Though its plot focuses on a single moral choice, that of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters deciding whether or not to expose why Mrs. Wright killed her husband, Trifles is thematically complex. It addresses the abiding issue of justice and contemporary issues of gender and identity politics. Susan Glaspell’s power comes from the way she interweaves these issues until they are impossible to separate. When they enter the farmhouse, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are there as wives, adjunct to their husbands’ roles in society. However, through the process of attempting to help another woman by gathering items from her household that might comfort her in jail, they learn to identify themselves first as women and only secondarily as wives. Each woman recognizes her own life in Mrs. Wright’s suffering, and each comes to see that given the wrong circumstances, she, too, would have killed the man that so damaged her. These women symbolize all women, and this growing awareness suggests the possibility of personal transformation that decades later emerged in feminist consciousness-raising groups. When they decide to hide the evidence of Mrs. Wright’s motive for the murder, the two women are condoning the crime, or declaring that it is not a crime, but justice for the suffering that John Wright inflicted on his wife.
This stance creates a tremendous moral dilemma. The ideal of justice is that a truly just society is impartial. All the male characters are blind to what is going on and are even condescending to the women. The county attorney is the worst example of this. He is so certain that he knows what the situation entails that he will not even let other characters finish speaking. Yet, he and all the male characters cannot see the truth that is literally right in front of their faces. Mr. Hale and the sheriff cannot see that the women they live with are keeping something from them. This suggests that the entire concept of justice is flawed. Either there are different justices for different groups, according to their experience of the world, or, worse, there are different realities, invisible to those who do not share them. The choice to hide a dead bird may symbolize the death knell for the Western political system: How can a fair and functioning society be constructed in such circumstances? At the very least, the play casts doubt on all existing legal structures unless the female perspective is integrated.
Out of the many themes that this story expands upon, the most salient is gender inequality. A lot of topics surface under the umbrella of this theme. Among many other subthemes that exist within the theme of gender inequality we can find:
- spousal abuse (husband to wife)
- social expectations of females
- women in patriarchal societies
- women roles in the family
- marital expectations
Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are two women who are asked to join their husbands in looking for items to take back to accused husband killer, Minnie Wright. At the time the action begins, Wright is being held at the county jail. This is why she made requests to bring some things back to her that she needs.
There, we can see the first example of differentiation of gender. The accused killer is a female, hence, the men in charge of investigating the scene leave it up to other females, their own wives, to "take care of her." Moreover, Sheriff Peters assumes that his wife would be "scared" of embarking in such a mission, and he requests for her the company of Mrs. Hale, a former friend of Minnie Wright and the wife of the farmer who witnessed the scene of the crime.
We see more instances of gender inequality throughout the story. For example, the title "Trifles" refers to the descriptor that the men investigating the scene use to refer to the different items found around the house, which belonged to Minnie Wright. However, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters unveil that the so-called trifles were actually very important clues that could explain Mrs. Wright's state of mind at the time of the crime. Those "trifles" were in fact very telling.
Had the men been more clever, and less critical of Minnie Wright's lifestyle, they could have used those clues to build a strong case against Mrs. Wright that would have been an easy win for the county attorney, who was likely to work for the prosecution of Mrs. Wright. Instead, they continuously make sarcastic remarks and unfair jokes about things such as Minnie's stitching, her frozen compotes, and the state of her house.
One important factor about gender inequality in the story is that Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters know that Minnie is an abused wife who will still fall through the cracks of the system. They know that, even though John Wright caused tremendous psychological distress to his wife, no jury will care about the causes that led her to snap and kill her husband, especially in a society led mainly by men. This is why they join forces and become accomplices in concealing any evidence that could be used to bring Minnie down. As such, their gender inequality is at least strengthened by their mutual solidarity, and their support of Minnie. They can at least help to save whatever is left of Minnie's life.