Susan Glaspell

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Trifles Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Susan Glaspell's Trifles. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Susan Glaspell

Susan Glaspell was born in 1876 and raised in rural Iowa. Despite the prevailing opinions of her community, she believed in a woman’s right to education and pursued her studies, enrolling at Drake University where she excelled in the male-dominated debate competitions. After college, Glaspell worked as a journalist covering murder cases. Trifles is based on one case she covered; Glaspell resigned her post after seeing the woman in the case convicted of murdering her abusive husband. Through the Davenport theater group of which she was a part, Glaspell met and fell in love with the already-married George Cook. The pair moved to New York City where they joined America’s first avant-garde movement alongside other artists and activists. The pair also founded the theater group the Provincetown Players on Cape Cod, and Glaspell, despite her lack of professional training, acted in several plays. She also wrote Trifles during this time (1916). The Provincetown Players first performed the play. Her work that followed was considered similarly groundbreaking. Inheritors (1921) is arguably America’s first modern historical drama, and The Verge (1921) is among the earliest expressionist art in America. Later, the pair left behind their theater company because it had become “too successful” for the company’s original innovative vision and moved to Delphi, Greece. After Cook’s death in 1924, Glaspell moved back to Cape Cod and struggled with alcoholism and depression toward the end of her life. She died of pneumonia on July 27, 1948.
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Historical Context of Trifles

Feminism in the early 20th century focused primarily on practical achievements toward the attainment of legal equality, particularly the fight for women’s suffrage and equal employment. This feminist movement is called First-Wave Feminism, and it introduced the issues and goals of feminism into many conversations and social circles for the first time. Political activists campaigned for women’s suffrage through marches and protests, but the issues of Feminism extended into the literary and artistic spheres, as well. Susan Glaspell’s work addresses larger issues of inequality than the legal agenda proposed by First-Wave Feminism. While a strong Feminist, Glaspell was interested in addressing the complexities of inequality prevalent in the home as well as the public sphere.

Other Books Related to Trifles

Susan Glaspell is often grouped with New York City’s avant-garde movement of the 1910s, America’s first example of avant-garde thinking and artistic creation. The avant-garde movement created work that was particularly innovative or experimental, and that attempted to push the accepted boundaries of various art forms. Other writers in this movement, and friends and colleagues of Susan Glaspell, included Upton Sinclair who wrote The Jungle (1906) and The Brass Check (1919), Emma Goldman (anarchist writer and political activist), and John Reed (journalist who covered the Bolshevik Revolution in Ten Days That Shook The World (1919)). After Susan Glaspell formed the Provincetown Players, she focused primarily on this group to present her work outside of New York City. Members of the Provincetown Players included Eugene O’Neill (Anna Christie (1920), Strange Interlude (1928), and Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1941)); Edna St. Vincent Millay (Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1923)); and Theodore Dreiser (Sister Carrie (1990) and An American Tragedy (1925)). These writers worked in close proximity with Susan Glaspell, and so the group benefitted from mutual support and inspiration.
Key Facts about Trifles
  • Full Title: Trifles
  • When Written: 1916
  • Where Written: New York City
  • When Published: 1916 (first performance by the Provincetown Players, Massachusetts)
  • Literary Period: Modernism
  • Genre: Feminist Drama
  • Setting: The Wrights’ farmhouse, rural United States
  • Climax: Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale discover the evidence that provides Minnie’s motive for murdering her husband, John Wright.
  • Antagonist: The patriarchal society in which the women live.

Extra Credit for Trifles

Discovery of Eugene O’Neill. Although highly acclaimed in her time, Glaspell was remembered in the years after her death primarily for having discovered the great playwright Eugene O’Neill while considering scripts of new plays for the Provincetown Players Theater. The Provincetown Players first brought Eugene O’Neill’s work to the attention of audiences and critics in 1916.

Reevaluation in the 1970s. In the 1970s, Glaspell’s work was rediscovered and embraced by feminist critics, and, since then, her work has grown greatly in popularity and is included in numerous anthologies of American literature.