Advocacy in Susan Glaspell's Play "Trifles"


by Mickey Hunt
Susan Glaspell wrote Trifles in 1916 for the Provincetown Players,
in ProvincetownMassachusetts, a city located at the tip of the Cape Cod peninsula. The one act play is about a woman who has been arrested on the suspicion of strangling her husband with a rope. The play covers the initial investigation of the crime at the farmhouse where the murder occurred. The men, including the sheriff, the county attorney, and a neighbor, busy themselves looking for evidence while dismissing the three women characters as only being interested and competent in the “trifles” of keeping house, such as sewing and food preservation.
While Glaspell apparently never revealed specific sources for her idea for the play and its short-story rendering “Jury of Her Peers,” Glaspell’s authorized biographer, Linda Ben-Zvi discovered the murder case that inspired her. As a twenty-four year old reporter for the Des Moines Daily News in 1900 and 1901, Glaspell covered the case of Margaret Hossack, who was convicted of murdering her husband (Ben-Zvi 143). Comparing the play with that real historical case may give insight into Glaspell’s intention for her play. In the process of advocating for the play’s suspect, Mrs. Minnie Wright, Glaspell portrays the men as believing women to be incompetent, and their concerns irrelevant. While Glaspell’s play Trifles as literary advocacy conveys a valid message within its historical period, and raises issues regarding the legal system, it does so at the cost of casting men as being arrogant, foolish, and bound to a certain narrow set of interests, a negative stereotype with potential to create its own injustice.
County Attorney George Henderson is the worst member of the play’s old boys club. Glaspell as playwright creates him be the lead male in condescending to, insulting, and patronizing the women. After the party of characters arrives at the farmhouse on a frozen winter day, the first spoken line of the play has Henderson inviting the women to come up to the fire. He seems to have their best interest in mind, but the two women are thinking about something else—so that Mrs. Peters, the Sherriff’s wife says, “I’m not—cold” (Glaspell). Probably warming herself by a cheery fire is the furthest thing from her mind. There is a corpse upstairs and their acquaintance Mrs. Wright is in jail and could receive the death penalty. Henderson is not only condescending and domineering, he is callous to the women’s feelings.
The character only becomes worse. He dismisses the world of women as being insignificant to the investigation, he insults Mrs. Wright’s “homemaking instinct” and mocks her and the women’s interest in quilt making. He holds women in amiable, unselfconscious contempt. Even when he speaks with kindness, he betrays his sense of male superiority. After he and the sheriff ridicule Mrs. Wright about her reported concern over her fruit jars, and neighbor Mr. Lewis Hale delivers his titular line: “Well, women are used to worrying over trifles,” the play says: “COUNTY ATTORNEY: (with the gallantry of a young politician) And yet for all their worries, what would we do without the ladies” (Glaspell).  Henderson hardly seems sincere.
While not as sensational as his disrespect of women, the Country Attorney’s more serious offense is brushing aside Mr. Hale’s account of the self-occupied, morose dead husband, Mr. Wright. When Hale says, “…you know about how much he talked about himself” and “I didn’t know as what his wife wanted made much difference to John,” Henderson cuts him off and says, “Let’s talk about that later” (Glaspell). Again, when Mrs. Hale brings up Mr. Wright’s private darkness with “I don’t think a place’d be any cheerfuller for John Wright’s being in it” the County Attorney brushes away the topic. Though Mr. Wright’s qualities speak to the issue of a motive, Henderson never returns to this subject, even if he knows motive is vital.
COUNTY ATTORNEY: (looking around) I guess we'll go upstairs first—and then out to the barn and around there, (to the SHERIFF) You're convinced that there was nothing important here—nothing that would point to any motive.
SHERIFF: Nothing here but kitchen things. (Glaspell)
The irony is that the husband’s secret darkness and those domestic “trifles” of the kitchen contain the very clues that would provide critical evidence against Mrs. Wright. It is obvious to the audience and the women, if not to the oblivious and thick headed men in the play, that Mr. Wright was angry, that he silenced his wife’s songbird by breaking its neck, which was what he had done to Mrs. Wright over the years—killing her spirit, and that Mrs. Wright was so upset over the death of her bird that she strangled her husband with a rope while he slept.
The play is a forceful work of storytelling, and it is important to remember that Susan Glaspell made deliberate decisions about her characters. The women are portrayed as having both a comprehension of investigative reasoning and of the role of the law, and also as understanding the complexity of a crime by seeing it from the suspect’s point of view. The men, however, are portrayed as having little comprehension of either. They blunder along and are blind to the “hint, hint” at the end that Mrs. Wright tied the knot about her husband’s neck.
                  COUNTY ATTORNEY (facetiously) Well, Henry, at least we found out that she was not going to quilt it. She was going to—what do you call it ladies?
                  MRS HALE: (her hand against her pocket) We call it—knot it, Mr Henderson. (Glaspell)
The ending is ironic and morbidly amusing. The men are revealed as fools. No doubt some men are like the County Attorney, the Sheriff, and Mr. Hale. No doubt some men abuse and terrorize their wives as we believe John Wright did. But it would be unreasonable to argue from a selected sample of fictional personalities to the conclusion that most men are like this in their investigative techniques and in their attitudes.  Glaspell’s male characters as incompletely represented human beings fail the test of realism, which is confirmed at least by the lack of support for her portrayal within the real life case of Margaret Hassock.
Susan Glaspell’s biographer Linda Ben-Zvi in "Murder, She Wrote: The Genesis of Susan Glaspell's Trifles’" gives a detailed account of Glaspell’s involvement covering the Hassock case. County Attorney Henderson, Sheriff Peters, Mr. Hale with their ineptness and condescending attitudes are not to be found in the article, implying that they do not exist in the accounts of the newspaper stories Glaspell wrote, nor were such people connected to the real story. What we see instead is an adaptation of factual details to achieve a dramatic and social purpose for the play. As Ben-Zvi says about the men, Glaspell…
offer[s] a revisionary reading of their roles in the original trial. The lawmen in Trifles bear traces of the original investigators… Mr. Hale, however, is Glaspell's invention, a composite of the Indianola farmers who testified at the Hossack trial… By introducing a man not directly charged with prosecution of the case, Glaspell is able to show patriarchal power and privilege, the united front that judged Margaret Hossack. (154-155)
Evident then in Ben-Zvi’s argument is that the men in the play and the short story symbolize the legal system of the day—law and legal procedures created and enforced by men. Of course, women played a part—women in history sometimes served as rulers, they influenced their husbands, they attended the trial of Mrs. Hossack, and Glaspell herself by reporting on the Hossack case played an influential role in forming public opinion, but in the early 1900s of the U.S. men were in charge of the show, and a purely feminist perspective of these conditions assumes women will not receive equal treatment in a court of law.
But do accounts of Mrs. Hossack’s case support such an assumption? Looking past her speculation and straight to the facts presented by Patricia L. Bryan in her paper “Stories in Fiction and in Fact. Susan Glaspell’s ‘A Jury of Her Peers’ and the 1901 Murder Trial of Margaret Hossack,” we might conclude the answer is, not necessarily.
As Glaspell did in the play, Bryan brings out the crucial aspect to the legal case—motive. She says that prior conflict between Mr. and Mrs. Hossack, and his reportedly violent, abusive nature, set up contradictory effects—one that might give excuse for Mrs. Hossack killing her husband, and the other effect of revealing a motive, which was behind her defense attorney attempting to downplay the testimony about Mr. Hossack’s violent character (1301).
We never find out what happens to Mrs. Wright. What we know is that the women in the play conspire to conceal evidence that suggests Mrs. Wright bears malice toward her husband. The County Attorney said toward the end of the play “’s all perfectly clear except for a reason for doing it” (Glaspell). Mrs. Hossack, however, was convicted of First Degree murder before a jury, and soon afterwards Glaspell quit at the Daily News (1345), so she was not involved when Hossack’s case went on appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court where the conviction was overturned based on improper procedural matters, one of them regarding motive (1347).
Why did Mrs. Hossack’s attorneys hold back on presenting testimony about her conflicts with Mr. Hossack? Is it because women’s “experiences were not represented in court because their lives were not deemed relevant to the adjudication of their cases”? (Ben-Zvi 154). If anything, the prosecution used the “trifle” of a woman’s supposed neatness to “explain” how Mrs. Hossack was able to move a bloody ax without leaving traces on the carpet (Bryan 1338), a possibility the fictional Henderson would have ridiculed. It seems clear that the defense’s approach in maintaining her innocence fits an established platform, then and now. It has nothing to do with sexism, per se. Criminal trials are conducted not as a search for truth, but on an adversarial basis. The prosecution takes one side and the defense takes the other with a judge acting as referee. Winning involves convincing the jury to vote for your team. As such, justice is an approximation—a systematic attempt at fairness, depending on the honesty and competence of the participants. Indeed, the all-male Iowa Supreme Court agreed with Mrs. Hossack’s attorneys that the trial judge had given improper instructions to the jury about the importance of the couple’s reconciliation that may have occurred a year before Mr. Hossack’s death. The high court of Iowa said that if the new jury believed in their reconciliation, past conflicts could not be shown to provide a motive (1348). The state retried Mrs. Hossack, but this time the case deadlocked with a vote of nine for conviction and three for acquittal. For several reasons the County Attorney declined to try Mrs. Hossack a third time, and she went free (1356).
Measured against the reality of a complex legal case, Susan Glaspell’s play “Trifles” presents a slanted perspective. The writer created her characters, particularly the men, and marshaled her facts to relay a certain narrative. As such, she is as much an advocate as the defense attorneys and the prosecutor in Mrs. Hossack’s case. As long as the reader understands this, there is no harm—Glaspell explores a suppressed side to a story, especially for an era before women have achieved full rights of citizenship. Her voice on behalf of the Mrs. Wrights is part of the testimony. But if Mrs. Wright is to have a voice, what of the Mr. Wrights? Susan Glaspell painted him dark. But what factors played a part in his killing of the bird? Could Mrs. Wright have prompted it somehow? What pressures did he endure? Why are the County Attorney Hendersons the way they are? Are they so common? It’s difficult to know these answers.
What we do know and shouldn’t forget is that people are responsible for their actions—they make decisions that to one degree or another are independent of outside forces. That’s part of what makes them persons. One’s motives, intentions, and the influences upon them don’t determine guilt so much as what a fitting punishment will be. But whatever the verdict or the sentence, the guilty or the innocent—all those undergoing trials like Mrs. Hossack and the reputation of the deceased Mr. Hossack—must undergo the punishment of the process, of being dragged through the courts and scrutinized under the public’s magnifying glass.
As observers of life, we are the jury for reaching our own judgments about what is true and just. And we need to see past stereotypes, hear from all sides, and know our limitations, otherwise we may be as guilty as those we condemn. Bryan might agree. “On a more personal level I recognize… narrowness of vision too often affects our own judgments about other people, which are frequently based on assumptions, biases, and expectations... 1361-1362).” The answer, she says is reading and listening to stories, like “Trifles,” “Jury of Her Peers,” and the history of Margaret Hossack. Through stories, she says, “we can… enrich and expand our perspective in a way that contributes to our ability, as a society, to define and achieve justice” (1363). I agree, though she and Ben-Zvi both seem to be unconscious of the unrealistic bias against men within Glaspell’s story.
Maybe they and readers would enjoy and benefit from a contemporary play that reverses the gender dominance in “Trifles.” It might be, for example, about a broken, oppressed male driver accused of sabotaging the motor of a charter bus dubbed “Minnie,” full of stereotypical activist women traveling to a march for abortion rights in WashingtonDC. As an afterthought though, even if it makes valid points, we certainly should question if this type of story is worth retelling, or if instead it might be better just to become acquainted with the real people.


Works Cited

Ben-Zvi, Linda. "Murder, She Wrote: The Genesis of Susan Glaspell's Trifles.” Theatre Journal 44. 2, American Scenes (1992): 141-162. Johns Hopkins University Press. JSTOR. Web. 27 April 2015.

Bryan, Patricia L. “Stories in Fiction and in Fact. Susan Glaspell’s ‘A Jury of Her Peers’ and the 1901 Murder Trial of Margaret Hossack.” Stanford Law Review 49.6 (1997): 1293-1363. JSTOR. Web. 27 April 2015.

Glaspell, Susan. TriflesNew York: Frank Shay, 1916. (n.d.) n. pag. Web. 27 April 2015.

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