. Hale make further clever observations:

“MRS. PETERS: (examining the cage). Why, look at this door. It's broke. One hinge is pulled apart.

MRS. HALE: (looking, too.) Looks as if someone must have been rough with it.”

The distressing part is that I don’t even think the women were really aware of their superior investigating skills. They just saw it as simple curiosity.

Posted by: Kayla Sawyer at August 30, 2005 02:52 PM

I found it intriguing, in my perspective, that throughout a majority of the play, they talk about Mrs. Wright but yet she wasn't a main character. It seemed to me that the attorney was content with convicting her on the spot without seeing her and getting her side of the story.

I also agree with Kayla about how the women were better investigators than the men. The men did not look carefully though every room. They did a basic investigation.

Posted by: Danielle at August 30, 2005 03:22 PM

Yeah that is a good point, Kayla. The women actually did some investigating by probing around Mrs. Wright's kitchen, what most investigators do without hesitation. The men in this story seem to care little about finding hard evidence.

Posted by: Amanda at August 30, 2005 03:46 PM

I somewhat agree with Danielle. The women were good investigators, however they weren't really trying to be. It seemed like the women didn't even want to be there and they also felt a little guilty about being in Mrs. Wright's house.

MRS. HALE. "I'd hate to have men coming into my kitchen, snooping around and criticizing."

I feel that the men did not want to pry anymore into this case than they had to. They seemed to be treating the case as if there was nothing else to be found, by making the women stay in the kitchen and also keeping a light attitude about the whole situation.

Yes the women did stumble upon some information, but I feel if the men were truly intent on finding the motive than they would have eventually found the same clues. Also, the whole attitude of the men being better than the women certainly didn't help the situation.

Posted by: Andy LoNigro at August 30, 2005 08:18 PM

To comment of David's thoughts on the "feminist writing": although the author is obviously a vital assest to writing, one should not confuse the author with the characters of the story. Last year, I did a paper on "The Yellow Wallpaper"; I became so focused on the author's life and how her own experiences paralleled the main character, that I lost site of the story. An author's life influences and affects their work, but it is not always a sure sign of the "truth" behind the writing.

Posted by: Katie Lambert at August 30, 2005 09:10 PM

In response to Chera's comments about the indirect characterizatoion - I realize that it is often used in literature, but I just thought it would be interesting to explore why. I was merely trying to point out something about the play no one had previously mentioned because I think it is significant to the effectiveness of the play.

Posted by: Lorin Schumacher at August 30, 2005 09:27 PM

As Katie Lambert so eloquently stated, itis important to not lose sight of the work in relation to the author's life. At times, readers burden themselves with the details and replace the play with the playwright - rather than accepting the text, as text. Bravo, Lamb!

Posted by: Katie Aikins at August 30, 2005 10:20 PM

I think Katie L. is right when she says we can't focus too much on the author's life but I think we have to know enough about that person and the time when the wrote the play or else it is incomprehensible. I believe that in a time when women were really starting to be seen as equal Glaspell wanted to prove and show that women can be capable of the same actions and know the same if not more of what was happening around them than men.

Posted by: Sean Runt at August 30, 2005 10:58 PM
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