|Before It’s Too Late
A friend can be a remarkable thing. Unfortunately, many lack the powerful bonds that all humans need to survive and lead healthy, happy lives. In Susan Glaspell’s play Trifles, Mrs. Wright is starved of the human interaction and relationships she so desperately needs. Consequently, she is never rescued from her loneliness, is brought to the point where she cannot handle any more of life’s saddening struggles, and kills her husband in his sleep. Through powerful and often ironic symbolism, such as Mrs. Wright’s kitchen, the names of the characters, and the bird, Susan Glaspell clearly displays the power of human relationships and how truly devastating a lack of this absolute necessity can be.
One of the numerous symbols Glaspell uses to emphasize the importance of wholesome human relationships is Mrs. Wright’s kitchen. Upon entering the crime scene, the men and women notice the unkept kitchen. They are alarmed by the "Dirty towels" (Glaspell 1174), the unwashed pans under the sink, a loaf of bread outside the breadbox," "the walls covered with a faded wall paper" (Glaspell 1172), and the "sticky" shelves (Glaspell 1174). The abrupt, incomplete work reflects the emptiness Mrs. Wright had bottled inside of herself and also displays the sudden sense of explosion she must have experienced to go as far as murdering Mr. Wright. Also, they see a small chair beside the kitchen table. Obviously intended for a child, the small chair illustrates Mrs. Wright’s empty expectations of raising children. Mrs. Hale explains, "Not having children makes less work—but it makes a quiet house, and Wright out to work all day, and no company when he did come in" (Glaspell 1178). With no children in addition to an unfriendly husband, Glaspell stresses how vital human contact and friendships are through a single, empty chair. Another symbol of Mrs. Wright’s lack of human interaction is her preserves in the kitchen. Mrs. Peters explains how Mrs. Wright "worried [that] if the fire’d go out [. . .] her jars would break" (Glaspell 1174) and feels sympathy towards her. The men, on the other hand, do not understand how Mrs. Wright can worry over such small "trifles" (Glaspell 1174) as she sits in jail for possibly murdering her husband. As strange as it is, it is because the preserves, along with any other work she does in her house, is all that she has. It is all that Mrs. Wright can proudly claim as hers. Hence, the broken jars of preserves the women find in her kitchen represent Mrs. Wright’s shattered dreams and expectations of a fulfilling life with her husband. Like the jars, Mrs. Wright bursts from the unbearable pressures of her life, and so, Glaspell clearly displays the power and importance of human relationships. Therefore, through Mrs. Wright’s kitchen, Glaspell symbolically implies how vital it is to reach out and befriend the lonely and disheartened.
Another symbol Glaspell uses to reiterate the importance of human contact and support is the names of the characters in the work. First, the fact that Glaspell never uses the characters’ first names (except for Mrs. Wright’s in one scene) signifies that the problem regarding the lack of human relationships is not only in the rural areas of America, but across the world in every community. Glaspell stresses that the problem has always existed and will always exist no matter the conditions, and therefore, uses only the last names of the characters to get this idea across. Further, Glaspell uses Sheriff and County Attorney (1172-1181) instead of Mr. Peters and Mr. Henderson to emphasize the higher authority that often does not acknowledge and appreciate the minor citizens, such as women at this time. Through this coldness, Glaspell shows how forgotten Mrs. Wright became and how important it is to have friendships and interaction. Also, Glaspell refers to Mrs. Wright by her husband’s name, which signifies Mrs. Wright’s loss of identity. As they stand and reflect in the Wright’s kitchen, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale talk of "when she was Minnie Foster" (Glaspell 1176). This reference to her former name is symbolic because Minnie is a nickname for Minerva; hence, at one point Mrs. Wright had friends to give her that name. Yet, now as Mrs. Wright, she has no friends, and therefore, she has no first name. Also, her maiden name, Foster, means "to nurture." Ironically, nurturing is what Mrs. Wright lacks. By taking away her name, Glaspell takes away Mrs. Wright’s identity and emphasizes her emptiness and need for some kind of human companionship. Through the names of the characters, Glaspell once again symbolizes how difficult it can be to live without any true human relationships.
Glaspell also uses Mrs. Wright’s bird to signify the importance of possessing human relationships. Like her bird, Mrs. Wright is caged in her house and trapped in a world of loneliness without any human contact. Also, the fact that she chooses to get a bird emphasizes her desperate need for companionship, whether it is through a human or an animal. Later, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale come across the birdcage and see how it "Looks as if someone must have been rough with it" (Glaspell 1178). Then, as they find the bird and that "Somebody—wrung—its—neck" (Glaspell 1179), the two women realize what Mrs. Wright had gone through and why she probably killed her husband. After she finally brings some joy and peace into her life, Mrs. Wright’s husband, the women conclude, chokes the bird to death because of its singing. Mrs. Hale adds that "Wright wouldn’t like the bird—a thing that sang. She used to sing. He killed that, too" (Glaspell 1179). Therefore, at her last end and not being able to handle anymore, Mrs. Wright ironically "Choke[s] the life out of him" (Glaspell 1180) as he did to her last chance at survival. The choice of the singing, caged bird to be Mrs. Wright’s last hope and the way Mrs. Wright chooses to kill her husband in the same way that he killed her bird clearly and ironically emphasizes Mrs. Wright’s desperate need for love and companionship.
Through many clever symbols, such as Mrs. Wright’s kitchen, the names of the characters, and Mrs. Wright’s bird, Susan Glaspell clearly illustrates the importance and power of human relationships. Like Mrs. Wright, there are so many that go unnoticed and unappreciated. Unfortunately, they do not know how to reach out for help until it is too late. There are also many others that see these lonely and depressed individuals, but no one ever does. Mrs. Peters explains regretfully, "Somehow we just don’t see how it is with other folks until—something turns up" (Glaspell 1178). Many times, it is unfortunately too late to save a person. Through her powerful symbols, Glaspell stresses the importance of reaching out to those that are lonely and need emotional support before it is too late. After all, "We all go through the same things—it’s all just a different kind of same thing" (Glaspell 1180).
Glaspell, Susan. Trifles. The Bedford Introduction to
Literature: Reading, Thinking,
Rachel Daly, at the time of this writing a junior in the Early Childhood Education Program, wrote this essay for Dr. Barbara Murray’s ENGL 1102 class during Spring 2001 semester.