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Plot Structure in Susan Glaspell's Trifles
The play "Trifles" by Susan Glaspell is a whodunit type of murder mystery. But in this case, the "professionals," whose job it is to find out what happened, failed in their task. The County Attorney (Mr. Henderson) and the Sheriff (Mr. Peters) attempt to piece together what had transpired on the day when John Wright was murdered. They interviewed Mrs. Hale, Mrs. Peters, and Mr. Hale who told them that Mrs. Wright, John's wife, had been acting strange when he had found her in the kitchen. After taking in all of this information, they left Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale in the kitchen.
Instead of focusing on the men and their quest to solve the case, Glaspell concentrates on the women in the kitchen. It is at this point, when the men leave the kitchen and go upstairs, that the women begin to, perhaps inadvertently, find out for themselves who had killed John Wright. I believe the rising action of this play begins when the men leave the women alone in the kitchen. Without even knowing it, the women are using the tactics that a trained detective would use: asking many questions and making inferences. They engage in small talk and comment on how the kitchen was left after the murder. For example, when Mrs. Peters was looking through the cupboard, she discovered that Mrs. Wright had a bread set. Mrs. Hale then concludes that "she was going to put this in here," referring to a loaf of bread beside the breadbox. Another example is when Mrs. Peters noticed that Mrs. Wright had been "piecing a quilt." As the two women are wondering whether she was going to "quilt it or knot it," the men come down the stairs and overhear them. The Sheriff repeats out loud what he had heard them say and the men all laugh, obviously making fun of the women. This situation is interesting because the men have no idea that the women were actually making valuable conclusions. I think the next line that Mrs. Hale says is very important:
"I don't know as there's anything so strange, our takin' up our time with little things while we're waiting for them to get the evidence. I don't see as it's anything to laugh about."
This line shows that even the women themselves believe that they are not finding anything of importance.
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The rising action continues through a series of small discoveries such as the "nervous" sewing patterns that Mrs. Wright had stitched and the broken door on the birdcage. Right after finding the broken door on the canary cage, Mrs. Hale said, "I wish if they're going to find any evidence they'd be about it." They both had no idea that they had just found a key piece of evidence. The next discovery that they made signifies the climax of the play: A box in the sewing basket contained the dead bird, which had its neck wrung. This single find immediately gave an answer to the previous discoveries they had made. Glaspell's description sums it all up: "Their eyes meet. A look of growing comprehension, of horror". The "growing comprehension" means that in a matter of seconds after finding the dead bird, they completely understand what had happened and all questions that they had posed earlier were answered. The women were terrified and in a state of disbelief about the truth they had just discovered.
Without even trying to do so they had found the murderer of John Wright, his wife. The scene of the murder replayed in their minds: Mrs. Wright had been sewing in the kitchen, when Mr. Wright, who hated birds, came into the kitchen. This explains the nervous sewing by Mrs. Wright who didn't want the bird to be discovered. But he found the cage with the bird hidden in one of the cupboards, broke the door open and wrung its neck. This was enough motive for Mrs. Wright to kill her husband. Right after their horrific discovery, they heard the men coming in the house and Mrs. Hale hid the bird in the sewing basket. This I believe is the resolution. The women had made up their minds that they were not going to reveal to the men what they had found. Even when the County Attorney asked them where the bird was after he saw the cage, they lied and told him, "We think the cat got it."
They knew what type of man Mr. Wright was and that he wouldn't have liked a bird to be in the house. Mrs. Hale said he was a "hard man" and "just to pass the time of day with him was like a raw wind that gets to the bone." With this type of personality, he would not have liked a bird in the house, and Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale both believed that he would have killed the bird as a way of getting rid of it. The ladies did not want to reveal their findings to the men because they were sympathetic towards Mrs. Wright who had bought the bird to have something that actually was happy around the house and would be there for her all the time. As the reader, I also felt the same sympathy for Mrs. Wright who had to endure her husband's abnormal personality. All she wanted was a companion and when her husband took it away from her, she decided that she was going to kill him. I don't agree with her decision to kill him, but she was probably pushed to the point where she couldn't control her actions.
Nevertheless, the motive that the Attorney and Sheriff had been desperately seeking was only going to be found if the women revealed their discovery or if the men found the bird. The remainder of the play is very tense and represents the falling action. The men return from another search of the second floor and enter the kitchen. The Attorney approaches the table where the women are seated and says, "It's all perfectly clear except a reason for doing it . . . If there was something to show - something to make a story about..." The women still do not tell and are extremely nervous about the dead bird in the sewing basket underneath the quilt pieces being discovered. The most tense part of this scene is when the Sheriff asks, "Do you want to see what Mrs. Peters is going to take in?" The Attorney moves a few things around in the basket and for a moment I believed he was going to find the bird, but then he said, "I guess they're not very dangerous things the ladies picked out . . . A sheriff's wife is married to the law." This last line insinuates to the women that they are indeed breaking the law by not telling the Attorney about the bird. Even though the men have no idea that the bird even exists, I believe the women feel guilty about not revealing their find but I also think that their sympathy for Mrs. Wright outweighs that guilt.