On December 2nd, 1900, in the small rural town of Indianola, Iowa, John Hossack was murdered in his bed while his wife, Margaret, claimed to be asleep next to him (Ben-Zvi 145). Susan Glaspell, then a reporter for the Des Moines Daily News, covered the subsequent trial writing over twenty articles detailing the murder, expressing public opinion, and writing about the outcome (Ben-Zvi 143). As the trial unfolded, Glaspell saw the deep injustice of a hard-working, abused woman being judged and convicted by a jury of all men who held stereotypical views of women and marriage. Sixteen years later, Glaspell wrote Trifles, which mirrors the Hossack case with a farmer who has been murdered in his sleep by his wife, and explores the quiet clash of older Victorian attitudes towards women with the proto-feminist views of the women in the play who Glaspell has stand in as a new jury, capable of considering mitigating circumstances and views that were not taken into account in the original trial.
The word feminism did not enter the American consciousness until the 1910s or so, but the transition for women away from Victorian values had two main components: the power of acting together as a social group and the idea that a woman’s condition was “socially constructed and can therefore be changed” (Kattwinkel 39). Glaspell felt the pull of both the Victorian views of her upbringing with the time in which she lived. Women’s suffrage was taking root in the minds of Americans in the early 1900s, and the identities of women were also changing. Women began to organize to fight for rights similar to men and to have more than the role of housewife and mother.
In the original Hossack murder, certain concepts of Victorianism, especially the idea of “a woman’s duty – to home, family, or conventional morals” played a part in her conviction (Kattwinkel 44). According to Linda Ben-Zvi, in her article entitled, “‘Murder She Wrote’: The Genesis of Susan Glaspell’s Trifles”, for the jury and the public at the time, the prosecution of women was “shaped by societal concepts of female behavior, the same concepts that may have motivated the act of murder.” Indeed, Patricia A Bryan writes in “Stories in Fiction and in Fact: Susan Glaspell’s A Jury of her Peers and the 1901 Murder Trial of Margaret Hossack” that while researching the original murder, she was left with the impression that the narrative expressed in the courtroom was “constructed by the lawyers based on assumptions and stereotypes, ignoring the complexity of the actual experiences of Margaret Hossack and the difficult moral questions her experiences presented.”
In this particular case, the prosecution had to prove that Margaret Hossack had deviated from the “norms of feminine behavior shared by the community” and just that deviation was enough for her to be seen as the kind of woman who could murder her husband (Bryan 1302). Put another way, if a woman did not behave “right”, her conduct was seen as a reason behind the destruction of a home (Al-Khalili 132). If a woman could act outside the norm, what ELSE could she be capable of?
In Trifles, Glaspell is able to simultaneously show the older Victorian views that pigeonhole women, but also shift the power dynamic by focusing on the women. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters have only come along to pick up some supplies for Minnie, the wife who is in jail. County Attorney Henderson, Mr. Hale, and Mr. Peters are there to do the “serious” work of investigating the murder for clues for a motive. The play, however, is set in the kitchen and stays with the women while the men traipse all over the house. The men are only in the play if they enter the kitchen. Framed this way, Glaspell was able to show that women’s work and women’s conversations are important while the men, who have the freedom to go wherever they please, end up contributing nothing to finding the meaning behind the murder.
To show the extent of the older views, Glaspell uses the men as a way to showcase the stereotypical understanding of the role of women-only as housekeepers. The men in the play expect women to concern themselves with housework but also mock the women for doing exactly what the men socially expect of them. When the Country Attorney gets on a chair to check the cupboards, he discovers that Minnie’s preserve jars have broken and is disgusted (Glaspell, 944). The women mention that Minnie had spoken to them about the jars and how they might break if there was no fire and the house got too cold. The Sheriff responds sarcastically about Minnie “worryin’ about her preserves” while she is held for murder (Glaspell 944). Minnie is a bad housewife for having broken jars, but is also bad for caring about preventing them from breaking. The broken jars are also a false reason as they broke due to the men’s carelessness in building a fire too late and not any lack of diligence on Minnie’s part. Hale then mentions that “women are used to worrying about trifles” (Glaspell 945). In light of all three men talking so condescendingly about Minnie, the women huddle a little closer, perhaps starting the bonding needed later to keep their knowledge of the murder to themselves. Each man, even the ones that are married to the women in the room, seems to think so little of women’s work.
The Country Attorney continues on, pompously saying “what would we do without the ladies?” (Glaspell 945). His tone seems very mocking as he is described as a young man who has a fancy job and is shown talking down to two mature women who have lived and experienced more than he has with marriage, children, and taking care of a home. And yet, because he is a man with an education and a public servant as well, he can make statements about Minnie’s value as a housekeeper based on some dirty towels and pans and expect that to be taken as truth. Mrs. Hale responds stiffly, explaining that farm work is hard work. The County Attorney continues to condescend by saying, “Ah, loyal to your sex, I see” further demeaning the women by implying that the only and simple reason that she is defending another woman is because she is one herself instead of the much more nuanced answer that farm work can be dirty work and people’s hands are not always clean, even after they have washed them (Glaspell 945).
County Attorney Henderson misunderstands the women once more when he questions Mrs. Hale about her lack of visits to the Wright farm. When she responds that she did not visit due to it not being a very “cheerful place” he interprets the dirtiness of the place as the trifling reason why Mrs. Hale stopped coming (Glaspell 945). Mrs. Hale defends Minnie by ignoring the “homemaking instinct” jab that Henderson makes to say that it was actually John Wright that was a contributing factor in that she did not think that “a place’d be any cheerfuller for John Wright’s being in it” (Glaspell 945).
After the men leave to look for clues for a motive and are out of earshot, Mrs. Hale immediately goes to the sink to clean it up including the mess the County Attorney made when he kicked the pans under the sink (Glaspell 946). She tells Mrs. Peters that she would hate to have men in her kitchen, “snooping around and criticizing” (Glaspell 946).
When the women find the quilt and ask out loud to each other if Minnie was planning on quilting it or knotting it, the men walk in at the moment and mock the women for wondering this (Glaspell 947). This continues to be running joke for the men until the end of the play. Finally, so dismissive are the men of the women as anything but simple housewives and the supplies they are bringing to Minnie as not “very dangerous things” that they end up not noticing the sewing box with the very clue they were seeking in order to get a conviction (Glaspell 952).
For Margaret Hossack, not being a stereotypically feminine woman who cried piteously at every turn, and who had expressed a desire to be separated from her abusive husband worked against her. The all-male jury saw in her the opposite of what a woman should be: a dutiful wife who took care of her husband no matter what the circumstances. After the prosecution stated that Margaret Hossack had been pregnant before marriage, the jury reacted to that questionable female behavior and convicted her (Al-Khalili 135). In Minnie Wright’s case, the dirtiness of her housekeeping is an indication to the men that she is an “indifferent housewife” and therefore suspect as a woman (Alkalay-Gut 3).
When it comes to the new feminist idea of women working together as a social group, the play shows Mrs. Hale as an almost instant supporter of Minnie, while Mrs. Peters takes some persuading but eventually joins Mrs. Hale in protecting Minnie. When the men start making snide comments about the state of Minnie’s kitchen, Mrs. Hale is immediately on Minnie’s side, defending her dirty towels and broken preserve jars. She starts cleaning up right away while Mrs. Peters is more observational and reluctant. Mrs. Hales says that it seems wrong to speak poorly of Minnie when she “had to come away in such a hurry” (Glaspell 946). Mrs. Hale continues on saying that the men being upstairs seems like “sneaking” and it seemed more that the men were “trying to get her own house to turn against her” (Glaspell 947). She goes on to say that she wished that she had come over to the Wrights more often (Glaspell 949). She talks of staying away because it “weren’t cheerful” but describes young Minnie as somewhat the opposite, as a little bird, “sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and fluttery” and seems to lament the change (Glaspell 949). Having already fixed some of the quilt, with its sudden uneven stitches, Mrs. Hale suggests taking the quilt to Minnie in jail to free up her mind and Mrs. Peters, in her first sign of kindness towards Minnie, wholeheartedly agrees (Glaspell 949).
Later, after they discover the box with the strangled bird, Mrs. Hale hides the sewing box when the men come back in and when asked condescendingly by the men if Minnie was going to quilt the quilt or knot it, Mrs. Peters joins Minnie’s side by saying, “she was going to – knot it” or “not it” (Glaspell 950). Once the men discover the birdcage, the women squelch their curiosity and hide the fact that John Wright had strangled the singing bird which was the motive Minnie needed to strangle John in his sleep that night. Mrs. Hale lies and says a cat got the bird even though Mrs. Peters had told her earlier that Minnie was afraid of cats after Mrs. Peter’s cat got into Minnie’s cell (Glaspell 950). When the men ask where the cat is, Mrs. Peter jumps in and actively lies on Minnie’s behalf saying that the cat had gone (Glaspell 950). When the men leave, Mrs. Peters relates a story from her youth of when her pet kitten was hacked to pieces by a boy and how if others had not been there to hold her back, she would have hurt him (Glaspell 950). She is able to identify with Minnie with the death of her singing canary and continues on to talk about the stillness that Minnie would have endured before the little bird came into her life but also after the bird was killed. Mrs. Peters talks of how her young son died at age two and the stillness in her house afterwards.
For Minnie, it was more than just stillness but isolation too that made life so difficult. The play described the different ways in which Minnie’s life was isolated. Early in the play, Mr. Hale mentions wanting to talk to John Wright about the party line in front of his wife to try and persuade John to go in on the phone with him but also says that he “didn’t know as what his wife wanted made much difference to John” (Glaspell 943). Even a neighbor understood that John seemed to have the control in the family and Minnie’s wants were probably not going to be considered.
When Mr. Hale mentions to Minnie the party line he was going to talk to John about, she starts to laugh but stops herself and looked scared (Glaspell 944). It seems as though she was scared to have shown any mirth, however sarcastic, because silence was the normal state of things at her house. Mrs. Hale adds further detail when she mentions that Minnie was not even part of the Ladies Aid group and that perhaps she kept to herself because Wright was close (Glaspell 946).
Also, the fire that was lit to warm up the house did not seem to have worked as the County Attorney exclaims that it “didn’t do much up there, did it” which adds to the picture of poor isolated Minnie Wright, living in the middle of nowhere, hidden in a hole and unable to keep warm (Glaspell 947). Perhaps John was also stingy and would not spend money on a newer stove to keep the house warm. Mrs. Hale mentions several times that the place was not cheerful, and because the house is in a hollow, it is invisible from the road and how lonesome that would be (Glaspell 949). To compound the physical loneliness from the town and the community, Minnie also does not have any children which would make the house even quieter (Glaspell 949).
While Minnie was fortunate to have married John Wright who was not a drunkard or debtor, Mrs. Hale says that John Wright was a hard man and shivered at the thought of having to spend time with him. She describes him like a “raw wind that gets into the bone” and that Wright would have hated a bird that sang (Glaspell 949). Mrs. Hale felt that John Wright was a man that was capable of killing a pet and in essence killing Minnie.
Instead of just letting Mr. Wright and his isolation of Minnie take the blame for driving Minnie to kill, Mrs. Hale talks of her own implication in the murder as she laments her lack of visits over the years (Glaspell 951). She talks of understanding what it is like for all women despite living apart and having different lives. She understood that the community, herself included, had a part in what Minnie did through their inaction.
In keeping the play focused on the kitchen and the women, Glaspell shows the audience all the clues needed to solve the motive for the murder. First, the fact that a rope was used instead of a gun. Minnie’s bird was strangled, and she mimicked the strangulation with what she had available which was rope. The stitches in the quilt were very nice and even until suddenly they were “all over the place” showing a sudden change in mood due to a shocking or catastrophic event where one’s hands may become shaky, or one is not able to concentrate (Glaspell, 948). The bird, with its broken neck, was lovingly placed in a silk piece of fabric and stored in her sewing box, likely a place John Wright would never look (Glaspell 950). If the bird did not mean a lot to her, it would not have been so meticulously taken care of after death.
The use of the quilt in the play seems deliberate. As the women spend time in the kitchen, they “piece it together for themselves, even as the quilt they discover is made of little pieces” (Shafer 78). Though a quilt may start off as individual little pieces which are inconsequential on their own, once sewn and quilted, or in this case knotted together, it becomes stronger, able to withstand washing and everyday wear and tear. The two women, when first placed in the kitchen, are somewhat standoffish and seem to “struggle to connect with each other” which “impedes their ability to achieve equal social footing with men” (Kastleman 19). But through the snide comments of the men, they start to bond. Despite being married to the law, even Mrs. Peters is able to empathize with Minnie and in the end, she and Mrs. Hale are “knotted” together. If they had each come to the Wright farm on their own, there was no chance they would have had the strength to withhold the information they gleaned from that kitchen from the men. But together, through their shared experience in that kitchen but also through their shared experience as women living in rural America and the hardships that come along with that, they are strengthened and show solidarity.
But because they have not transcended their circumstances and despite being on the cusp of the era of the “New Woman” and “New Thought,” they keep silent with their thoughts. According to Suzy Clarkson Holstein in an article entitled “Silent Justice in a Different Key,” Holstein notes that the women’s relatively low value (especially amongst the men which include a Sherriff and a Country Attorney) and powerlessness is what keeps the women silent in the beginning of the play. Later, after they have been knotted together, their silence, more a refusal to speak up about what they know at the end of the play “rings with the power of intention and choice” (Holstein 283). They use the men’s logic of all women’s things being “trifles” to keep their knowledge to themselves.
In addition to the solidarity they feel, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters also have a new role in the play. They are the new jury, in this case made up of all women, that Margaret Hossack never had. The women act as a new “defense counsel for and jury of their accused peer” and they find her not guilty (Mustazza 490). Minnie Wright is saved, at least for now, by the silence of her peers. Ironically, Margaret Hossack’s peers at the time were also silenced as women were not allowed to sit on a jury legally in Iowa until 1920, almost twenty years after the Hossack case (McCammon 1109).
For Margaret Hossack, the fact that she had been abused by her husband and that he had also abused her nine children, was something the defense was able to use against her. Despite repeated testimony from neighbors, friends, and her own children of the hell she endured, all that information did was show a cause for murder. The circumstantial evidence that she had left her husband after abusive outbursts, had discussed her marital problems with neighbors and perhaps the most harmful of the accusations, that she had had a child before her marriage to John Hossack convicted her. (Ben-Zvi 152). In Trifles, while Glaspell does change the kind of abuse from physical to mental abuse and deprivation, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are able to take it all into account and come to understand how decades of this kind of life was no life at all.
Ultimately, Glaspell does not tell us the outcome of Minnie’s life. It is not known if Minnie is charged with murder, if the men ever figure out the motive, or if she is convicted of her crime. Glaspell, after her time in Iowa, ended up in New York where she attended a lot of plays on Broadway. However, she often felt “depressed by the lack of serious content and its failure to challenge the audience” (Shafer 75). Because of this, she had a penchant for writing thoughtful but open-ended plays that made the audience think about the situation and consider the time in which they lived. In terms of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters being a “jury of her peers”, Susan Glaspell, in 1917, would have finally been able to vote in the State of New York however she would not have been able to sit on a jury until 1937 (“Ladies of the Jury”).
Trifles is a play that rights old wrongs, that straddles old ways of thinking with the new, and asks the reader to consider the points of view of people who traditionally do not hold power in society. For Margaret Hossack, the original inspiration of the play, her trial ended in a conviction. But a year after she was sentenced to life imprisonment, the Iowa Supreme court reversed the verdict granting her a second trial. Her attorneys asked for a change of venue which was granted. Her second trial moved more swiftly than her first and much less sensationalized. The public and the jury were more removed from the gory details of the murder because of time and distance. And because she had sickened while sitting in jail, she was described in much more sympathetic terms. One newspaper even reported “The age of Mrs. Hossack and the unhappiness of her married and home life has awakened favorable sentiment among those who believer her guilty, but hold the circumstances of the crime to be extenuating.” In the end, the jury was hung and after two weeks, the Board of Supervisors of Warren County passed a resolution saying that “it would not further aid in her prosecution” and had the case dismissed. Margaret Hossack lived with her daughter and son-in-law for another thirteen years in Iowa before she passed away (Bryan, 1356). Perhaps Mrs. Hossack eventually got the fair trial she deserved.
Al-Khalili, Raja. “Representations of Rural Women in Susan Glaspell’s Trifles.” Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 6, no. 1, 2013, pp. 132-135. CSCanada, doi:10.3968/j.sll.1923156320130601.2613.
Alkalay-Gut, Karen. “Jury of Her Peers: The Importance of Trifles.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol 21, Winter84, 1984, pp. 1-9. EBSCOhost, libproxy.uww.edu:9443/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,uid&db=brb&AN=509324097&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
Ben-Zvi, Linda. “‘Murder, She Wrote’: The Genesis of Susan Glaspell’s Trifles.” Theatre Journal, vol. 44, no. 2, 1992, pp. 141-162. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3208736.
Bryan, Patricia. “Stories in Fiction and in Fact: Susan Glaspell’s Jury of Her Peers and the 1901 Murder Trial of Margaret Hossack” Stanford Law Review, vol. 49, no. 6, 1997, pp. 1293-1363. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1229348.
Glaspell, Susan. “Trifles.” Making Literature Matter, edited by Schilb, John and Clifford, John, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012, pp. 941-952.
Kattwinkel, Susan. “Absence as a Site for Debate: Modern Feminism and Victorianism in the Plays of Susan Glaspell.” New England Theatre Journal, vol. 7, 1996, pp.37-55. Performing Arts Periodicals Database, https://libproxy.uww.edu:9443/login?url=https://libproxy.uww.edu:3202/docview/230018691?accountid=14791.
Kastleman, Rebecca. “A Silenced Woman.” American Theatre, vol. 27, no. 2, 2010, pp. 19. Performing Arts Periodicals Database, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=48078013.
“’Ladies of the Jury’ Make First New York Appearance.” Today in Civil Liberties History, (n.d.), http://todayinclh.com/?event=ladies-of-the-jury-make-first-new-york-appearance. Accessed 7 December 2017.
McCammon, Holly J., et al. “Becoming Full Citizens: The U.S. Women’s Jury Rights Campaigns, the Pace of Reform, and Strategic Adaptation.” AJS, vol. 113, no. 4, 2008, pp. 1104-1147. Michigan State University, https://vaw.msu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/chaudhuri_2008_full-citizens.pdf. Accessed 6 December 2017.
Mustazza, Leonard. “Generic Translation and Thematic Shift in Susan Glaspell’s Trifles and A Jury of Her Peers.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 26, Fall89, pp. 489-496. EBSCOHost, libproxy.uww.edu:9443/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,uid&db=hus&AN=509470242&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
Shafer, Yvonne. “O’Neill, Glaspell, and John Reed: Antiwar, Pro-American Reformers.” The Eugene O’Neill Review, vol. 32, 2010, pp.70-85. EBSCOhost, libproxy.uww.edu:9443/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,uid&db=hlh&AN=60277107&site=ehost-live&scope=site.