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Trifles by Susan Glaspell

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1 Trifles by Susan Glaspell

2 The “Real” Murder Early in the morning of Dec. 2, 1900, John Hossack was killed in his bed by two blows to the head from an axe. His wife, Margaret, claimed to have slept through it. She was arrested for murder on the day of the funeral, tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. However, the Iowa Supreme Court overturned the life sentence, and a second trial resulted in a hung jury, so she went free. Susan Glaspell, who wrote "Trifles" was one of the only female reporters who covered the trial, and she used the Hossack murder as a loose inspiration for the play. There is a book called Midnight Assassin that discusses the real case, and if you are interested, it’s a fascinating read.

3 The Hossack Family, 1892 John (the man who was murdered) and Margaret (his wife, accused of the murder) are seated. The others are their children. This photograph was taken eight years before the murder.

4 Susan Glaspell’s Article on the Hossack Case
As a reporter for The Des Moines News, our “Trifles” author was one of the first to report on the crime, as well as one of the only female journalists covering the crime. The Hossack murder was extremely sensationalized. It gained national attention, and every major newspaper in the country was paying attention to it. What do you think it was about this murder that grabbed the country’s attention?

5 Context and Historical Setting
This is one of those plays where historical context and setting are extremely important. What historical facts/circumstances are especially relevant to this play?

6 Historical Background
In 1900, when the murder this play is loosely based on took place… Women in the United States did not have the right to vote. (This did not change on a federal level until 1920.) Women were extremely unlikely to be chosen to serve on the jury of a criminal trial. (Why might we consider this to be a problem today, especially in a case where the defendant is a woman?) Though this was beginning to change at the time of the play’s writing, the ideal, “proper” place for a women had, for a long time, been the “domestic sphere” – the home. How are these historical facts pertinent to the theme of the play?

7 Thinking about “Trifles” from a Feminist Critical Perspective
In what ways are “women’s concerns” portrayed in “Trifles”? Do the women characters in the play (Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale) have agency? (This is a phrase feminist critics often borrow from sociology. To say someone “has agency” means that they have the ability to act and make decisions independently.) In what ways are issues related to patriarchy and/or resistance to it present in the play?

8 Discussion Questions (From your book, p. 798) What key events have occurred before the start of the play? Why do you suppose these events are not presented in the play itself? What are the connotations of the word “trifles”? (From your book, p. 798) What are the “trifles” to which the title refers? How do these “trifles” advance the play’s plot?

9 More Discussion Questions
What are some of the symbols in the play? What does each of them represent? There is a short story version of this play, also written by Susan Glaspell, called “A Jury of Her Peers.” What is the significance of that title for the play?

10 Justice and the Law What is this play doing with concepts of “law” and “justice”? Many critics have thought that the women’s actions in the play point to a disconnect between the “letter of the law” and the law’s ability to give Minnie Wright a fair trial. Taking into account what you know about the historical circumstances of the play, do you think Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters did the “right thing”?

11 Difference between "quilting" and "knotting”
One of the “trifles” in the play is whether or not Mrs. Wright was going to “quilt” or “knot” the quilt she was working on. As is the case for many of the “trifles” in this play, the question is more significant than it seems. The final stage of quilting is to attach the top, batting, and backing together. This can be done in two ways. One way (quilting) is to sew elaborate patterns on it. The simpler but just as effective way (knotting) is to sew a heavy thread through the pieces using large stitches, cut the thread, and tie knots in it. The symbolism of the knotting is the fact that Mrs. Wright killed her husband by tying (and knotting) a rope around his neck. This is a simple, not elaborate, but very effective way to kill a man.

12 This is what a “knotted” or “tied” quilt looks like.

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