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Susan Glaspell Trifles Essays

  • 1

    How does Trifles reflect and alter the plot formula of a typical murder mystery?

    In most fictional mystery novels and plays, the plot is androcentric and features an actively analytical male hero who discovers the identity of the murder by searching for evidence and reasons his way through the crime. Sherlock Holmes, for example, is generally dispassionate in his pursuit of murderers as he continually bests the police at their own jobs. Like Holmes, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale act as amateur detectives who circumvent the folly of official law enforcement, in the form of the sheriff and the county attorney. Unlike typical male crime solvers, however, the women of Trifles avoid the ruthless search for information that also characterizes Henderson and instead achieve their solution by the seemingly accidental observation of Minnie Wright's kitchen while simultaneously developing a desire to protect rather than condemn the perpetrator.

  • 2

    Describe the inner conflicts of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, and explain how they resolve these conflicts.

    Of the two characters, Mrs. Hale begins the play with a greater suspicion of the designs of the men in their investigation of Mrs. Wright's crime. However, not until she compares the state of the Wright kitchen to her memory of Minnie Foster does she articulate that "we all go through the same things--it's all just a different kind of the same thing," and she comes to accept her portion of blame for not alleviating Minnie Wright's loneliness. On the other hand, Mrs. Peters commences with the assumption that because she is married to the sheriff, she must uphold male definitions of duty and law. By the end of the play, she protects Minnie because she has chosen to empathize with someone who reflects her own needs rather than with the identity imposed by her marriage.

  • 3

    How does the cold temperature of the setting connect symbolically to the rest of the play?

    Initially, the cold outside the farmhouse establishes the bleak, contemplative mood that dominates much of the play. At the same time, it leads to a situation that physically and metaphorically separates the women from the men, as Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters refuse to join the men and take their traditional post next to the hearth. Finally, it reflects Minnie Wright's state of mind and the sense of loneliness that precipitated her murder. Significantly, her jars of preserves break from the cold, just as she loses her ability to preserve her emotional health in her unhappy household.

  • 4

    Are the women justified in their choice to hide the evidence? (Please take a side although both points of view are covered in the answer key.)

    On the one hand, the women have chosen to protect Minnie Wright because they see themselves in her and do not want to be hypocritical and condemn her. Minnie has been desperately lonely and unhappy for many years, going through emotional and possibly physical abuse from her husband, and the killing of the only living thing that cares for her may have justified retribution in kind. On the other hand, one could contend that Mrs. Wright has still committed murder, and neither the death of an animal nor years of marital troubles excuses homicide. By aiding and abetting her, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are effectively accomplices who have condoned murder.

  • 5

    Explain the significance of the title "Trifles."

    The name of the play refers specifically to Lewis Hale's casual statement that "women are used to worrying over trifles" near the beginning of the play, when Mrs. Peters' attention is drawn to the broken jars of fruit preserves. Hale offers this statement in an indulgently superior manner, but the fallacy of his assumptions becomes clear as the women proceed to solve the case precisely by looking at the minor details. In their search for external, smoking gun evidence outside of the kitchen and living room, the men do not recognize that all the necessary information about her motives rests in the domestic area at the center of Mrs. Wright's life. Mrs. Hale says defensively that nothing is wrong with looking at little things while waiting for evidence, but in reality, she is not waiting for evidence but actively discovering it as she develops a picture of Minnie Wright's dismal home life.

  • 6

    Discuss Glaspell's use of foreshadowing in Trifles.

    At the beginning of the play, the unspoken stage directions that introduce the scene serve as foreshadowing for the rest of the play, as it hints at the personalities of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters while drawing attention to the evidence that will later become important in our understanding of Minnie Wright's psychology. Later, when the women discuss the quilt and the birdcage, these objects foreshadow the subsequent discovery of the dead canary. Meanwhile, Lewis Hale provides an early hint of marital discord when he suggests that Mr. Wright does not listen to his wife and that their household does not have a telephone. From his offhand comment, cut off mid-sentence by Henderson, we receive our first clue of Mrs. Wright's motive for murder.

  • 7

    How does Glaspell undermine the attitude of the men toward the women over the course of the play?

    The three men uniformly treat Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale with indulgent condescension, as they make gentle fun of the women for worrying about "trifles." The men do not blame the women for what they perceive as incompetence precisely of the wives' gender. However, by the end of the play, the women have succeeded more fully than the men have in pursuing evidence for the murderer, and the men do not have the instincts necessary to discover their wives' subversion of their authority. Henderson touches upon key subjects that might lead him to the murder but in the end regards them as insignificant, and he mistakes Mrs. Peters as "married to the law" and absolves her of possible complicity.

  • 8

    How does Henderson and Mrs. Hale's clash over the meaning of Mrs. Wright's dirty kitchen encapsulate their opposing views of the world?

    Whereas Henderson sees Mrs. Wright's unkempt kitchen and concludes that Mrs. Wright must have been an incompetent homemaker, Mrs. Hale defends her and suggests that the bleakness of the Wright farmhouse might actually have been John Wright's fault. Henderson is taking a representative male view, in that he believes that a woman's main duty is to take care of her home and that John Wright was a good man who suffered a horrible fate. Mrs. Hale, on the other hand, intuitively understands more of Minnie Wright's situation and feels that the state of the kitchen is partly a result of being abruptly removed from her house and partly a response to something wrong in the household. After she finds the canary, she realizes that she was right, but like the men in general, Henderson never discovers the inadequacy of his assumptions.

  • 9

    Explain how Glaspell identifies Minnie Wright with objects in her household.

    The three objects to which Minnie Wright connects most closely are the jars of preserves, the quilt, and the canary. The jars of preserves explode from the cold, despite her best attempts to prevent that fate, and she too loses her calm because of the coldness of her husband, although she never discovers the fate of the jars because the women choose to protect what remains of the preserves just as they choose to protect her. Second, quilts are a symbol of love and warmth, both of which Minnie lacked, and her faulty stitching on the last section of the quilt suggests her breakdown in her attempt to create order out of metaphorical scraps. Finally, the canary and its beautiful singing comes to represent the young Minnie Foster who loved life and loved to sing, and when her husband strangles it, she feels that she has lost part of her identity and decides to exact revenge.

  • 10

    What does Minnie Wright's absence contribute to the plot?

    In part, Minnie's absence is a theatrical device that allows the two woman sleuths to solve the riddle of the murder by themselves, thus bringing them closer together and showing their worth. At the same time, because Mrs. Wright has no physical presence, she becomes an everywoman, who represents the extreme of the struggles of all women in her era and region of the country. The audience, Mrs. Hale, and Mrs. Peters all come to identify with Minnie Wright, thus giving the protagonists the moral ability to forgive her for her crime. We do not need her existence on stage to sympathize with her because the objects in her kitchen speak for themselves.

  • Below you will find five outstanding thesis statements for “Trifles” the short story by Susan Glaspell that can be used as essay starters or paper topics. All five incorporate at least one of the themes in “Trifles” and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements for “Trifles” by Susan Glaspell offer a short summary of different elements that could be important in an essay but you are free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent paper. Before you begin, however, please get some useful tips and hints abouthow to use PaperStarter.comin the brief User's Guide…you'll be glad you did.

    • To Refresh : Here is a Full Plot Summary of “Trifles” by Susan Glaspell •

    Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: The Irony of the Title “Trifles”

    The title of the play, “Trifles," is an important indication of the dynamic conflict that provides the tension of a serious situation that is anything but trifling. A man has been murdered by his wife, but the men of the town who are in charge of investigating the crime are unable to solve the murder mystery through logic and standard criminal justice procedures. Instead, a small group of women who visit the home where the crime occurred are unable, albeit unintentionally, to “read" a series of clues that the men cannot see because all of the clues are embedded in domestic items that are specific to women. Using this information and citing textual evidence, explain the irony of the title that Glaspell chose to name her work. Be sure to incorporate an analysis of “Trifles” by Susan Glaspell in terms of the ways that the men dismiss the women’s trifling concerns.

    Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: Notions of Gendered Space

    All of the action in this play takes place in a single setting: the home of the murdered man and his wife, who the reader learns is his killer. The men and women who enter the home after the crime see totally different scenes in this same setting, though. What each set of characters sees is limited by his or her gender. The women notice certain items—preserved fruit, a sewing box, an empty bird cage—that the men completely overlook because they consider the domestic space of the woman of the house to be worthless in terms of offering clues about the crime. Write an essay in which you define and explain the two gendered spaces and their significance in the development of the plot and the play’s outcome.

    Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: The Symbol of the Bird

    The women who visit the Wright home after the murder of Mr. Wright notice an empty bird cage and recall that Mrs. Wright had owned a song bird. The women observe that the door of the cage is broken and the hinge has been pulled off; Mrs. Hale observes that someone was “rough with it," which suggests the motive of the crime. When the women discover the dead bird wrapped up in a piece of fine silk in Mrs. Wright’s sewing box, they piece these clues together and discover the reason why Mrs. Wright killed Mr. Wright. Considering the discussion that the women have about the bird, consider its symbolism and what it might have meant to Mrs. Wright. Explain why Mrs. Wright would have killed her husband over a small bird.

    Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4: The Moral Dilemma in “Trifles"

    Once the women have pieced together the clues and solved the mystery of Mr. Wright’s death, they quickly come to an agreement to suppress the information from the men who are investigating Mr. Wright’s murder. Explain the process by which the women come to this agreement. Identify whether any of the women resist colluding in the suppression of this evidence. Then, construct an argument in which you identify whether the women were right to withhold their discovery from the investigators. Identify the different experiences that the women themselves had which made them empathic to Mrs. Wright’s situation and helped them to justify their actions.

    Thesis Statement/Essay Topic #5: The Concept of Crime

    After the women have discovered the true story of the crime and have distracted the investigators from discovering the same truth, they have a brief exchange amongst themselves about the relationships among women. Mrs. Hale declares that never visiting Mrs. Wright was “a crime" and asks, “Who’s going to punish that?" What Mrs. Hale describes is a different kind of crime, of course, than the murder which Mrs. Wright has committed. Yet it seems that Glaspell wants to make a commentary about other kinds of crime and their impact on individuals. Write anin which you explain what Mrs. Hale means by the crime of not visiting Mrs. Wright, and explain the distinctions between this kind of crime and legal concepts of crime.

    • To Refresh : Here is a Full Plot Summary of “Trifles” by Susan Glaspell •

    Click here to go to a full critical analysis of “Trifles” by Susan Glaspell


    This list of important quotations from “Trifles” by Susan Glaspell will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from “Trifles” by Susan Glasspell listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes and explanations about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned and explained. Aside from the thesis statements above, these quotes alone can act as essay questions or study questions as they are all relevant to the text in an important way. All quotes contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of the text they are referring to.

    “Nothing here but kitchen things." (1896)

    “Well, can you beat the women! Held for murder and worryin’ about her preserves." (1896)

    “Well, women are used to worrying over trifles." (1896)

    “I’d hate to have men coming into my kitchen, snooping around and criticizing." (1897)

    “Said she wanted an apron. Funny thing to want, for there isn’t much to get you dirty in jail…. But I suppose just to make her feel more natural." (1898)

    “But Mrs. Hale, the law is the law." (1899)

    “[L]ook 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." (1899)

    “There was a man around last year selling canaries cheap, but I don’t know as she took one; maybe she did. She used to sing real pretty herself." (1900)

    “She—come to think of it, she was kind of like a bird herself—real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and—fluttery." (1901)

    “If there’d been years and years of nothing, then a bird to sing to you, it would be awful—still, after the bird was still." (1902)

    Reference: Glaspell, Susan. “Trifles." The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003. 1893-1903.

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