The play opens on the scene of John and Minnie Wright’s abandoned farmhouse. The kitchen is in disarray with unwashed dishes, a loaf of uncooked bread, and a dirty towel on the table. The county attorney George Henderson arrives at the house accompanied by the local sheriff Henry Peters and the neighboring farmer Lewis Hale. The wives of two of the men, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, both of whom appear disturbed and fearful, follow the men inside.
The play establishes its themes in its opening moments. The play examines the relationships between husbands and wives, particularly a marriage that ended in murder. The setting, a messy kitchen, reflects this. The women stand together, highlighting both the way they have been pushed together by their male-dominated society but also, possibly, their loyalty to each other over their husbands, a topic explored in the play.
The sheriff asks Lewis Hale to describe the scene he discovered at the farmhouse the previous day. Before Mr. Hale begins, Mr. Peters reassures the attorney that nothing has been moved in the house since he saw it last, despite having sent one of his men ahead to prepare a fire. He explains that he couldn’t have kept one of his men there the previous day to monitor the house because they were too busy. Mr. Peters knew George Henderson would arrive the next day for them to go over the house for evidence.
Lewis Hale’s account establishes the dynamic between men and women in the world of the play. The men are concerned with the business of finding evidence, and George Henderson is established as the man in charge in the investigation. Mr. Hale’s account shows the value placed on the word of a man. His testimony will not be questioned.
Mr. Hale tells the story of arriving at the Wrights’ home the previous day. He had been hoping to convince John Wright to invest in a party line telephone with him, and thought maybe it would help to ask him in front of his wife, though he acknowledges that John paid little attention to what his wife wanted. Mr. Hale arrived at the house and found Minnie Wright sitting there in her rocking chair. He describes her as looking out of sorts. Mr. Hale asked to see John and Minnie told him that he couldn’t because John was dead. When Mr. Hale asked what he died of, Minnie said that he died of a rope around his neck.
The irony of the request that brought Mr. Hale to the Wrights’ house is revealed later in the play. Minnie Wright was starved for company, for the voice of any other living thing. Mr. Hale hoped to install a telephone, an object that could keep her in touch with others and combat loneliness. But he was too late, an example of situational irony. The way that John was murdered—strangled by a rope—becomes critical later in the play as the characters search for a motive for murder.
Mr. Hale describes calling one of his men, going upstairs and finding John Wright’s body. His first instinct, he says, was to remove the rope, but his companion cautioned him to not touch anything and to preserve any evidence. Before leaving, he questioned Minnie Wright about who killed her husband. She said that despite having been sleeping in the bed with him where he was killed, she didn’t wake up when it happened. The county attorney asks what Minnie did when Mr. Hale sent for the coroner to question her and Mr. Hale says she stayed quiet. But when he mentioned that he’d originally come to ask about putting in a telephone, Minnie laughed and then looked fearful.
Mr. Hale’s account of Minnie’s response to her husband’s death casts her as suspicious. Her statement that she didn’t wake up when her husband was killed seems nearly impossible. Her laughter and her fearful look are also treated as suspicious behavior. The men make various assumptions about women throughout this play. One assumption is that Minnie is guilty and they try to prove this, rather than try to understand her situation and her emotions. The men are looking for facts, not context.
George Henderson asks Mr. Peters if there’s anything in the kitchen that could point out any motive for killing John Wright, but the sheriff dismisses the scene as being unimportant, as being only kitchen things. The county attorney discovers that the mess comes from Minnie’s canning jars of fruit, which have exploded. Mrs. Peters says that she knew Minnie was worried about this happening when it turned cold, and her husband laughs over a woman worrying about fruit when she’s held for murder. Mr. Hale says “women are used to worrying over trifles.”
The men repeatedly dismiss things as beneath their notice if they are things such as the canning jars of fruit that are, in their opinions, women’s concerns. The men never recognize that they have forced the women to be concerned about these things, by not allowing them to be concerned about anything else. The men’s dismissal reflects a larger mindset of devaluing women and their opinions and interests in general. Ironically, this dismissal ultimately causes the men to overlook the very evidence they seek.
George Henderson, looking over the mess in the kitchen and noticing in particular the dirty towel, says Minnie seems to be a poor housekeeper. Mrs. Hale stiffly points out that there’s a lot of work to be done to keep a farmhouse running. The attorney accuses Mrs. Hale of being loyal to her own sex, or at least to her friend. But Mrs. Hale explains that she has rarely seen Minnie Wright over the last few years. She explains that she was busy, and that the Wrights’ home never seemed very cheerful to her. When the attorney questions her further, she backs off of saying anything negative about John Wright.
Mrs. Hale’s support of Minnie is an early example of the empathy the women feel for each other, which results in loyalty. Mrs. Hale knows how difficult it is to run a farmhouse, but Mr. Henderson does not. Further, while Henderson dismisses women’s things as unimportant, he still feels the right and the need to judge women in their performance. Mrs. Hale sees the injustice of this (likely having experienced it herself), and so she defends Minnie against Mr. Henderson’ judgment. The women are united by their common experiences and loyal to each other because the men do not even try to understand their situation.
Mr. Peters asks George Henderson if his wife can collect a few items to bring to Minnie Wright in jail and the attorney says yes, but that he’d like to see what she’s taking. The men go upstairs. Mrs. Hale is upset over the men coming into Minnie’s space and accusing her of being a poor housekeeper. Mrs. Peters, though, notes that the men are only doing their duty. Mrs. Peters discovers the bread Minnie Wright had left out, but had not baked. Mrs. Hale is sympathetic for Minnie’s hard work on her canning jars of fruit having gone to waste.
Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters have slightly differing perspectives on the way the men treatment them. Mrs. Hale is more critical of the men’s judgment of Minnie, whereas Mrs. Peters, as she does several other times in the play, tries to explain or dismiss the men’s behavior as them doing their duty. She conforms more strongly than Mrs. Hale to the expected gender roles, and accepts more fully the idea that the men’s duty is of primary importance — that the men themselves are more important than women.
The women collect some clothes for Minnie. Mrs. Hale recognizes in the clothing that Minnie had very little money for herself and that her husband, therefore, must have been particularly tight with money. She wonders if this is why Minnie kept to herself so much and didn’t join in other women’s activities. She remembers the lively girl Minnie used to be when she wore pretty clothes. Mrs. Peters says that Minnie also requested to have an apron brought to her, and thinks this is a funny thing to want.
The details of Minnie Wright’s house reveal much about her relationship with her husband, as well as the way her marriage restricted her joy, her possessions, and isolated her. The men are blind to, and completely uncaring about, all of this contextual understanding. The apron Minnie’s wants shows that she is unable to let go of her assigned responsibilities as a woman, despite the situation.
Abruptly, Mrs. Hale asks Mrs. Peters if she thinks that Minnie killed her husband. Mrs. Hale says she doesn’t think that she did. Mrs. Peters whispers that her husband said that it doesn’t look good for Minnie. The women acknowledge the strangeness of killing a man in the way that John Wright was murdered, strangled in his sleep. Mrs. Peters says that George Henderson said the men are looking primarily for evidence that would show a motive for killing John.
Through Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters’ discussion, the audience or reader is allowed to see the seriousness of Minnie’s situation. The discussion of a motive foreshadows the evidence the women will find, as well as establishes the importance of the evidence that they ultimately choose to conceal.
The women discover a quilt that Minnie Wright was in the process of making. The men reenter and, overhearing Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale discussing the quilt, laugh at the women for wondering about whether Minnie was planning to quilt or knot her piece to complete it. The men go out to the barn. Mrs. Hale resents that the men would laugh at them for passing the time while they wait, but Mrs. Peters attempts to excuse them, saying they must have a lot on their minds. Mrs. Hale notices that the quilt is very poorly sewn at the end, and she starts pulling out stiches to correct them. It seems to the women that Minnie must have been nervous or upset.
The men’s rebuke for the women’s focus on the quilt reinforces the ideas established through the previous scene of Mr. Henderson’s criticism of Minnie’s housekeeping: the men dismiss and laugh at the women, Mrs. Hale is resentful of this, and Mrs. Peters tries to excuse the men for their unkind treatment. Mrs. Hale’s act of re-sewing the quilt shows both how Minnie was in some kind of emotional distress and that Mrs. Hale is willing to conceal aspects of Minnie’s situation from the men.
Mrs. Peters looks for paper or string to package up the clothes they’re taking to the jail and discovers an empty birdcage in a cupboard. Mrs. Hale doesn’t know whether Minnie had a bird, but remembers that she used to sing very beautifully. They wonder what happened to the bird from the empty cage. Mrs. Hale wonders if the cat got it, but Mrs. Peters knows that Minnie didn’t have a cat because she doesn’t like them. The women notice that the cage is broken, the door pulled roughly apart.
The discovery of the birdcage introduces the concepts of imprisonment and isolation into the play. Although the bird is missing, the presence of a cage connects to Minnie’s situation, isolated as she was in her husband’s house. The women’s discussion of the cat foreshadows the grisly fate of the bird, as both assume it met a sudden end – though the evidence suggests it wasn’t a cat that killed it.
Mrs. Hale expresses her frustration with herself for not visiting Minnie more often in her lonely home. She says she stayed away because she didn’t like the place, not because she was too busy to make the trip. Mrs. Peters attempts to console her. Mrs. Hale asks her if she knew Mr. Wright, and while the pair acknowledge him to have been a good man who didn’t drink and who paid his debts, Mrs. Hale says he was a hard man. She isn’t surprised that Minnie would have wanted a bird in her lonely house.
Mrs. Hale’s guilt over not visiting Minnie shows that she understands, to some extent, Minnie’s loneliness – even that she knew of Minnie’s loneliness before these events – but that she put her own life and husband before trying to help Minnie, before showing loyalty to another woman, and now blames herself for those choices. That John Wright is characterized as “a good man” demonstrates the standards by which society judged a man. These standards did not include or consider kindness to one’s wife. And these societal standards are so ingrained that even the two women accept them.
Mrs. Peters did not grow up in the neighborhood and so Mrs. Hale starts to tell her about Minnie as a girl (back when she was Minnie Foster). She says that Minnie Foster was a sweet and timid girl but changed when she married Mr. Wright into a timid and unhappy woman. Mrs. Hale suggests bringing the quilt to Minnie to distract her, and the women look for her sewing materials. As they search, Mrs. Hale notices a fancy red box, opens it, and the women discover the body of the dead bird.
Note how a woman is “transformed” by marriage: she takes on her husband’s name. While symbolic, the play suggests that marriage really does transform a woman, just as Minnie’s spirit and happiness were crushed by life with Wright. And as someone who essentially belonged to her husband (as her changed name indicated), Minnie was trapped, like the bird in the cage.
The dead bird’s neck is twisted and the women realize that someone must have wrung its neck. The men return and Mrs. Hale hides the box containing the dead bird under the quilt. George Henderson asks if they’ve decided whether Minnie was going to quilt or knot her quilt, and Mrs. Peters says they think she was going to knot it. The attorney acknowledges the birdcage and the women quickly say that they think the cat must have got the bird. The men go upstairs again.
The dead bird is the evidence that explains Minnie’s motive. Wright killed her bird – her only companion in her loneliness—and she killed him in return. More broadly, though, Mrs. Hale sees instantly that the dead bird is more than mere evidence of motive: it also shows the pattern of emotional abuse Minnie endured at Wright’s hands. She instinctively hides the bird from the men (who for their part are still mocking the women for their interest in the quilt), because she knows they will see it only as evidence of motive rather than evidence of abuse, and because in light of what she now knows she feels a stronger loyalty to Minnie than to the men.
Mrs. Peters says that she remembers a kitten she had as a young girl, and that a boy took a hatchet to it before her eyes. She says she would have hurt him if she could. Mrs. Hale says she knows John Wright must have killed the dead bird. Mrs. Peters, growing emotional, tries insisting that they don’t know who killed John Wright. Mrs. Hale says it must have been awful to have no children, to have a bird to sing and then to have that bird be still. Mrs. Peters is transported into memory again as she recalls knowing what stillness was after her first child died.
Mrs. Peters is changed by the discovery of the dead bird from the timid woman she was into a woman willing to oppose her husband. This change is presented through her story about her kitten, which shows that she too has suffered at the hands of men and identifies with Minnie’s pain and rage. The women’s comments about children again highlight the roles into which women were forced, and the way that the women’s lives are entirely dependent on the domestic sphere.
Mrs. Peters comes to her senses and reminds Mrs. Hale that, “the law has got to punish crime.” Mrs. Hale cries out in response that her failure to visit Minnie and her lack of support for the isolated girl was a crime, and “who’s going to punish that?” Mrs. Hale says that she should have known Minnie needed help because all women go through “a different kind of the same thing.” Mrs. Hale says they shouldn’t tell Minnie that her canning jars of fruit broke.
Despite Mrs. Peter’s emotional reflections, she still feels a responsibility to the law. Mrs. Hale, on the other hand, recognizes that the law, administered as it is by men, is inadequate to punish the many crimes associated with gender inequality. She universalizes Minnie’s story, she sees it as just an extreme version of what she and all women have experienced. Her desire to protect Minnie, marked by her decision not to tell Minnie about the broken jars, comes from this connection.
The women then overhear the men talking as they come down the stairs. George Henderson is saying that the murder is all perfectly clear except for a motive, a reason for killing John Wright in such a strange way. The attorney says he’ll stay at the house longer and go over everything again. Mr. Peters asks if he wants to look over what Mrs. Peters is taking to Minnie in jail, but the attorney says that she’s trustworthy because, after all, “a sheriff’s wife is married to the law.”
The overheard conversation of the men reemphasizes the importance of what the women have found: the one remaining piece of evidence. Mr. Henderson’s decision to trust Mrs. Peters is an act of further belittlement: he does not think her capable of deception, and he believes her subject to the will of her husband, and therefore the law. He sees her, essentially, as belonging to her husband. But of course that is exactly the sort of thinking that ultimately led Minnie to murder her husband.
The men leave the room momentarily and Mrs. Peters tries to hide the box with the dead bird in her too small bag and then Mrs. Hale conceals it in her pocket. The attorney returns and jokingly acknowledges that at least they found out Minnie wasn’t going to finish her quilt by quilting it. He appeals to the ladies for the correct term for she was going to finish it. She was going to “knot it,” Mrs. Hale says, with her hand over her pocket.
The women conceal the dead bird in their final unified act of defiance against the control of their husbands and the law that is made and regulated by men. The metaphor of the knotted quilt demonstrates the women’s certainty that Minnie killed her husband by strangulation, an act suggested by the term “to knot.” The men, meanwhile, still see the quilt as just a “trifle” and don’t at all get the significance of what the women are saying. The women have rebelled, in a small way, against the men and the male-dominated society in which they live. The men remain blind.