Winter Elliott is an Associate Professor of English at Brenau University, an institution composed of an historic women’s college and a coeducational undergraduate college. She teaches courses in composition and British lit, and enjoys the saucier side of literature — murder, mayhem, monsters, and the war between the sexes.
At first it seems like a clear cut case of right and wrong: a husband is murdered in his sleep, strangled to death by a rope around his neck. His wife, who appears all “done up” to the man who discovers the victim, pleats her apron and laughs crazily. Her alibi, if it can be called that, is so asinine as to be ludicrous: she didn’t wake up from a sound sleep while the deed was done, and in modern parlance, some other dude did it!
While the facts of the murder seem obvious, two decent, otherwise law-abiding housewives eventually decide to hide the evidence of the wife’s motive – and whether or not justice will be done is left unclear. This murder mystery is the subject of Susan Glaspell’s 1916 play Trifles, which she renamed “A Jury of Her Peers,” when she published it a year later as a short story. In some ways, the title of the short story better indicates Glaspell’s point. Even the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 did not immediately give women the universal right to serve on juries.
Thus, Glaspell implies that the two housewives in the play or short story are more truly the “peers” of the murderer, Minnie Wright, than would be an all-male jury. Consequently, as Mrs. Wright’s peers, the two women, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, uncover evidence of Minnie’s long-term abuse and decide to hide the strangled canary that both represents Minnie herself and provides evidence of her motive – she strangled her husband as both she and her pet had been, figuratively and literally, strangled by him.
A one-act play, simple in terms of plot, characterization, and symbolism, Trifles is a frequent inclusion in college literature anthologies and on syllabi of writing about literature courses. In this context, my students encounter the ethical dilemma suggested by the play. As students at a women’s college, one might expect, as one of my students herself put it, that all or most of the young women would immediately side with Minnie Wright and her female supporters in the play. This is not the case. Students who read Trifles for the first time usually position themselves alongside the male representatives of “law and order” in the play, the sheriff and country attorney. Like these men, students first encountering the play don’t really care why Minnie Wright killed her husband; they perceive only a crime that must be punished – regardless of the status of either the victim or the murderer.