Human beings not only live in the physical world but also survive in the emotional world. Frequently, one’s emotional world actually controls the actions one commits in the physical world. Perception plays an enormous part in what one feels is important and what one feels is unimportant. Is there a difference between perception of men and women? In Susan Glaspell’s story Trifles, she examines the difference of perception between men and women in a unique way by revealing these differences in the solving of a murder case. The difference between what the men and women perceive to be important pieces of evidence is astonishing. Glaspell uses symbols as interpreted by the different genders to help explore these perceptual divergences for the reader.
Introduction of the characters occurs as the play opens so they are all privy to the same information and have an opportunity to discuss the investigation. The characters themselves are symbols. George Henderson, who is the county attorney, is perceived to be very intelligent and will be able to convict Mrs. Wright of the murder of her husband. Henry Peters, the sheriff, is not as well educated as the county attorney but desires to uphold the law. Lewis Hale, a neighboring farmer, is the person who discovers Mr. Wright’s body. Mr. Wright who is dead, is the symbol that allows the play to evolve. These are the men of the play. Mrs. Peters, who is the sheriff’s wife, has come to the Wright’s home with Mrs. Hale to retrieve some personal items for Mrs. Wright, who is in jail. Mrs. Hale, the wife of Mr. Hale and neighbor to the Wrights, has come to gather Mrs. Wright’s possessions to take back to the jail. Mrs. Peters has come with Mrs. Hale to keep her company. Finally, the character of Mrs. Wright, who becomes the focus of the play instead of her dead husband, is not on the scene but sitting in jail. These are the women of the play. The stage is now set for Glaspell to reveal to the reader how important perception is. According to Glaspell, perception is not just interpreting the physical evidence but also the emotional motives that would cause such a desperate murder.
As the investigation starts, the men are worrying about the crime scene’s having been secured or not. The county attorney is questioning Mr. Hale about how he came to discover Mr. Wright’s body. His answer is telling, although the county attorney does not perceive this answer as being of any importance. Mr. Hale is telling the county attorney that he had stopped to ask Mr. Hale to go in on a party line with him, although he had asked once before: "‘I spoke to Wright about it once before and he put me off, saying folks talked too much anyway, and all he asked was peace and quiet’" (1173). At the time he discovered the body, Mr. Hale had thought that he would go to Mrs. Wright and get her to persuade Mr. Wright, although he says, "‘I didn’t know as what his wife wanted made much difference to John’" (1173). While none of the above is actual physical evidence, if there is any emotional perception of what kind of man Mr. Wright was, the country attorney does not comprehend it. Perception is in one’s own eyes and, in this case, ears.
The first physical piece of what could be considered evidence is the jars of preserves. The difference between the men’s and women’s perception occurs here for the first time. The county attorney discovers the broken jars of preserves and comments: "‘Here is a nice mess’" (1174). With concern in her voice, Mrs. Peters tells Mrs. Hale that Mrs. Wright had feared the jars have broken. The sheriff overhears this conversation and adds his opinion about Mrs. Wright’s trifling concerns about her jars by saying, "‘Well, can you beat the woman! Held for murder and worrying about her preserves’" (1174). Later, it is Mr. Hale who makes the startling statement, minimizing women’s concerns, that gives the play its title when he jokes, "Well, women are used to worrying over trifles’" (1174).
Whether something is trifling or not depends on one’s perception. As Mrs. Hale takes offense to the men’s making light of the preserves, she reminds the men that farmer’s wives have many responsibilities because of the great deal of work to be done on the farm. Literally, preserves maintain the freshness of fruits and vegetables, but symbolically the preserves are representing Mrs. Wright’s life that has been preserved or placed in suspension because of Mr. Wright’s dominance over her during their life together. She is as preserves in a jar, for life for Mrs. Wright has stopped the day she married Mr. Wright. All her future, whatever it could have been, is unfulfilled or as unopened as the jar of preserves, so much goodness and richness potentially waiting to be experienced if only the jar were opened and tasted. The breaking of the jar because of the cold represents that Mr. Wright has finally broken Mrs. Wright’s emotional life. The jar’s explosion is a symbolic precursor to the desperation of her final action. Mr. Wright stopped all Mrs. Wright’s attempts to add zest to her life. The women perceive the importance of not having anything fulfilling in one’s life and the emotional impact the emptiness can have. The insight of Mrs. Hale is revealed when she states, "‘I don’t think a place’d be any cheerfuller for John Wright’s being in it’" (1175). The men’s and women’s differences in perception become more obvious with each symbol. What the men see as a sticky mess is a revealing clue to the motive that they are so intensely looking for; however, their perception is not focused in the right direction. Emotional insight can be just as important as the physical evidence when it comes to discovering the motive behind an action.
A living symbol that Glaspell uses is a bird, not just any bird, but a canary that is known for its singing and assumed happiness in its voice. The bird’s singing would uplift the mood of the Wright’s home because otherwise the house is a quiet and lonely place, especially for Mrs. Wright. The canary, a pet, is something for Mrs. Wright to lave her love and affection upon and to provide her company during her long solitary hours. While Mrs. Wright had dreams of having children, indicated by the symbol of the small chair that is present in the kitchen, it is also implied that Mr. Wright probably did not want children because of his desire to have peace and quiet. Again, Mrs. Hale suggests that living life with Mr. Wright must have been very harsh, when she exclaims, "‘Yes—good: he didn’t drink, and kept his word as well as most. I guess, and paid his debts. But he was a hard man, Mrs. Peters. Just to pass the time of day with him—Like a raw wind that gets to the bone’" (1178). One perception might be that the bird’s singing would interfere with Mr. Wright’s desired quietness. While the bird could represent the unfulfilled dreams of children and joyful noise in the house, the canary also represents Minnie Foster’s life before she became Mrs. Wright.
"‘Come to think of it, she was kind of like a bird herself–real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and fluttery. How–she–did–change"’ (1178), exclaims Mrs. Hale. In other words, Mr. Wright has slowly killed the once happy-go-lucky personality of Mrs. Wright. Mrs. Wright’s happy song has ended long ago. Her only remembrance of enjoyment and companionship is this caged bird, like herself caged in a dreadful life but trying to survive. When a person is deprived of all human contact and touch, pets become as important to that person as another human being. All love and affection is bestowed upon the pet, and the pet is seen as human. Surely, for Mrs. Wright her canary was the significant other in her life.
Although the importance of the bird is overlooked by both the men and the women, all the characters observe the broken cage. While all question how it might have gotten broken and what happened to the bird, it is the women who suspect it was not a cat that broke the cage door. Soon their suspicions are confirmed when the women decide to take Mrs. Wright’s quilting material to her. They discover a pretty box in with the quilt pieces and proceed to open the box, thinking that her scissors are inside; however, inside is something wrapped up in a piece of silk, and it is not the scissors. Mrs. Peters exclaims, "‘It’s the bird. Somebody–wrung its–neck’" (1179). The women realize that Mr. Wright had killed the only thing of comfort in Mrs. Wright’s life. Their perception of the emotional life of Mrs. Wright has helped them to solve the mystery of who killed Mr. Wright. What to do with this information is troubling for these women because they understand the desperation that it took for Mrs. Wright to commit such a horrible act. The women’s perception of both the physical world and the emotional world helps them not only to solve the crime but also to understand the motive behind the crime. The men want evidence of an item that is tangible, and at the end of the play they are still searching for the motive, even though, they have not discovered any pieces of physical evidence.
The most obvious of all the symbols of Trifles is the knotting of the quilt. The perception of the men and women is completely different in this clue also, however. This clue confirms the women’s fear that Mrs. Wright has killed her husband. The men’s perception is that quilting is just another way for women to trifle away their time and that nothing of importance in solving the murder could be revealed by a piece of fabric. The county attorney condescendingly says, "‘Well, Henry, at least we found out that she was not going to quilt it. She was going to–what is it you call it, ladies?’" (1181). Mrs. Hale bluntly gives him the solution to the crime when she responds, "‘We call it–knot it, Mr. Henderson’" (1181). He still does not perceive the importance of what has just been said to him.
In conclusion, the women’s perception is so insightful that they resist revealing to the men that they have solved the crime because of the compassion they feel for Mrs. Wright. They have not only solved the murder, but also they know the motive behind the crime. The women abide by the letter of the law by dropping symbols or clues. If the men were half as perceptive as the women, they also would have solved the murder. However, the women realize that the men are not that perceptive and ironically refer to the women’s insight as trifling. One line ties up loose ends of the play and reinforces the play's title when Mrs. Peters says, "‘My, it’s a good thing the men couldn’t hear us. Wouldn’t they just laugh! Getting all stirred up over a little thing like a–dead canary. As if that could have anything to do with–with–wouldn’t they laugh!’" (1180).
Glaspell not only exposes how the characters have different perspectives but she also makes the reader realize the differences between male and female perception in the play. The play is about perception, and what is actually important is not the death of Mr. Wright but the life of Mrs. Wright. Truly, perception is different not only for men and women but also for each individual person, for it determines one’s ability to perceive the truth and to achieve happiness.
Glaspell, Susan. Trifles. The Bedford Introduction to Literature:
Reading, Thinking, Writing.
"Missing Piece" was written for Dr. Barbara Murray’s ENGL 1102 class during Spring 2001 semester by Brenda Sanders, a sophomore in Social Work.