Symbolism in the Play Trifles by Susan Glaspell
The one-act play Trifles, written by journalist and artist Susan Glaspell, is a significant literary work revealing the early twentieth century’s reality. The author created this story about the murder of a husband by his wife based on actual events the writer witnessed as a reporter (Ahmed 107). The play raises several important themes, particularly domestic violence and the unequal position of women in a patriarchal society. One of the most critical elements of this work is symbolism. Despite Minnie’s – the main character – actual absence during the events described, her story, like the play’s message, is transmitted through symbols.
The play begins with a symbol – its very name, Trifles, that conveys men’s attitude to women’s affairs in the early twentieth century. Details that sheriff, county attorney, and farmer Hale consider unimportant – fruit jars, quilt, mess, and cage are also symbols. Men’s attitude is expressed in Hale’s phrase: “Well, women are used to worrying over trifles” (Glaspell). As a result, their neglect prevents them from seeing the main symbol, understanding Minnie as a woman, and finding what they are looking for – the motive for the murder.
The play’s actions begin with the characters entering the house of the Wright family, in which the head of the family, John, was killed. There is a mess in the kitchen, which causes arrogant comments from men about Mrs. Wright’s housekeeping ability. This situation is indicative of how gender roles are distributed and how people, especially women, are assessed. Moreover, canning jars of fruit about the integrity of which Minnie cared so much also symbolize a woman’s place. Men ridicule both the care of fruits, devaluing hard work, and the mess condemning poor housekeeping. The chaos also represents the confusion of the protagonist, while her experiences are displayed in her activities. Minnie’s nervousness also affects the quality of the quilt women notice: “it looks as if she didn’t know what she was about!” (Glaspell). Since Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters take the activity of the main character seriously, and understand her torment, they begin to approach the motive.
The search for packaging for the clothes that women collected for Minnie leads them to new symbols. The first is the cage for the bird – a symbol of imprisonment, in which the main character was buried. It shows traces of rough treatment, it is broken, and the bird is not in it. Confident in Mrs. Wright’s loneliness, women suggest that she would want to dilute the horror of loneliness and silence with the singing of a bird. A little later, they find the bird – dead, with a broken neck – it is the main symbol representing Minnie herself, and its death is a motive (Samman 74). Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters guess that the main character is a victim of domestic violence. The murdered bird is also a symbol of women’s freedom taken by the suffocating pressure of the patriarchal society (Jawad 34). Realizing that men will also be dismissive and arrogant to Minnie’s feelings towards the bird, women hide evidence.
The ending symbol is a quilt, which according to Mrs. Hale’s claim, the main character must knot. In this way, the writer reveals the unspoken union of women against men. Mrs. Hale realizes that Minnie has tightened the rope knot and killed her husband, but seeing neglect is not going to tell the men about it. Thus, the symbols reveal the story behind Mr. Wright’s murder. Moreover, they unite women to protect their dignity in the patriarchal world. Men, in turn, arrogantly consider them trifles, miss the most significant details, and do not understand what is happening.
Ahmed, Shirin Kamal. “The Spousal Abuse of Women in Susan Glaspell’s Trifles.” Allstate Journal for Human and Social Sciences, vol. 224, no. 1, 2018, pp. 101-118.
Glaspell, Susan. Trifles. Frank Shay, 1916. One-Act-Plays, Web.
Jawad, Enas Jaafar. “The Dilemma of Domestic Violence in Susan Glaspell’s Trifles”. Journal of the College of Education for Women, vol. 31, no. 1, 2020, pp. 25-36.
Samman, Maram. “The Bird Imagery in Suzan Glaspell’s Trifles and Joseph Kramm’s the Shrike: A Feminist Comparative Study.” Critical Space, vol. 6, no. 3, 2018, pp 67-80.