Stephen King is a very noted novelist of our day. His books fly off the shelves, and he has a great following of dedicated fans. He is famed for writing gruesome horror stories that can give one nightmares for days. Having read a lot of his books, I am personally fascinated by just how far he can push the limits of ordinary horror to realms never before visited. His foreword does little to quell the fear that arises from the contents of the book. If asked why he chooses to write about such gruesome subjects, his simple reply is that it is a calling, just as painting, sculpture, composing, and singing are to those who practice these arts. His stories are vivid in their descriptions of social evils, especially murder and suicide, and leave little to the imagination.
Gladspell, on the other hand, has written a short play that is open to interpretation from whichever point of view one chooses to look. There is the men who are up and down the place looking for clues, and there is the women who uncover small clues as they go about the work they were assigned. In contrast to King’s vivid description of death and other forms of punishment, this is a simple narrative just portraying a crime of passion without going into the details.
The play is set in a time when men and women were clearly not considered equal. Women and men had certain set roles. The play is set in an abandoned farmhouse; the residents of this squalor abode are absent, and other people are scrutinizing their ways in an effort to dig up evidence for a crime that has been committed therein.
One moment that strikes me is an incident when the men are making fun of Mrs. Wright’s level of cleanliness and housekeeping skills. They make fun of the dirty dishes and not so clean towels. However, Mrs. Peters is quick to defend Mrs. Wright: “Farmers’ wives have their hands full”, which elicits a very chauvinistic reply: “loyal to your sex, I see. But you and Mrs. Wright were neighbors. I suppose you were friends, too.” This is a deeply touching representation of loyalty among the women, because, I think, Mrs Peters understands Mrs. Wright’s position and tries to defend her honor.
Another striking moment which I find quite hilarious is the discussion on the cat. The first time the bird is discovered, the characters think that the cat got it, but Mrs. Peters explains that Mrs. Wright does not have a cat: “She’s got that feeling some people have about cats- being afraid of them. My cat got in her room once and she was real upset and asked me to take it out.” When the men come in and ask about the birdcage, they also assume that the cat is responsible and seek to find out if there was a cat in the Wright’s household; however, they are told that the family is superstitious about cats, hence even if there had been one, it would not have stuck around. This detail was probably included by the author because he is a fan of cats or just to grow the theme of trifles in the play.
Something snaps in Mrs. Peters when she sees the birdcage. She has experienced the loss that clearly comes with the emptiness of the cage: “I know what stillness is. When we homesteaded in Dakota, and my first baby died after he was two years old, and me with no other than”. This is heart-wrenching even to Mrs. Hales, who clearly hears this for the first time.
The apt statement that Mrs. Hales gives as her verdict is also quite striking: “We live close together and we live far apart. We all go through the same things-it’s all just different kind of the same thing.” At this point, she is fully aware of the events leading up to the murder, but she can also see the position from which Mrs. Wright was reacting. The death of the bird is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
The play still has an impact even in our lives today because the issues addressed are timeless. There is betrayal, loss, loyalty, loneliness – all issues we face at one time or another. Mr. Wright betrays Mrs. Wright by killing her bird, to which she is closely attached. The two women feel they have betrayed Mrs. Wright by being too engrossed in their own matters and not visiting her. There is clearly a lot of loneliness in both Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Wright’s life, stemming from the fact that there is no one with whom to share their troubles; something referred to as “stillness”. Loyalty is what the two women show when they decide that they will not share the evidence with their husbands and the court attorneys.
I feel the play is actually a timeless representation of challenges in life. The murder is just a catalyst that sets events rolling and opens our eyes to what is usually right in front of us but we ignore it. It is a kind of a zoom in zoom out analogy, which makes us reflect more deeply on the things that really matter, not the trifles.
Gladspell uses understatement in this play quite effectively. As opposed to the visual “special effect” and earsplitting stereo, where a loud bang or a sudden quietness will alert one to a change in scenery or evoke a feeling such as fear that one is used to, this play actually calls for an intent listening and observation method to try and sift out the relevant from the trifles. The men in the play are quite obtuse, from my perspective, chasing after this and that. The sheriff actually sends someone ahead to light a fire so that they do not feel the cold when they do come to do their investigation. The person sent in may or may not have used the towels, which would be directly tampering with the evidence. The women conceal evidence from the men, and the men are consoled by the fact that Mrs. Peters is “married to the law,” hence would not deceive them. One has to be very keen to separate the lies from the reality, to detect the irony in the writers tone and actions.
Inference is used in the play severally, where the readers are allowed to interpret the story in their own style. The actions of Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hales have not been pinned down to a specific reason. Mrs. Peters may have decided to help out Mrs. Wright because of the loss of her son or because she felt guilty for not visiting. This is open to the reader to decide. There is clearly a pre-existing tension between the two women because they avoid eye contact and their conversations can be said to be strained. The reason behind it has not been explained. The play has a lot of loopholes, where the reader is allowed to fill in the blanks for him/herself and draw his/her own conclusions. The end of the play also leaves the audience in suspense, and each is left to come up with their own alternative ending.
I believe that the whispered voices of trifles are largely ignored in our society. They are drowned by the din of modern-day hustles and only heard when a life-changing, usually tragic, event occurs. In my opinion, small dramas like “Trifles” may not have a place in our culture, but I believe they should still be produced so that they may force us to open our eyes to the realities, force us to listen to the small downtrodden voice, and force us to change our fast, noisy way of life.