Finding the Colors
A person who feels trapped could quite possibly find themselves capable of doing things they never imagined they could, or in some cases, would. Could a woman, feeling alone and seeing no way out, be capable of murder if pushed hard enough? Short-story writer Susan Glaspell leaves us wondering just that in her story “Trifles”, written in 1916. I cannot help but think of a modern-day comparison in the song “Grey Street” by the Dave Matthews Band, in which we hear of someone feeling stuck and fighting to be free. Examining both “Trifles” and “Grey Street” allows us to explore the undesirable yet common life circumstance of feeling trapped where you are, with no clear way out.
“Trifles” takes place in the Wright home, where assorted neighbors and townsfolk are discussing the untimely death of Mr. Wright, who was found strangled in his own bed. Mrs. Wright seems the likely suspect as the only other person in the home. However, there is a lack of clear motive and obvious questions about the physical abilities of Mrs. Wright to strangle her husband. The discovery of Mrs. Wright’s pet bird, killed with a broken neck, makes the reader wonder — was Mrs. Wright so hopeless that she would kill for escape? Capable of “killing a man while he slept, slipping a rope around is neck that choked the life out of him” (Trifles, Glaspell, 1916)? Through dialogue between the women in the story we learn of how cold Mr. Wright could be, how Mrs. Wright had changed through the years, and how lonely her life must have become. The remorse expressed by her neighbors over their failure to reach out after it was too late is a lesson that can easily fit our modern lives.
“Grey Street” speaks a little differently to me, but in the end the message is the same. We hear the song of a woman who is stuck and fighting to find her way out. This feels like more of a ‘how did I get here’ than being stuck here, and I think this is a common theme among women of a certain age. While our singer does not resort to possible homicide, the words “She feels like kicking out all the windows and setting fire to the life” (DMBAlmanac, Grey Street) show us the strength of the emotions and feelings one can experience at feeling utterly trapped.
By all accounts, Mrs. Wright had once been a cheerful woman, a vibrant part of her community. After her marriage and the years that followed her neighbors, speaking of her home, said “it never seemed a very cheerful place” (Trifles, Glaspell, 1916). There is various ongoing conversation about the fact that the Wrights never had children, and how Mrs. Wright had progressively kept more and more to herself. Continued and deeper isolation contributed to her sense of desperation. When her husband killed her bird — likely the one thing that brought her joy — did she snap? Did that render her capable of murder? It makes me wonder, had even just one friend or neighbor reached out to her, could that have made the difference? It is important, especially now, in these times of Covid-driven isolation, to be aware of our friends and family, and reach out to them to make sure they are doing well. The National Alliance on Mental Illness gives us a great guide to help us spot concerning signs in our loved ones.
The complete scope of the song “Grey Street” sings of a flat anxiety regarding the surroundings of the subject. Right down to the title, Grey is the bland, dreary day of colors. Matthews tells us how she wants to “change everything about her using colors bold and bright” (DMBAlmanac, Grey Street) and repeatedly talks about colors mixing and fading into grey. The colors symbolize all the things that make life worth living, the things that we love: friends, family, work, hobbies, and so on. The problem is that in this modern world we are prone to taking on more than we can reasonably handle. All those great things mix together and the overwhelm makes them lose their joy…they turn grey. “It breaks her heart” (DMBAlmanac, Grey Street” is the haunting line we hear, from someone who understands how it feels to feel trapped by the things that we know should bring us joy. It resonates back to “Trifles” when the bit of color that Mrs. Wright had — her pet bird — was taken from her, and that bit of color turned Grey.
We look at “Trifles” as the extreme version of what can happen when a person feels pushed to their limits, and obviously this is a situation that everyone wants to avoid. While the author does not ever outright tell the readers that Mrs. Wright is guilty of the crime, we are heavily inclined to believe that. It was a vengeful crime. There was a gun kept in the house — certainly, a shot would have been easier than strangling an adult man. It appears the crime was specific as to the hurt he had previously inflicted on Mrs. Wright, by wringing the neck of her bird. Revenge killing is not as uncommon as you might think, as talked about here in Rolling Stone.
When we compare the two pieces, we get a look at both the more physical entrapment of a loveless marriage of a century ago and the emotion side of feeling out of place in a situation that is out of your control. While we get the viewpoint of the more negative extremes of outcomes from both works, I think we can use that to help guide us to more functional and healthy outcomes. Talking to friends and family along with accessing the countless resources that are available can help turn a potential tragedy into a rainbow of bold and bright colors — a happy, joy-filled life.