Litonline Introduction to Literature
English 112 (English Composition II)
by Rebecca Search
[Rpt. by permission]
“Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of, what happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?” (Welty qtd. in Literature). The place of a story’s happening, along with the time in which it happens, is
the setting. Setting is as instrumental to the meaning of a piece of literature by greatly affecting its results, as are the characters, point of view, and plot. The physical and time details of the setting become linked with values, ideals, and attitudes of the characters. The details of the setting of Susan Glaspell’s one-act play Trifles provide clues for solving the murder. Glaspell uses simple but effective elements in the setting to create suspense as an attempt is made to solve the mysterious murder that has occurred on the John and Minnie Wright farm. Three men and two women are the only characters that appear on a simple kitchen stage in the play. The three men (county attorney, sheriff, and a neighboring farmer) enter and exit several times while discussing and looking for evidence and motive of the murder. Meanwhile, the two women (sheriff’s and farmer’s wives) remain on stage, taking notice of and talking about Mrs. Wright’s “little things” in the kitchen (Glaspell 461) [Page references are to Judith Stanford's Responding to Literature, 4th ed. NY: McGraw-Hill, 2003]. The men make light of the small things that the women take note of, in particular as to how Mrs. Wright was contemplating to construct the quilt. As the women converse and share experiences of their own and those of Mrs. Wright, they begin to form a feminine bond. Upon finding a battered birdcage and eventually the dead canary, the women nonverbally mutually agree to hide the evidence of the murderer’s motive. Glaspell conveys the setting in three realms: time (era), regional (geographical), and domain (kitchen). Collectively the three setting elements portray the values, ideals, and attitudes of the characters giving deeper meaning to the play’s outcome.
The time period in which a piece of literature is cast greatly affects the meaning of the writing. Values, ideals, and attitudes of people change with time and circumstances. To understand this element of setting is crucial to the interpretation of action in literature. Trifles was published in 1916 and is set during the latter half of the 19th century (Waterman). During this time, women in the United States had not been granted the right to vote and also could not sit on juries. Males dominated all aspects of life at this time, except for caring of the home and children. Women were “decorative, useful in the home, but that’s all” (Carter 188). Glaspell very artistically uses the values and attitudes of gender of this era in the play. The underlying thrust of the play is the pitting of the men against the women, both intellectually (their ability to solve the murder) and domain wise (the men do all of their investigating everywhere but in the kitchen – solely the woman’s domain). Just as at this period of time, the men in the play consider themselves intellectually superior in their attempt to solve the murder mystery. They do not “give” the two women the “right to vote” by asking their opinion or input into the investigation. In fact as the women take note of “trifles”, the men dismiss them as unimportant ( 458).
It is also during this time period that the woman’s domain is limited to the home and primarily the kitchen. It is here where she spends most of her time cooking, boiling water to do laundry, heating her iron to do ironing, sitting to do her sewing, and talking with family members as they come and go. It is in the kitchen where the evidence of the motive for the murder is found – the one place the men never investigate – and it is the women who find the evidence (the broken birdcage and dead canary). Thus, the setting element of time period “sets the stage” for the action of all characters. Glaspell works the actions of the play in strong contrast to the gender value and attitudes of the day.
Another aspect of time in Trifles is the time of year. The play takes place during winter. The sheriff comments that “it dropped below zero last night” (456). It was freezing cold! The cold penetrated into the unheated house to the point that Mrs. Wright’s “fruit; it did freeze” and burst from their containers (458). What an appropriate feeling for the attitude of the dwelling! The author very skillfully uses this setting element to characterize attitudes of the people involved. Similarly, Mr. Wright is described as “cold” and “a raw wind that gets to the bone” (463). The broken bottles of preserves characterize Mrs. Wright’s previous state of mind. The “cold” of her husband’s presence infiltrated the house. The loneliness that this caused, created extreme pressure on Minnie Wright. The mental anguish results in her mentally “cracking up”, symbolized by the cracked jars. The fruit preserves themselves symbolize Minnie. Just as they escape from the broken jars, when placed under pressure from the cold, ultimately Minnie Wright broke out of her “shell” of isolation upon the death of the one who caused it – John Wright. One lone bottle remained unbroken – symbolizing Minnie Wright herself and the one more chance Minnie had at life (after the death of John Wright). The seasonal setting of winter strongly influences the meaning of character attitudes and events in the play.
The physical setting of a piece of literature is as important, if not more, than the element of time. Susan Glaspell uses a physical setting that corresponds to the seasonal time setting. Just as she set the play in the harsh and “lifeless” freezing environment of winter, she also sets the farm in a “lifeless” and lonely hollow. Again, the setting conveys meaning in characterizing the Wrights. Mrs. Wright’s life was just as “lifeless” and lonely on her husband’s farm. Mr. Wright was no company for her. Since “there’s a great deal of work to be done on a farm,” (458) “to be sure;” (458) both Mr. and Mrs. Wright put in long days of work - she in the house, and he “out to work all day” (463) on the farm. Undoubtedly, Mrs. Wright would look forward to her husband’s return at the end of the day, but no luck – he was “no company when he did come in” (463). Just as she had feared that the “fire’d go out and her jars would break,” so too had the fire “gone out” of their marriage and she would eventually break from her “frozen” lonely life.
The loneliness of the hollow is further conveyed by the neighbors’ attitudes. Not only did she not have her husband’s companionship, Minnie Wright did not have the companionship of her neighbors. Mrs. Hale comments that, “We live close together and we live far apart” (465). Mrs. Hale obviously lived close enough to pay a visit, but didn’t – keeping herself separated from Mrs. Wright. “I might have known she needed help! I could’ve come,” said Mrs. Hale (465). Why didn’t Mrs. Hale visit Minnie Wright, especially if she suspected that Minnie “might have… needed help” (465)? Again the setting determines the answer. Mrs. Hale answers by saying, “because it’s down in a hollow and you don’t see the road” (463). Does this sound isolated and lonesome? Exactly, conveying Mrs. Hale’s continuing comments, “it’s a lonesome place and always was” (463). Cheerful? “No---it’s not cheerful” (459).
Just as winter’s freezing cold environment is devoid of much color, so is Mrs. Wright. Whereas in her “spring” of life “she used to wear pretty clothes (‘white dress with blue ribbons’) (465) and be lively, when she was Minnie Foster, …singing in the choir. But that---, was thirty years ago” (460). Now in her “winter” years she has “shabby” (460) clothes and doesn’t sing – her husband “killed that, too” (464). Mr. Wright “was close” with his money (460). “Maybe that’s why she kept so much to herself” (460). The bleak winter environment conveys another reason for her loneliness, lack of proper clothes to wear in public.
Glaspell uses this cold and barren setting to correlate with another loneliness that Minnie Wright had and that is the barrenness of the womb. She had no children. That too makes for a lonely and “quiet house” (463). Why were there no children in the home? Did Mr. Wright not want them? He had said, “folks talked too much” (456). “All he asked was peace and quiet,” “yet you know how much he talked himself” (456). Did he want to do all the talking, thereby being in control? Mr. Hale said that he “didn’t know as what his wife wanted made much difference to John” Wright (456). In such emptiness of human companionship and stillness, “I should think she would wanted a bird” (463). The bird was a “child-substitute for the solitary Minnie; the canary’s voice was to displace the silence of a coldly authoritarian husband and replace the sounds of the unborn children” (Makowsky 62). Now that “the bird was still,” “it would be awful---still” (465). Winter has stillness about it that spring does not have. In spring the woods resonate with singing birds, portrayed in Trifles as Minnie Foster when she sang in the church choir. Now her life is still – still as winter with its cold that chills to the bone. Once more Susan Glaspell has related setting to the attitudes of her characters to deepen the effect of meaning in the play.
Even more pronounced than the time setting and the physical setting of the farm is the use of a kitchen as a stage setting. Glaspell uses the kitchen setting to accentuate the value system of attitudes toward the genders. The kitchen is the domestic domain – the place where women of this time spent most of their time. Mrs. Wright, herself, most likely spent most of her time here as well. The author conveys this gender role by having the two women, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, remain on the stage (in the kitchen) through the course of the play. The kitchen setting acts as a cage for Minnie Wright. It is here that she is trapped by her controlling husband, John Wright, and isolated from the world. This is further symbolized by the canary in its cage.
The characteristics given to the kitchen by Glaspell give further meaning to the play, hence helping to solve the murder mystery. The kitchen scene is defined as “gloomy” (455). Doesn’t this sound familiar? Doesn’t this correlate with the setting of the farm “down in a hollow” (463) where “it never seemed…very cheerful” (459). The author carries the mood into the kitchen also, thereby causing the “deadness” to permeate right into Minnie Wright’s world. The scene is also characterized as being “left without having been put in order,” and “other signs of incompleted work”—“unwashed pans under the sink, a loaf of bread outside the bread box, a dish-towel on the table” (455). What is being conveyed by the kitchen setting of “work stopped in its tracks?” According to Cindy Pollaro, “these tasks are ‘signs of an incompetent housekeeper to the officers of the court; to the women and to the audience these props help to establish the presence of a disturbed consciousness’ (Noe 39). ‘The incompleted tasks in Minnie's kitchen argue that she acted very soon after provocation, John's strangling of the bird’” (Smith 182) (Polaro). In addition to these interesting insights, I also believe that the scene portrays where Minnie Wright was in her daily duties at the time of John Wright’s murder. Now that he is dead and gone, her responsibilities to him are also gone. She is now free (synonymous with the empty birdcage) to move on and start a new life. This is evidence of the murder brought forth by the setting.
Susan Glaspell uses the setting of Trifles very artistically in conveying meaning to the play. She uses simple but effective elements in attempt to solve the murder mystery. The author begins by establishing the general elements that in turn establish the values and ideals of the characters. As the play progresses, Glaspell reveals more specific elements of setting that convey more specific attitudes of the characters. Collectively, all of these provide deeper meaning to the piece of literature. The time period affects the values of the characters; the seasonal and lonely farm setting gives “atmosphere” to the setting and stages the characters’ attitudes; and the stage setting of the kitchen sets the stage for the unraveling of the mystery of the murder. All of these elements of setting directly contribute to the meaning and outcome of the play.
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