Silent Justice in a Different Key: Glaspell's "Trifles"

Article excerpt

SUSAN GLASPELL'S "TRIFLES" is a deceptive play: deceptive because, like its title, it seems simple, almost inconsequential. Yet the play represents a profound conflict between two models of perception and behavior. An exploration of the play reveals a fundamental difference between the women's actions and the men's, a difference grounded in varying understandings of the home space. That difference culminates, finally, in the establishing of two competing ethical paradigms. One might summarize the plot of the brief, early twentieth-century play as follows: a country woman is suspected of killing her husband in their isolated farmhouse. The county attorney, the sheriff, and a neighbor return to the scene of the crime, attempting to collect evidence. Two of the men's wives accompany them to gather belongings for the jailed woman. In the course of the action, the women accidentally turn up the evidence which the men seek in vain, and the women decide to keep quiet about their discovery.

But to summarize the plot in this fashion is somewhat misleading because it is in fact no accident that the women discover the evidence. Their method from the very beginning of the play leads not only to the discovery that eludes the men, but also to their ultimate moral choice, a choice which radically separates them from the men. That is, their way of knowing leads them not simply to knowledge; it also leads to the decision about how to act on that knowledge.

From the very outset, the men and women of the play perceive the setting, the lonely farmhouse, from diverging perspectives. The men come to the scene of a crime and attempt to look through the eyes of legal investigators. They stride into the room, and, with the exception of three words, we hear only male voices for the first quarter of the play. The county attorney conducts his investigation by the book. He interviews the key witness, asking for only facts (interpretations, he indicates, will receive attention later). The strict linear process also applies to spaces: the men go methodically from room to room, following the preset plan of the search. The sheriff and attorney are certain that they have left nothing out, "nothing of importance" ("Trifles," 8). Yet at the end of the play, they know no more than at the beginning. The motive for the crime remains obscure.

By contrast, the women arrive at a home. Although neither they nor the men realize it, they too are conducting an investigation. Their process seems formless as they move through the kitchen, talking and reflecting. The men patronize them and gently ridicule their concerns while the women themselves, at least at the outset, characterize their activity in the house as relatively unimportant. But as Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters gather household goods for Minnie Wright, the two characters begin to reconstruct the accused woman's life. They do so through several means: memories of her, memories of their own lives (similar to hers in many ways), and speculation about her feelings and responses to the conditions of her life. Instead of following a predetermined schedule of inquiry, they begin, almost instinctively, to put themselves into Minnie Wright's place. In her sewing box, they discover Minnie's dead pet bird, and this discovery would be the missing piece to the men's "puzzle." As they recognize that the bird has been violently strangled and then lovingly set inside a piece of rich material, the stage directions reveal their incipient knowledge: "[the women's] eyes meet. A look of growing comprehension of horror" ("Trifles," 24). They then reflect her husband would not have liked a thing that sang and would have silenced it as he silenced the singing Minnie. As they share and ponder, the mundane details of Minnie's life lead Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters to comprehend what their husbands do not: the motive for the murder. Far more importantly, the details that allow them this insight--details overlooked as unimportant by the men lead the women to understand the almost tangible oppression of Minnie Wright's everyday life. …