Susan Glaspell's one-act play Trifles is frequently anthologized, and for good reason (Makowsky 59; Cerf 103). The play differs from a traditional drama in a number of ways, including its structure and narrative content, but arguably its most important feature is it reveals who its protagonists are and the effect this character choice has on the play as a whole. Although the actions of Minnie Wright constitute the narrative focus of the play, she is not the actual protagonist, because the story's immediate action is carried out by Mrs. Peters, the Sheriff's wife, and Mrs. Hale, her friend. Once Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale are introduced, however, the male characters frequently attempt to trivialize their actions, such that their status as the primary protagonists is uncertain until the play concludes with their decision to cover for Mrs. Wright. By examining how other characters and the play itself treats Mrs. Peter's and Mrs. Hale's status as the primary protagonists, one is able to see how the characterization of the play serves to complement its larger feminist point regarding the patriarchal dismissal of female concerns and actions.
To begin it is necessary to differentiate between the ostensible subject of the play and the protagonists, because Trifles is essentially a single scene from what feels like a much larger story. In the most straightforward sense one might be inclined to think of Minnie Wright as the play's protagonist, because her actions are what spawn the entire play. Minnie murders her husband, leading to the arrival of Hale, the Sheriff, the county attorney, and Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale as they investigate for clues. However, Mrs. Wright never appears in the play itself, and Trifles does not actually concern itself with the murder or Mrs. Wright's ultimate fate; instead, the play is a kind of story within a story, wherein Mrs. Peters' and Mrs. Hales' experiences are the primary focus of this smaller story within Mrs. Wright's larger narrative. Thus, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale are the protagonists, even if it does not appear so at first.
It is also important to note that it is almost impossible to talk about one woman without talking about the other, because their conversations with each other are what help to identify either of them as a protagonist and serve to instigate the most important actions of the play. Furthermore, anything that is true of Mrs. Peters is for the most part true of Mrs. Hale (at least in terms of their status as protagonists) and so only talking about one would do a disservice to this analysis, because that would mean arbitrarily leaving out one half of the play's central figures. Thus, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale should be considered complementary characters whose existence in the play is so intertwined that one cannot talk about one without also discussing the other.
In addition to Trifles existing as a kind of mini-story within the larger narrative of Mrs. Wright's actions, Mrs. Peters' and Mrs. Hale's status as the primary protagonists is also challenged or complicated by the other characters, who, due to their sometimes laughably obvious sexism, constantly attempt to belittle the women and disregard their actions. In fact, except for Mrs. Peters early line declining the offer to warm herself by the fire, the women do not speak at all for some time as the male characters go over the facts of the case (Glaspell 393). It is not until the attorney reveals that Mrs. Wright's preserves have all broken as a result of the cold that the women begin to speak up, and even the male characters do their best to make it seem like they do not matter.
When Mrs. Peters remarks on the broken preserves to Mrs. Hale, the Sheriff, the attorney, and Hale all have something disparaging to say, and the effect is to suggest that Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale are irrelevant characters; obviously, the play itself ultimately recognizes their importance, but this initial dismissal by the male characters serves to simultaneously misdirect the audience while demonstrating how the men's sexists views of women preclude them from seeing important things. The Sheriff laughs about how Mrs. Wright was worried about her preserves, the attorney ominously insinuates that Mrs. Wright will have something more serious to worry about when the men are done, and Hale gives the title to the play when he says "well, women are used to worrying over trifles" (Glaspell 394). The self-important men (who would very much like to imagine themselves as the protagonists of this story) do everything they can to dismiss and disparage the women's perspective about everything, first by suggesting that they care about insignificant things and then by criticizing Mrs. Wright for not keeping a tidier house. This presents a kind of catch-22 where women are dismissed for caring about things like preserves and a clean kitchen while being chastised for not keeping these things in order, as if women should somehow magically keep everything clean and tidy while somehow managing to never actually spend any time or energy doing so.
Even the attorney's questions serve as an attempt to diminish the importance of the women's statements and actions, because every time Mrs. Hale responds to him he almost deliberately misinterprets what she is saying in order to make it into something that disparages women's work in the home. For example, when Mrs. Hale says that the Wrights' house is not cheerful, the attorney agrees but adds that he does not think Mrs. Wright "had the homemaking instinct," even though Mrs. Hale was talking about the effect Mr. Wright had on the cheerfulness of the house (Glaspell 395). The men effectively direct the conversation, and they specifically direct it in a way as to make the women an insignificant part of the action.
As a result, it is not clear that Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale are the protagonists of the story until the men finally leave to go upstairs and the women are left standing in the kitchen. Here they are finally given the chance to express themselves, and because Trifles is a play, one can imagine that the staging of the scene would likely begin to provide some hints as to the importance of the two women, because they would be left alone on stage after the men exit, so that all of a sudden their presence becomes the focus. The play makes the decision of truly "introducing" its primary protagonists in this way in order to highlight the way that women are discounted and marginalized, even within what is arguably their own play.
Once the men leave, however, it soon becomes clear that Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale are far more insightful, observant, and fully-rounded characters than the men would likely believe. Firstly, it is not until the men leave that the women truly enter the kitchen and begin looking around, and the audience realizes that they are showing far more respect and awareness of their environment than the men. They study the kitchen, and instead of seeing an untidy mess, they actually piece together what she was doing before being taken away, such as baking bread (Glaspell 396). Where the men' sexism does not allow them to make anything intelligible about the scene in the kitchen, it provides valuable clues to the women, whose own investigative powers are not clouded by assumptions about the triviality of women's concerns. Mrs. Hale is not the cold, stiff woman she appears to be when talking to the county attorney, but instead is revealed to be sympathetic and considerate, while Mrs. Peters is far more understanding of Mrs. Wright's plight than one would expect considering she is married to the sheriff.
As the two women are revealed to be much rounder characters than the men would give them credit for, they are also shown to be dynamic where the men are static. Over the course of the play, the women go from agreeing that "the law is the law" to actively covering up important evidence that could demonstrate a motive for Mrs. Wright's killing of her husband, and they do it by examining the parts of the house and the objects within that constituted the whole of Mrs. Wright's life (Glaspell 406). The women are able to change and evolve over the course of the play because they are able to essentially inhabit Mrs. Wright's life through her kitchen and personal possessions, and this inhabitation is only possible because they do not dismiss Mrs. Wright's life as full of "trifles" right at the outset. The men, on the other hand, remain static throughout the play, because although they are searching the house for evidence, they are entirely unable to understand the house or its inhabitants from the perspective of someone else. Instead, they all participate in the patriarchal idea that male subjectivity is the only important subjectivity, and thus they never change, likely believing themselves to be perfect already.