I wrote this paper in the summer of 2010 for a class I took with the late, great Bruce Raskob. One of the most influential professors I’ve had the fortune of learning from; someone who instilled the idea that a large vocabulary is not the goal, but “employing one’s diction in the service of clarity and precision” is. This essay was written before I had learned that lesson.
Susan Glaspell originally wrote Trifles, her well-known one-act play, to be performed to an audience in Massachusetts in 1916. The work presents a theme and resolution that resounds heavily upon a feminist perspective because the main protagonists who together solve a crime that the men cannot—even in the midst of dismissive and extremely derisive sexism—are women. Approximately a year after the play’s debut, Glaspell published the short story ‘A Jury of Her Peers’, an adaption of the original drama. While the plot in both works remains identical, the different genres Glaspell employs brings about an interesting contrast when the two works are juxtaposed. For this reason, it is the scope of this paper to examine the similarities and differences that arise in both works as well as the advantages and disadvantages associated with the presence or lack of such commonality. Consequently, not only for simplicity’s sake but also to avoid, in some instances, needless repetition, this paper will refer to Trifles as the play and ‘A Jury of Her Peers’ as the short story.
In examining both works for similarities, four main instances of likeness are observed: the main character list is identical, Mrs. Hale’s relationship to Minnie is made explicitly clear, the sexism and subjugation of the women by the men—along with the irony that accompanies—, and memorably, the identical ending line in both texts. The first and most glaring similarity is that Glaspell chose not to tamper with the character list in her short story adaptation. All the crucial characters necessitated by the plot are included in both works: Minnie Wright is being investigated for the peculiar murder by strangulation of her husband, John Wright. Mr. and Mrs. Hale, Mr. and Mrs. Peters, and Mr. George Henderson—the county attorney—are all at the Wright residences where circumstance seems to have brought the five characters together. What is worthy of notice is that in the short story, some extraneous characters are mentioned,—Mr. and Mrs. Gorman, the county’s previous sheriff, and his wife—but their inclusion is only used strategically by Glaspell as a foundational technique to describe Mrs. Peters characteristics by juxtaposing her to a description of Mrs. Gorman. Yet Glaspell’s inclusion of this technique does not add much significance to the plot development. Through not altering the plotline, Glaspell retains an ectype of the general plot of the play in her short story adaptation. As a result, the resolution of both works culminates with the women discovering a commonality through the understanding of their shared female experience which leads to their eventual understanding of the abuse Minnie Wright must have been subjected to by her husband and tampering with crucial evidence that would most likely have led to a definite conviction.
The second commonality shared by the works is the explicit detail given about Mrs. Hale’s background and relationship to Minnie Foster. In both the play and the short story, the reader is informed on the history Mrs. Hale and Minnie Foster (Minnie’s maiden name) have shared as socialite young women in their pasts and eventually as neighbours after they had settled down with their respective husbands. Unlike with the character of Mrs. Peters, Glaspell leaves no evidential implicitness in either of the texts in regards to how Mrs. Hale comes to feel guilt and a certain allegiance towards Minnie.
The third, and arguably most vital, aspect to plot development that exists in both works is the dismissive manner that the men view and treat Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters and the subsequent irony that arises from this dynamic. In both works, it is evident that the men hold extremely sexist attitudes and go so far as not only viewing the women as inferiors but furthermore as subordinate extensions of their own identities. Evidence for this sexist assumption held by the menfolk is revealed in both texts during Mr. Henderson’s purposeful neglect in inspecting the items Mrs. Peters has accumulated upon Minnie’s request. In both works, the county attorney states that “Mrs. Peters doesn’t need supervising” because “a sheriff’s wife is married to the law” (Glaspell, “Trifles” 1.144; Glaspell, “A Jury” par. 279). The men’s ensuing laughter regarding this remark suggests that they agree with the statement—and subconsciously, its connotations. The implicit subtext associated with the men’s sexism is a reflection of the dominatingly patriarchal cultural ideals of the times the two works were published in. This is why the investigators trust the women to poke around—and unbeknownst to the men, tamper with—a fresh crime scene without any supervision: the women, as far as the men are concerned, are just insignificant “kitchen things” (Glaspell, “A Jury” par. 99). As previously stated, there is a situational irony that arises from this dynamic between genders in both works. The irony lays in the condescension the women face due to their preoccupation with what the menfolk deem to be insignificant, which is precisely the behaviour that is essential to uncovering the motive and implicating Minnie—something the men are unable to successfully achieve.
The final glaring similarity in both the play and the short story is the sarcastic line that Glaspell chose to conclude the two texts: “We call it—knot it, Mr. Henderson” (Glaspell, “Trifles” 1.150; Glaspell, “A Jury” par. 292). Why Glaspell chose both her original play and subsequent short story adaptation to end on this line is, in large part, to deliver the final irony of the plot: the modus operandi of the way John Wright was killed—strangled by rope—echoes to the way he had originally killed Minnie’s bird—by wringing the bird’s neck. Fundamentally, the final line alludes beautifully to the poetic justice that Minnie felt she had to instil unto her husband in retribution for his brutality.
While the differences between the texts lay principally in the characteristics of the two works’ respective genres, there are some further points of contrast important to note: the difference in titles and a slight change of how long Minnie has endured her marriage to John Wright are some of the noticeable differences between the two texts.
First, the corresponding genres of each of the texts bring forth both an interesting combination of advantages and disadvantages. The first thing one notices is how much shorter Trifles is in measure to the short story. With Glaspell expanding many descriptive details within her short story adaptation, the transfer in genres—from drama towards a more narrative, short story mode—necessitates a shift in the points of views of the two works. Trifles is a drama; specifically written to be acted out before an audience and thusly, only character dialogue and stage directions are present in the text. The short story, however, employs a third-person limited narrative point of view and is presented from Mrs. Hale’s perspective and the reader is privy to some of her thoughts and emotions. Important to note is what sort effects the length of the texts bring about. The play, being so condensed, relies on the audience to read between the lines and form implicit insights into the plot and development of the text. In contrast, ‘A Jury of Her Peers’ contains much more descriptive elements due to the inclusion of a narrative which makes it not only much easier to read but also does not require the reader to infer heavily into the ironic dynamics of the text’s development. Yet, as a result, one of the disadvantages of having much of what was implicitly stated in the text of the play being explicitly described in the narration of the short story is that it might impede a thorough critical thinking and analyzing process by ways of its simplicity; essentially becoming a passive read rather than an active one.
A second contrast important to notice is the titles of the two works. The title Trifles focuses the scope of meaning on the irony discussed earlier. While one title focuses the reader’s attention on the irony of the women solving the crime in face of acerbic commonplace sexism as well as the commonality of the female experience, Glaspell’s short story being titled ‘A Jury of Her Peers’ presents a slight thematic shift that seems an attempt to obscure the straightforwardness of the social message the play had originally conferred.
The final contrast between the two works is an insignificant one at best, yet examining the reason behind the change is an interesting undertaking. Originally, in the play, Glaspell had hinted the length of Minnie Wright’s marriage to John to be roughly thirty years: “She used to wear pretty clothes and be lively, when she was Minnie Foster, one of the town girls singing in the choir. But that—oh, that was thirty years ago” (Glaspell, “Trifles” 1.56). Yet in her short story adaptation, Glaspell chose to revise this piece of information: “She used to wear pretty clothes and be lively—when she was Minnie Foster, one of the town girls singing in the choir. But that—oh, that was twenty years ago” (Glaspell, “A Jury” par. 121). The reason for the change may lay in an attempt by Glaspell to convey that length of time was not the only contributing factor that led Minnie to burst out in violence and murder her husband but that the loneliness, isolation and psychological abuse she had suffered, regardless of the span of time, can lead to just about anyone reacting in such a way. Although with these specific texts there are many more points of similarity than diversity, becoming aware of the contrasting differences remains vital to the understanding of the independent literary strength each of Glaspell’s works exhibit.
In conclusion, through the careful contrasting of Susan Glaspell’s Trifles and ‘A Jury of Her Peers’,—two great pieces of literary work—brings forth an understanding of the nuances that a change in genre—both positive and negative—can bring about if the plot remains, if not identical, largely unchanged.
Glaspell, Susan. “A Jury of Her Peers.” Gaslight Electronic Text and Discussion. Web. 22 June 2010. <http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/jurypeer.htm>.
Glaspell, Susan. “Trifles.” Literature: an Introduction to Reading and Writing. By Edgar V. Roberts. Fourth Compact ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson/ Prentice Hall, 2008. 892-914. Print.