Susan Glaspell’s Trifles highpoints the conditions of women of the 1910s trapped in a system that punishes them for something that they were forced to commit. The play is a rich symbolic representation of the severe oppression of the women by their husbands. Primarily, the present essay intends to evaluate the symbolism used by the author to convey her message to her readers, secondarily, the essay also intends to analyze the context and setting to relate the underlining symbols in the paly. (Ben-Zvi, 2002)
Glaspell’s Trifles is set in a kitchen of an abandon farmhouse owned by Mr. and Mrs. Wright. According to the details the kitchen is “gloomy”, and without order, where “unwashed pans”, and a “loaf of bread” are placed here and there (Trifles, p.134). As referred earlier the play is about the imprisoned conditions of the women of first half of the 20th century in America, hence, the setting of the play plays an important role in understanding it author’s intentions. Furthermore, the kitchen can be understood as the central symbol of the play along with many other symbols that we will interpret in this paper. The play opens after the murder where a sheriff, the attorney and Mr. Hale accompanied by two women are trying to figure it out searching for one single concrete that can put Mrs. Wright behind the bars. A kitchen is associated with women, women work in the kitchen to regulate their homes, it a territory of the mother goddess where she feeds her family but in Trifles this ritualistic importance of the kitchen as a symbol of life, happiness and order is challenged under a rigid patriarchal society such as the America when the play was written (Ben-Zvi, 2002).
The kitchen we see in the play is “gloomy place left without order”, this gloominess is the representative of the inner melancholy of Mrs. Wright’s life with Mr. Wright as we know through other characters that he was “a hard man” and a place cannot be “any cheerful if John Wright’s being in it” (Trifles, p.135). Furthermore, the other two women seem to feel the same although there is no severity inflicted upon by their husbands, nevertheless, they confess “we all go through the same things, it’s just a different kind of the same thing” (Trifles, p.143). Hence, one can argue that these women are going to meet the same destiny in the future.
The symbol of the kitchen can also be understood in terms of prison when a woman is only treated a servant, for instance, Mrs. Wright’s life was reduced to the day to day boredom of cooking and cleaning, she’s expected to work in the kitchen. When the sheriff and the attorney entered the kitchen after giving some derogatory remarks about women they left the kitchen as a trivial place to search for the evidence in other places like bedroom and barn. When Mrs. Wright was arrested she requested for apron when in prison there is no use for an apron, this behavior suggests that Mrs. Wight is unable to recognize herself other than a servant. For men, the kitchen is a place of trivialities and as referred earlier, it is a place of the mother goddess where she prepares things that would be used in the summer as the jellies made by Mrs. Wright is among the necessary things for survival. Nonetheless, the men associates the kitchen chores as trivial and it is evident in the play that like kitchen women are also trivialized and excluded as if it’s only a man’s world.
Among other symbols in the play are canary, the cage, and the red box. First, the canary the little yellow songbird represent Minnie Foster, the girl who used to sing in a choir, like the bird it was her passion to sing and the death of the canary symbolizes her own death by the patriarchy. Mrs. Hales suggests that Minnie Foster was “like a bird, real sweet and pretty” and the presence of the bird in her farmhouse is indication of her love for singing (Trifles, p.140). When Mr. Wright killed the bird it was as if it symbolically killed Minnie’s desire to sing and of being happy, her right to live as a free woman. The bird was strangled as the text suggests the same way Mr. Wright was strangled by Mrs. Wright. Mrs.
Similarly, the symbol of the birdcage is also vital in the understating of the play. The bird cage represents the Mr. Wright’s treatment towards Minnie Foster, who the marriage has affected her freedom and the joy that she used to enjoy before her marriage. Marriage as an institution has subjugated her very right to live and express, she is isolated and treated more like a servant. Her whole world is reduced to housekeeping. Furthermore, by killing her husband, Minnie Foster is dragged into another prison by the society and the legal system that indicates the eternal damnation she thrown into both by her husband and the world she lives in. The tone of the play indicates strongly the idea of the innocence of Minnie Foster as if she was justified in killing her husband. The point can be further emphasized by the confused reaction of Mr. Hale when he was unable to figure out the murder. For instance, husband and wife share beds, the idea of marriage is based on protection and love, Mrs. Wright was supposed to save her husband and vice versa. Nonetheless, the depiction of marriage in the play completely rejects this romantic conception of marriage and most of all the American dream.
Red is a color that is typically associated with passion and love for life. In Trifles, the two women find a red box or a “fancy box” as the details comment, in the box the dead bird was found wrapped in red cloth signifies Minnie Foster’s love for life and the passions that were oppressed by her husband. The bird wrapped in the box dead also represents Minnie’s represent her dead emotions subdued by her husband. The chaotic stiches on the suggest Minnie’s inner emotional state after the death of the bird, it symbolizes her own chaotic emotional state that she is unable to recover as Mrs. Hales says “…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…”(Trifles, p.143).
The title of the play is very ironic if we look at the situation in the play, as a husband is brutally murdered by the wife. Nevertheless, the title of the play does indicate a division between men’s and women’s world. To men the world of the women is trivial and insignificant as if they are biologically inferior and the purpose of marriage is to fulfil your physical needs and to have servant to feed you. By the end of the play the women succeeded in solving the crime due to their inherent dedication to the details. While men on the other hand are mocked of their inherent authoritarian attitude towards women, if they should had paid attention to the trifles they should have succeeded in solving the crime.
Ben-Zvi, Linda. Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction. Ann Arbor (Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 2002. Print.
Writing About Literature, Booklet 4