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Use of Language in Susan Glaspell’s ‘Trifles’ Essay

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Updated: Sep 28th, 2021


The one-act play, Trifles, reflects feminist ideas and female wit, courage, and curiosity. The basic situation is that a man has been found strangled in his bed and his wife, Mrs. Wright, claims not to know who killed him. The play begins as the County Attorney and the Sheriff have come to investigate the murder and find the motive.


To unveil emotions and feelings and undermine women’s psychology Glaspell uses stylistic devices and language means which support the narration and conflict resolution.


Irony helps Glaspell to unveil women’s right to suffrage and dramatize the situation. in the play, women act decisively in response to men’s condescension and sex-role stereotyping both at home and in courts of law. Remarkable for its conciseness and craft, Glaspell’s play depicts the considerable, even fatal consequences that occur when men do not take women seriously. Inflamed by the persistent insult to their sex, two ordinaries, otherwise conventional housewives lie by omission to ensure a helpless neighbor’s right to defend herself against her husband’s brutality (Maillakais 1996). Ironically, becoming “outlaws” by concealing criminal evidence seems the only way the principal female characters in Trifles can right the wrongs of men (Demastes 62). When John Wright’s strangled body is found and his wife taken into custody, three men in official capacity come to examine the farmhouse to establish a motive and bring Minnie Wright to trial. While the suspect sits in jail, her neighbor, Mr. Hale, the Sheriff, and the County Attorney scrutinize points of entry into the Wrights’ home. As their husbands search the premises, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters search for the life story that Minnie Wright has left behind.

The irony is that women are not taken seriously because of social prejudices and gender inequality, but the problem and mystery are solved by the women. In effect, as they wonder aloud about the kitchen mess, the two women seem engaged in dialogue with what they find. But the men, unlike their wives, approach the unfamiliar by “snooping around and criticizing” (Glaspell). They aim, as Mrs. Hale observes, “to get her own house to turn against her” (Glaspell). Yet, as if it were taking up her defense, Minnie’s house remains unyielding to the probing of men; indeed, it acts as the custodian of female secrets. Blinded by their estimation that “kitchen things,” like women themselves (Glaspell), are undeserving of serious attention, the three investigators cannot see in the domestic details that surround them what their wives easily perceive: Minnie Wright’s victimization—exposed by erratic sewing, a roughly broken birdcage door, and a strangled canary. Emphasizing how sexism impairs the men’s vision, Judith Fetterley considers “A Jury of Her Peers,” Glaspell’s narrative version of the play, “a story about reading” in which the men are unable to “read the text that is placed before them” (Glaspell). In contrast, the women read the past encoded in half-set bread and sloppy cupboards. Using as authority their own experiences, they invisibly write the life—and ultimately “right” the fate—of Minnie Wright, their defenseless sister-housewife (Demastes 62).

Portrait of the low social position

Glaspell symbolically portrays the low social position and “unimportance” of women in society. The play’s central theme of gender bias discusses issues that reach beyond the dramatic situation itself: Serious problems occur when women’s voices, metaphorically and physically, are suppressed. Glaspell uses voice as identity and female voice as an authority (Maillakais 1996). The play emphasizes women’s solidarity. “Trifles” is the main symbol of the play depicted murder and women’s voices as unimportant in contrast to men’s business. Kitchen and housekeeping underline gender inequalities faced by women. the men mock them for their attention to small domestic details (“just like women!”), the two wives piece together a picture of the painful, lonely life Mrs. Wright has led, and what probably caused her to murder her husband.

A major fact is the discovery of a murdered songbird–the only element of pleasure in the household (Makowsky 82). They also feel very guilty because they did not try to help Mrs. Wright with their friendship. Mrs. Hale cries, “Oh, I wish I’d come over here once in a while! That was a crime! That was a crime! Who’s going to punish that?” (Glaspell). In the end, the men, in their attention to “important” matters, have missed the explanation of the crime, and the women, bonded by their sympathy and understanding, do not reveal it. As Ozieblo observed, “Although Glaspell never again used female bonding as the main theme of a play, it surfaces in Bernice and is significant in the later Alison’s House” (Glaspell). The action of this one-act play is set in a kitchen and domestic details are important in the setting and the action. Also the servant Jean kills Miss Julie’s finch which causes her to reveal her intense hatred for him. Glaspell makes the murdered songbird an element that leads to Mrs. Wright’s murder of her husband (Demastes 63).

The final deception

Since they can do nothing to change the sexist attitude of these self-important men, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters must seek justice, paradoxically, by going against the law. Their final deception, the act of hiding the dead canary, not only strikes back against John Wright for his cruelty but also serves as retaliation against their own husbands’ derisive sarcasm, unfairly directed at the domestic work women do serve the very men who laugh at them (Makowsky 99). Tracing evidence that the women find and the men ignore, students will enjoy probing verbal ironies which critique gender stereotyping (“Men’s hands aren’t as clean as they might be”; “what would we do without the ladies” Glaspell]; situational irony as expressed within the play’s title; the ultimate irony (and creativity) in the way John Wright was murdered and in Mrs. Hale’s decisive last line: “We call it—knot it, Mr. Henderson” (Glaspell).

Much can be made of Mrs. Hale’s ironic final rejoinder. Knotting refers to the quilting skill that Minnie Wright put to use in killing her husband: her reaction, through “women’s work,” to his strangulation of her true desires, and, of course, his strangulating the extension of that once-lively self. Also, knotting symbolizes the seditious, binding connection among the three women. Finally, students can appreciate the clever irony in Mrs. Hale’s seemingly honest, straightforward response to the County Attorney’s repeated, facetious question (“Well, ladies, have you decided if she was going to quilt it or knot it” Glaspell). Taking advantage of his low expectations for women’s intelligence, Mrs. Hale masks the two women’s physical cover-up of evidence, thus ensuring Mrs. Wright’s protection (Crocker 1996).


In sum, Glaspell portrays that women and men typically perceive what is right and wrong differently. Slowly stitching together the story of spouse abuse behind this murder, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters realize the subversive power of their knowledge precisely because it remains devalued by the men. Ironies in this play abound and are thematically linked to all that the women know and do which the men cannot understand.


Crocker, L. Studies in Liminality: A Review of Critical Commentary on Glaspell’s Trifles. 1996. Web.

Demastes, W.W. Realism and the American Dramatic Tradition. University of Alabama Press, 1996.

Glaspell, S. Trifles. 2008. Web.

Maillakais, M. A Woman’s Place: Literary BackgroMakowsky, V. Susan Glaspell’s Century of American Women: A Critical Interpretation of Her Work. Oxford University Press, 1993.

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