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An Accumulation of Details in Susan Glaspell's Trifles

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Department of English

/ˈtrʌɪf(ə)l/ Noun. A Thing of Little Value or Importance.
An accumulation of minor details in Susan Glaspell’s Trifles

Anika Hussain

Autumn 2014

Group 3

Teacher: Charlotta Palmstierna Einarsson


Murder, although tempting at times, is an unforgivable act and in most cases the perpetrators end up in jail – but sometimes they are significantly more complicated than cases where the murderer kills for the joy of killing and the gratification that comes with it. Murders, which are not all black and white, are those which blur our senses of rationale and morale; just like the play Trifles by Susan Glaspell. Murder is what the play is about, but it is not about the act of killing itself but about the two women in the play, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, who decide to cover up for the murderer, Mrs. Wright. The readers of the play are ultimately compelled to make moral decisions as the piece imposes important questions about lying when one is married to the law. It is important to see the play from an ethical standpoint, where the murderer is not just a murderer, to understand the mental state of an abused woman and that the line between morality and emotion is thin. The play Trifles explores the accumulation of minor details in the psyche of Mrs. Wright and what becomes of the individuals involved, both the readers and the actors. This paper will investigate the circumstances and the aggregation of trifles leading up to the murder of Mr. Wright to suggest that the two ladies were right in covering up key evidence.

        To understand Mrs. Wright, one has to delve into her life and the abuse she suffered. The behaviour of a batterer, whether physical or psychological is difficult to pinpoint, but notable forms of verbal abuse include making snide remarks towards the spouse about anything they do, as well as hinting at threats towards them, and making claims about hurting them. Physical abuse ranges from minor incidents to major incidents such as breaking a cup to hurting an animal to make a threat regarding their position in the house. (Pence et al) This alone would not suffice as battering one’s spouse, but couple this with isolating techniques such as removing any form of social contact, limiting involvement in duties outside of the home, as well as financially controlling one’s spouse so they are unable to buy or do anything without their consent.

Due to the fact that most battered women’s cases are taken on by male authority figures, police officers and judges, women are more hesitant to report their abuse in fear of not being able to advocate for their stories. Not only are they hesistant about advocating for their stories, but also in 30% of the cases there is no action taken and in 38% only a warning is given. (Womensaid.org.uk) In 1916, women were more than right not to speak to the local sheriff and his men due to the fact that they would not sympathize with her but blame her (Schanfield). With this in mind, the nature of the abuse and the gender discrimination at the time, Mrs. Wright seems to have been right in her decision to not report what was going on.
        With these notions at hand, it is possible to find Mr. Wright guilty of at least one count of physical battering – violence. Through the following quote it is possible to see a violent act of some sort has occurred.

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. MRS. PETERS. Why, yes. (she brings the cage forward and puts it on the table.)
(Glaspell, 1131)

The women find the birdcage ripped off its hinges, indicating a struggle of some sort, and due to the fact that Susan Glaspell insists on drawing parallels between the canary and Mrs. Wright herself it goes without question that Mrs. Wright would not destroy the home of her metaphorical self, which leaves Mr. Wright as the perpetrator. In a box, wrapped in a quilt, the two women find the bird with its neck wrung, and once again because Mrs. Wright is identified metaphorically as the canary it leaves the readers to believe that Mr. Wright is in charge of this act of violence and imposing a threat on Mrs. Wright’s life.
         Furthermore, another indication that Mr. Wright may have been abusive towards the wife is when Mrs. Hale herself draws the conclusion that the killing of the bird is an attempt to kill Mrs. Wright’s spirit when she says, "No, Wright wouldn't like the bird--a thing that sang. She used to sing. He killed that, too,” (Glaspell, 1133). This statement indicates a battering of the psychological kind – the torturing of her spirit.
 This comparison to the bird is critical as the death of the canary may then symbolize the figurative death of Mrs. Wright. Just like canary birds sing, Mrs. Wright used to sing. The death of her singing can be noted when referring to the death of the bird, “He killed that, too,” the bird which was a metaphor for Mrs. Wright herself was brutally killed and could ultimately be seen as the tipping point of her psyche.
         Insisting that the death of the bird is what ultimately what triggered Mrs. Wright to murder her husband is problematic as it suggests that anybody whose animal is killed is bound to murder the person who hurt him or her. The punishment, ultimately, does not fit the crime. However, to shed some light upon this situation, the two women’s’ personal motive for covering the crime is helpful in establishing how Mrs. Wright was justifiable in murdering Mr. Wright.
        The two women, who have nothing in common except for being married to the law, have individual motives for covering up the crime but the core involves the trivial details of life. Mrs. Peter’s sympathizes with Mrs. Wright through the loss of an animal. An event like the loss of an animal is one of significance, however it is not one which many put a lot of emphasis on – for Mrs. Peters this is one of the tipping points of her hiding the evidence from the law. Mrs. Peters, after discovering the physical abuse of the bird, remembers a moment about a boy who had killed her cat a long time ago and she says in a whisper, "If they hadn't held me back I would have—hurt him” (Glaspell, 1133) A trivial detail, a trivial thing to say in the middle of a murder investigation, but this trivial moment made gears start running in Mrs. Peters head – making her identify with the feelings of Mrs. Wright. Mrs. Peters, unlike Mrs. Wright, had the option of being held back as she was not isolated. Sadly, there was nobody around to restrain Mrs. Wright from murdering her husband. Through identifying herself with Mrs. Wright, Mrs. Peters’ ultimately understands that the isolation of the woman was the determining factor of Mrs. Wright going off the edge.
         Not only does Mrs. Peters empathize with the trivial detail of a dead animal but also the one of loneliness. Mrs. Peters compares the loneliness of Mrs. Wright to the loneliness she herself felt after her first born son died – a trivial detail such as being alone triggered yet another response in Mrs. Peters, further allowing her to empathize with the actions of Mrs. Wright.
        Mrs. Hale sympathizes with Mrs. Wright after feeling guilt towards not being there more often. Mrs. Hale refers to Mrs. Wright as “Minnie Foster”, indicating some sort of friendship between the two, whereas Mrs. Peters simply refers to the suspect as “Mrs. Wright”. Having been such close friends, Mrs. Hale feels responsible for what has happened in the house; she feels guilty by association. A sense of guilt from Mrs. Hale is seen when she says, “I might have known she needed help!”
(Glaspell, 1134), even though the two women lived so close to each other they had still not been in touch for years and this detail allows the gears in Mrs. Hale mind to turn. Mrs. Hale believes that if she had visited Mrs. Wright then she would not be in this situation today; the outcome would be different as Mrs. Wright would have somebody to talk to and help her through the grief of losing her bird. The trivial act of visiting a neighbour, of stopping by and checking up on somebody is a detail, which adds to the guilt, which Mrs. Hale feels. Mrs. Hale’s hamartia is not that she did not visit her friend, but that she feels extremely guilty about it; leading to the downfall of her rationality about right and wrong. This guilt then turns into sympathy because the abuse Mrs. Wright had suffered could have easily been Mrs. Hale, we see this piece of information when Mrs. Hale states, “We all go through the same things—it’s all just a different kind of the same thing.“ (Glaspell, 1134) This one line has a heavy weight to it, which not only makes the women empathize with Mrs. Wright, but identify with her.
        The empathy, which the two women feel, is not something that the men feel. To them, Mrs. Wright is only a murderer and not the constituents that have made her this way. (Holstein) The two women on the other hand see Mrs. Wright for who she was – a victim of abuse who saw no other way out. As they are able to identify with Mrs. Wright, they are also able to understand the complex circumstances as well as that she had already suffered enough pain and should not have her suffering prolonged. To the men, the trivial act of rummaging through the kitchen in trying to understand the woman was an act of little importance – but to the women, it was everything. The women identify with her and are able to relive the event through what they discover, and are able to see that they all “go through the same things—it’s all just a different kind of the same thing.“ (Sutton) This realization, this discovery, these trivial moments of Mrs. Wright’s life, is ultimately what justifies them in suppressing the crucial evidence in the conviction of Mrs. Wright.
         The audience, after the play, is left to make a choice; disregard the circumstances of which Mrs. Wright had suffered for many years and identify her as a cold blooded murderer – or empathize with her, see that she has already suffered enough, and establish her simply as a woman who was fearing for her life. I would say that the audience is compelled to make the second choice where they understand why Mrs. Wright did what she did, that the trivial details of being lonesome or the silencing of the bird contributed to the tipping point of her psyche and ultimately blurring the lines for her – just like the lines are blurred for the audience. Howard Barker writes in his essay
Asides for a Tragic Theatre, “after the carnival, after the removal of the masks, you are precisely who you were before. After the tragedy, you are not certain who you are.” (13) The audience will have read the last line of the script and felt a bundle of emotions; sympathy for Mrs. Wright, a twisted sense of poetic justice done by the two women, and a need for analysing the trivial details in life and how the build up contributes to major events.

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