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Written by Susan Glaspell, Trifles is a masterpiece rich in both historical and biographical elements. Glaspell hinges this story on a murder story she had to cover as a journalist and this offers the biographical part of it. The historical element of Trifles sprouts from some of the themes presented in this play. Therefore, Trifles is both a biographical and historical play.
As the play opens, police are investigating the murder of John Wright in his farmhouse. More people arrive amongst them the Sheriff, his wife, the county attorney, his wife and a witness. Controversy surrounds Mr. Wright’s death, whilst the attorney and police officers believe Mrs. Wright’s story that someone murdered Mr. Wright, as she was sleep, the women in this play suspect that Mrs. Wright was involved in the killing after collecting some ‘trifle’ evidence from this farmhouse.
The men in this play cannot understand why women are always concerned about small things. For instance, they cannot understand why these women are so concerned about a guilt they have found in the house.
In turn of events, these women find an empty birdcage, and after continued search, they discover a dead bird in a box; strangled just like Mr. Wright. At this point, Mrs. Hale reminisces how felicitous Mrs. Wright was, as a kid; how she loved singing and how miserable she became after marrying Mr. Wright.
It appears that Mr. Wright killed his wife’s bird and in retaliation, Mrs. Wright murdered him. Nevertheless, these women sympathize with Mrs. Wright’s sufferings as a wife and they decide to hide this information from the police officers to cover Mrs. Wright’s guilt. Nevertheless, as aforementioned, the biographical and historical context of this play can give a better interpretation.
Written in 1921, Trifles is a chronicle of John Hossack’s controversial murder, which Glaspell happened to cover as a journalist “with the Des Moines Daily New” (Holstein 2003, p. 29).
On December 2, 1900, John Hossack was murdered. According to his wife of 33 years, “…was sleeping beside him and awoke to the sound of an axe twice striking something that turned out later to be her husband’s head. She leapt out of bed and ran into the living room, where she saw a light and heard the door closing…returned to her bedroom with her children and discovered him to be mortally injure” (Reuben, 2008, p. 13).
The coroner’s results could not find any crucial information about the death. However, after rigorous investigations, police officers arrested Margaret Hossack after finding the murder weapon hidden in a maize garner. Moreover, a neighbor indicated that the Hossack’s marriage was strained.
Glaspell played key role in profiling this murder. She, “provided thorough coverage of the case…she often made use of a lurid combination of gossip, rumor, and truth to report her stories. Glaspell’s descriptions of Margaret generally painted her as an insane murderer until her visit to the farmhouse in mid-December, after which her depiction softened Mrs. Hossack into a meek, elderly woman” (Reuben, 2008, p.16).
Unfortunately, Mrs. Hossack was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. However, her judges appealed for a second trail and after reaching no verdict, Mrs. Hossack was released on for lack of evidence.
Margaret’s initial conviction was inevitable for she could not be trusted because; for one, she had a child out of wedlock and she acted inappropriately and disrespectfully by exposing her marital problems. On the other hand, men involved in this case defended Mr. Hossack as an honorable citizen and a good person.
Trifles offer women’s perspective towards this case and their different point of view in domestic troubles and marital strife. The fact that the women in Trifles did not divulge the crucial information leading to Mrs. Wright’s acquittal, it shows that their ‘trifles’ are significant as opposed to men’s view of the same. Glaspell simply chronicled the events surrounding Mr. Hossack’s death by changing character’s names.
“Trifles” is essentially a presentation of challenges that women faced in late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Born in 1876, Glaspell was among the first women to pursue higher education and a profession at a time when this was a preserve of the men.
By writing Trifles, Glaspell sought to address issues like, “women’s suffrage, birth control, socialism, union organizing, and the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud” (Godwin, 1999, p. 46). At this time, women could not participate in juries or even vote. Women earned way below their male counterparts; moreover, as aforementioned most women qualified as ‘housewives’ and nothing more.
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The same case applied to urban women; a subject that Trifles addresses. Women were not recognized as important figures in the society; something that Mrs. Wright experienced. Nevertheless, Glaspell finally manages to show that women were significant after all. Their ‘trifles’ were significant if only men would recognize it. For instance, their ‘trifles’ led to discovery of a strangled bird; something that would convict Mrs. Wright; therefore, women would sit in juries, if given opportunity.
Mrs. Peters explicates how women suffered and lived at the mercies of their ever-busy husbands. She remembers how Mrs. Wright would sing melodiously as a bird during her childhood; however, she bemoans that things changed the moment Mrs. Wright married. She notes that Mr. Wright “first killed the song in her and finally killed the song in her bird” (Glaspell, 1951, p. 14). Loneliness was consuming many women including those who did not face marital strife.
For instance, Mrs. Peters painfully recalls, “…we were homesteaders in the Dakota Territory, when our first baby died leaving me alone in the house most of the day while my husband worked outside…” (Glaspell, 1951, p. 18). Glaspell sought to highlight these historical issues that affected women relegating them to insignificant figures in society. This theme offers the historical interpretation of this play.
By writing Trifles, Glaspell had two distinct issues in her mind. First, she wanted to chronicle her experience as a journalist and two, she wanted to highlight historical challenges that women faced in her era.
The events surrounding Mr. Wright’s death in Trifles are similar to those, which surrounded the murder of Mr. Hossack on December 2, 1900. Glaspell changes the names of the characters but the incidences are the same. Even though she tried to paint Mrs. Hossack as a murderer, her stance changed when she visited Hossack’s house only to realize what Mrs. Hossack went through as a wife.
Therefore, Trifles is a dramatized personal experience touching the life and career of Glaspell as a journalist. Historically, women were not recognized in the society. Most of them lived miserable lives, something that Glaspell highlights in this play. Urban women lived lonely lives, as their husbands were ever busy. Therefore, Trifles is both a biographical and historical play.
Glaspell, S. (1951). Trifles: A Play in One Act. New York; Walter H. Baker.
Godwin, L. (1999). Preface to Fidelity. New York; Persephone Books.
Holstein, S. (2003). Silent Justice in a Different Key: Glaspell’s Trifles. The Midwest Quarterly. 44(2); 282-290.
Reuben, P. (2008). Susan Glaspell. Perspectives in American Literature. Retrieved from;