by Dorothy Marshall -Gent
Trifles (1916), and its related short story, ‘A Jury of Her Peers’ (1917), present a domestic mystery within the narrative framework of a courtroom drama. For good measure, Glaspell included a challenge to the gender inequalities of the early twentieth century American judicial system, and this prompted Victoria Makowsky to describe the play as a “potentially feminist detective story”.
Trifles is believed to have been based on a trial that Glaspell covered between 1900 and 1901, whilst working as a reporter with Des Moines Daily News,. The all-male jury found Margaret Hossack guilty of the murder of her husband John. Linda Ben-Zvi suggests that had the jury members included women, and been truly ‘A Jury of Her Peers’, it “…might have been able to offer a different reading of the case.”
At the beginning of the narrative Minnie Wright has been arrested for the murder of her husband John. Minnie’s home is the setting for the crime scene and the court room, so that the investigation, trial and verdict are presented from a private, domestic perspective more familiar to women than men at that time. The responsibility to solve the mystery, therefore, falls to Mrs Peters and Mrs Hale, the wives of the Sheriff and a neighbouring farmer respectively. The women, however, are reluctant detectives who arrive at the scene along with, and at the behest of, their husbands.
An aspiring politician, George Henderson, the county attorney leads Sheriff Peters and Mr Hale as the men hunt for evidence that will convict Minnie. The women, meanwhile, have been asked to concern themselves with domestic “trifles” like collecting some clothes to take to Minnie who is in the local jail. It is the women, however, who have the skills required to find and then interrogate the evidence which abounds within the home. It quickly becomes apparent that the male characters are peripheral to unravelling of the mystery.
A particular strength of Glaspell’s writing is her refusal to present the women as flawless amateur sleuths who confidently undermine the professional male characters. Mrs Peters and Mrs Hale share the beliefs and biases of their husbands and of their time. They confront a moral dilemma as Minnie’s home gradually betrays its domestic secrets; what will they do with the clues they find, will they arrive at a verdict and what will it be?
Susan Glaspell was born in Davenport, Iowa, in 1876 and graduated from Drake University in Des Moines in 1899. She worked as a journalist before becoming a full time writer. Glaspell met her future husband, George Cram Cook, in 1915 and together they founded the Provincetown Players in Massachusetts. During her lifetime, Glaspell was a well-known and prolific writer of short stories, novels and plays. In 1931 she won the Pulitzer Prize for Alison's House, a play inspired by the life of Emily Dickinson. Her writing, neglected during the mid-twentieth century, was rediscovered and promoted during the 1970s and now features in women’s studies and American modernism programmes the United States and United Kingdom. Glaspell died in 1948.
worked in the emergency services for twenty years first as a police officer, then as a paramedic and finally as a fire control officer before graduating from King’s College, London as a teacher of English in her mid-forties. She completed a M.A. in Special and Inclusive Education at the Institute of Education, London and now teaches part-time and writes mainly about educational issues. Dot sings jazz and country music and plays guitar, banjo and piano as well as being addicted to reading mystery and crime fiction.