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Advanced Reading 8. PLANNING AN INTERPRETIVE ESSAY

Outline Activity

Developing a Thesis Statement

Planning an Interpretive Essay

Student Essay Sample

Assignments

Analyzing Literary Elements Plot

◦ two plots run parallel: the men have an off-stage story as they hunt for clues to the murder of Mr. Wright; the women have an on-stage story as they unravel the life of Mrs. Wright.

◦ The tension in the story’s plot has to do with the rate at which Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters come to understand what has happened.

◦ Suspense builds as the two women, and the audience, figure out who killed Mr. Wright and why.

◦ The suspense is heightened by the moral dilemma of whether the women should conceal incriminating evidence — and whether they’ll get caught doing it.

◦ One reason the men in the story don’t figure out what happened is that they dismiss the things the women say as mere trifles.

Analyzing Literary Elements Characters

◦ two female characters — Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters — and three male characters — Mr. Hale, the sheriff, and the county attorney. Mr. and Mrs. Wright, though not on stage, have a presence as well.

◦ Over the course of the play, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters change, feeling less certain about their own beliefs, disappointed in themselves for not being better friends to Mrs. Wright, and empathetic to her desperate loneliness.

◦ The men don’t change. We learn about all of the characters through their conversation, especially in the way the conversation changes when the men are involved.

Analyzing Literary Elements Setting

◦ The setting helps us understand character and also moves the plot along.

◦ The play takes place in an empty farmhouse, but the setting is more complicated than that. The men go to the bedroom where the murder occurred, while the women focus on the kitchen.

◦ Both the men and the women note the disheveled condition in which Mrs. Wright left it, yet the women are protective of her as well, understanding that she probably wouldn’t have left such a mess if she hadn’t been unexpectedly taken from her home. They also come to understand that the mess (which is a part of the setting) may be a sign of the “sudden feeling” the sheriff and attorney are looking for.

◦ We learn that the community is close and that Mrs. Peters is a newcomer. Mrs. Hale has known the woman under suspicion for many years, and it is through that familiarity that she understands what has happened and makes the decision she does.

Analyzing Literary Elements Symbols

◦ Certain symbols are repeated in Trifles.

◦ The cold is brutal and unrelenting. The characters move toward the stove whenever possible, and the cold is a repeated subject of conversation. Mr. Wright is depicted as being cold and unloving, making the cold a clear symbol of a life without affection or even company.

◦ Other symbols might be Mrs. Wright’s quilt pieces, the choice between quilting and knotting, the dead bird and the broken birdcage, the preserves (or trifles), and even the half-done chores. Each of these things is more fraught with meaning than it at first seems.

Analyzing Literary Elements Themes

◦ Although the subject of Trifles is the unraveling of a mystery and the decision to protect the murderer, some of its themes might be:

◦ Sexism can make people blind to the truth.

◦ People may take desperate measures when they feel entrapped in a loveless marriage, in a cold isolated house, or in a society that doesn’t value them.

◦ Someone who is a criminal by one set of social standards might be a victim according to another set of social standards. Or, in other words, justice is not always the same as the rule of law.

Theme Activity Working in groups, choose a passage from Trifles that you think is pivotal to one of the themes, then act it out or read the lines in a way that dramatizes that theme.

Developing a Thesis Statement Now that we have analyzed how the literary elements of the play work together to express its themes, it’s time to turn those themes into a thesis statement.

Remember that you are analyzing the elements of the work in order to arrive at an interpretation; you should not be summarizing the work. Simply retelling what happened or making an observation does not amount to an interpretation.

Stating that Mrs. Peters seems to change her mind over the course of the play is not enough. You would be better off claiming that she changes her mind as the result of seeing justice in a different way.

Developing a Thesis Statement Let’s examine a few examples of thesis statements that would result in summary, and consider how they could be turned into interpretive thesis statements. ◦ In Trifles, the women notice evidence that the men do not.

◦ In Trifles, the differences in the evidence the men and women notice suggest different worldviews and value systems.

The summary statement simply tells what happened during the course of the play, but the interpretive statement takes that same point and explains why it happened. It answers the question: Why do the women notice evidence that the men do not?

Developing a Thesis Statement ◦ Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters discover a birdcage and dead canary, which provide clues

to what actually happened to Mr. Wright.

◦ When Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters discover a birdcage and a dead canary wrapped in silk, they associate the silenced songbird with the joyless and repressed life that might have motivated Mrs. Wright to murder her husband.

The summary statement is accurate, but it is not an interpretation. You might ask yourself the following questions:

◦ Can I write a whole essay on this idea?

◦ Would anyone else see this point differently?

If the answer to both questions is yes, then you’re probably writing an interpretation.

If the answer is no, you’re probably in the realm of fact, or comprehension, rather than interpretation.

Developing a Thesis Statement Anyone who reads the play can tell you that these women discover a birdcage and a dead canary and see both as clues to understanding the murder. What else is there to say?

If you ask yourself further questions, you’ll get beyond summary and move toward interpretation. Why were the birdcage and the dead canary clues? What is the connection between the canary, the birdcage, and Mrs. Wright?

An interpretation will reveal these connections, while a summary will not.

Remember when formulating your thesis that you are writing about how literary elements such as plot, character, setting, and symbol illuminate the meaning of the work as a whole. Thus, you are always balancing the two: literary elements and interpretation.

Developing a Thesis Statement Activity Discuss whether each of the following thesis statements is interpretation or summary. Then discuss whether the interpretive statements clearly focus on how literary elements contribute to the meaning of the work as a whole.

1. Trifles is a play about isolation and loneliness.

2. The broken birdcage in Trifles functions both as a clue to the circumstances of the murder and as a symbol that illuminates the role of Mrs. Wright in her marriage.

3. The character of Mrs. Peters, the wife of the sheriff, undergoes a significant change during the course of Trifles, a play set during a time when women were defined primarily through their husbands.

4. The frigid setting of Susan Glaspell’s Trifles contributes to the characterization of all three women: it highlights the cold and isolated existence of the absent Mrs. Wright, while evoking the sympathetic responses of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters.

5. Even though we never actually meet her, Mrs. Wright exerts a powerful presence in Trifles.

Developing a Thesis Statement Activity 6. In the opening scene of Trifles, the men dominate the room as they stand near the stove, while the women remain near the door and quietly tolerate the cold.

7. The absent Mrs. Wright, suspected of murder in Susan Glaspell’s Trifles, embodies the idea that loneliness, abuse, and isolation can lead a person to despair and even violence.

8. In Trifles, the male authority figures, including the sheriff himself, dismiss the female characters’ investigation into the murder of Mr. Wright.

9. The kitchen, the dead bird, and the knots in the quilt have symbolic significance for the overall meaning of Trifles.

10. In Trifles, the discovery of the dead bird is a pivotal complication, especially for Mrs. Peters, that changes how the women view the role of the law.

Developing a Thesis Statement Look at the following prompt and try to think of your own thesis statement.

◦ In a conventional murder mystery, the point of the story is to figure out who the culprit is. The mystery in Susan Glaspell’s play Trifles is unconventional, as the culprit is apprehended before the play even begins. However, as Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters unravel the mystery of why the murder took place, the play’s themes are revealed. Discuss how Susan Glaspell uses the mystery in Trifles to reveal a theme of her play.

Developing a Thesis Statement A good starting point is to figure out exactly what is being asked. In this case, you’re being asked to consider the murder-mystery plot not as an end in itself but as a means of developing a theme.

A murder mystery is all about the law, because somebody has to be held accountable for the crime. Yet in Trifles, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters begin to question the law. As they unravel the mystery, they aren’t so sure that “the law is the law.”

So maybe Glaspell is asking us to reflect on the relationship between law and justice or to link justice and punishment. Did Mrs. Wright do wrong in being her husband’s judge, jury, and executioner? Was living with him punishment enough for her wrongdoing? Did she choose a punishment that fit his “crime”? These are complex questions — questions not definitively answered in the play but ones that it raises.

Developing a Thesis Statement When you’re trying to fit ideas and insights like these into a single sentence, it’s likely to be pretty awkward at first, and that’s fine. We call this first attempt a working thesis. For example, you might come up with this:

◦ The murder mystery in Trifles is solved, but it is not so easy to answer the questions that the mystery raises about law, justice, and punishment, and whether hard-and- fast rules that govern human relations are always appropriate or fair.

This is a start, but it could use some focus. At this point, you probably need to decide whether you’re going to argue that Glaspell takes a definite stand on these issues. The play ends inconclusively (Mrs. Wright is neither convicted nor exonerated) which makes it difficult to say that the play (or its author) takes a stand on these issues. A better route, then, is to argue that Glaspell asks her audience/readers to explore these issues:

◦ In Trifles, the murder mystery is the means Glaspell uses to explore whether the rule of law is always the same as justice.

Planning an Interpretive Essay Regardless of whether you are given a specific prompt to respond to or assigned a more general topic on a literary work, your main points will grow out of your thesis statement. Expressing these points as topic sentences moves the essay along and makes it more cohesive.

◦ In Trifles, the murder mystery is the means Glaspell uses to explore whether the rule of law is always the same as justice.

This says that you will first discuss the murder mystery as a plot device, and then explain how it contributes to the theme. Notes for your essay structure they might look like this:

◦ Solving the murder is not really the point of the story. Suspect is detained, and case is pretty much closed right from the beginning.

◦ Seem to be different ways of investigating for men and women. Men doing police work. Women looking at “trifles.”

◦ Women suppress evidence. Defy men’s justice. Empathize with Mrs. Wright.

◦ Birdcage and dead bird symbolize Mrs. Wright (former singer) and her desolate life with Mr. Wright.

Planning an Interpretive Essay These notes may not neatly become clear topic sentences, but they do suggest a logical progression. Turning them into complete sentences we end up with an outline:

◦ Topic Sentence 1: Although Mr. Hale retells the circumstances of finding the body, questions arise concerning Mrs. Wright’s indifferent behavior and the way her husband died.

◦ Topic Sentence 2: During the investigation, the men follow rules to gather evidence, supporting one another’s assumptions about what is significant, while the women quietly observe the surroundings, noticing important clues that the men dismiss as “trifles.”

◦ Topic Sentence 3: Identifying with Mrs. Wright, the women withhold judgment and instead try to understand what might have motivated her.

◦ Topic Sentence 4: The birdcage and the dead canary, clues to the mystery, also symbolize the quiet oppression of Mrs. Wright.

◦ Topic Sentence 5: The play’s conclusion serves as closure to the mystery, but it is the investigative process that proves to be more illuminating.

Assignments Choose one of the following prompts and write an interpretive essay (1,000 words) using Trifles.

◦ Explain how the opening scene of the play introduces a central idea or theme.

◦ Analyze how the author uses literary techniques in his or her work to challenge the status quo in a society or community.

◦ Discuss how the author’s use of time in constructing a story’s plot — especially in medias res and flashbacks — contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole.

Write a draft for next week and bring 3 printed copies to class for a writing workshop.

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