The story begins with protagonist Martha Hale’s hasty departure from her farmhouse in Dickinson County, Iowa. Martha Hale hates to leave her work undone and her kitchen in disarray, but she has been called upon to accompany a group of her neighbors who wait outside. The group stopped to pick up her husband, Lewis Hale, but the sheriff, Henry Peters, asked that Martha Hale come along as well to accompany his wife, Mrs. Peters, who, he joked, was getting scared and wanted another woman for company.
The first few sentences of the short story establish important setting and context details: Martha Hale is the protagonist, and, as a farmer’s wife, she is overworked by domestic tasks. The sexism of the setting and time period is also established. Martha must follow the men’s instructions to come along on the trip, and Mrs. Peters is belittled for her request to have Martha’s company.
The group of neighbors includes Mr. Peters and Mrs. Peters and the country attorney George Henderson. Martha Hale doesn’t know Mrs. Peters well, but she reflects that Mrs. Peters doesn’t look like the stereotypical sheriff’s wife. She is small and quiet compared to her jovial and loud husband. The group travels to a neighboring farmhouse, which is a lonesome-looking place. As Martha Hale enters the farmhouse with the group, she reflects that she ought to have come over to this house to visit Minnie Wright whom she’d known as a young girl (when she was Minnie Foster). But Martha Hale had always been busy and in the twenty years of Minnie’s marriage to John Wright, Martha Hale had never visited their home.
Martha Hale participates in the appearance-based judgments that other characters in the story tend to make when she observes Mr. and Mrs. Peters in terms of how she thinks a sheriff and his wife ought to look. The physical differences between Mr. and Mrs. Peters mirror the power differences between the characters: Mr. Peters holds all the power and Mrs. Peters none. Martha’s regret over not visiting Minnie eventually develops into her certainty that there are more forms of wrongdoing than are punishable by law.
The group stands in the Wrights’ kitchen and Mr. Peters asks Lewis Hale to describe what he witnessed at the farmhouse the day before. Mrs. Hale looks on nervously because she knows her husband is not very good at retelling stories. Additionally, Mrs. Hale is afraid that her husband will include his thoughts and opinions, adding unnecessary information that might hurt Minnie Wright’s situation.
Martha Hale’s concern about her husband’s retelling of events reflects her awareness that Minnie is in trouble and that the opinion of a man (her husband)—even a not completely competent man—could help or harm Minnie’s situation because Mr. Hale’s testimony will be taken seriously by the other men.
Mr. Hale recounts how he had stopped by to visit the Wrights’ home the day before. Previously, he had asked John Wright about sharing the expense for a party line telephone, but Wright wasn’t interested and Mr. Hale hoped to prevail upon him in front of his wife. But, he admits, he’s not sure that John Wright was the type of man who would be persuaded by his wife’s desire for a telephone. At the house, Mr. Hale found Minnie Wright looking uncomfortable, but rocking in her rocking chair. Minnie Wright revealed that John was home, but that Mr. Hale could not speak with him because he was dead. When questioned, she explained that he died of “a rope around his neck.”
The conversation topic that brought Mr. Hale to the Wrights’ house was a party line telephone. A telephone is associated with communication and staying in touch. Minnie Wright lived a lonely life that would have been changed had her husband chosen to install a telephone. Mr. Hale’s request is too late to save Minnie or John Wright, an example of situational irony. The strange method of John Wright’s murder is significant throughout the story.
Mr. Hale discovered John Wright’s body in his bed upstairs with the rope still in place. Hale returned downstairs, leaving everything untouched, and asked Minnie Wright if she knew who had murdered her husband. Minnie said that she was asleep next to John when he was killed, but that she doesn’t know what happened because she didn’t wake up. Mr. Hale said he was going to contact the coroner, and Minnie did not respond. However, when he explained that he had come over to their house to propose sharing a party line telephone, Minnie suddenly laughed, abruptly stopped, and looked sacred of Mr. Hale and his reaction to her laughter.
Mr. Hale’s story about his encounter with Minnie provides suspicious information. The following details incriminate Minnie: it seems far-fetched that she could sleep through a brutal murder that occurred inches from her, and her emotional reactions (laughter and fear) show her to be agitated. After this account, the investigators assume Minnie’s guilt and look, with eyes biased by that assumption, for evidence that defends their idea. Minnie’s laugh at the purpose of Hale’s visit suggests she recognizes the irony of his desire to join with John Wright to install a party line.
George Henderson considers whether anything in the kitchen could be evidence pertaining to the murder of John Wright, but Mr. Peters quickly disagrees, saying that he sees “only kitchen things” there. Before the men head upstairs to examine the scene of the crime, George Henderson finds Minnie Wright’s canning jars of fruit in the pantry, which have broken and caused a sticky mess. Mrs. Peters exclaims sadly that Minnie was worried about the possibility that her newly canned jars would burst in the cold weather. Mr. Peters is amazed and amused that Minnie could worry about her domestic projects in the face of her serious situation. Mr. Hale responds that “women are used to worrying over trifles.”
Throughout this short story, male characters overlook things, ideas, and actions that they associate with women. Gender roles are clearly delineated, and the men are uninterested in womanly things (domestic tasks and possessions, such as the canning jars of fruit). This attitude reflects the male characters’ similar attitudes toward the women themselves. The men suppose that the information they seek could not be among the unimportant womanly things.
George Henderson washes his hands at the kitchen sink and is disappointed by the dirty towel that is the only thing available to dry his hands. From this, he assumes aloud that Minnie is a poor housekeeper. Mrs. Hale angrily says that a farmer’s wife’s work is never done and that Minnie must have had a lot to keep her busy. The attorney dismisses Mrs. Hale’s comments saying she must be prejudiced in favor of her own sex, or at least in favor of her friend. Mrs. Hale defends her unbiased opinion by pointing out that she has not visited Minnie Wright in years. She begins to say that the Wrights’ house was not a place she necessarily wanted to visit, but quickly avoids saying any more about John Wright’s personality when George Henderson questions her further.
Mrs. Hale empathizes with Minnie because she has also experienced the difficulties of running a farmhouse and keeping it tidy, as seen in the first sentences of the short story. This “fellow feeling” later leads both Martha Hale and Mrs. Peters to defend Minnie more directly. The women share similar situations and experiences and, because of this, feel they ought to defend each other against the men who do not share these experiences, and yet make judgments based on bias and ignorance.
Mr. Peters asks the county attorney on behalf of his wife if she can bring clothes and items to Minnie at the jail. George Henderson asks the women to keep their eyes open for any clues, but Mr. Hale wonders if the women would know a clue if they found one. The men go upstairs. Mrs. Hale is still frustrated by George Henderson’s unfair critique of Minnie’s housekeeping, and tells Mrs. Peters that she would not like having strangers snooping around her home. Mrs. Peters says, “the men are only doing their duty.” Mrs. Hale revisits the loss of Minnie’s canning jars of fruit and empathizes with Minnie’s hard work going to waste.
In a moment of foreshadowing, the attorney mentions the possibility of the women finding a clue. However, Mr. Hale’s comment makes it apparent that none of the men rely on or even believe in the women’s abilities to perform the professional business the men are engaged in. This interaction between the two women shows their differences with respect to male authority: Martha Hale is more likely to speak out against injustice, Mrs. Peters less likely to do so.
Mrs. Peters asks Mrs. Hale to help her find the items Minnie requested: clothes and an apron, an item that surprises Mrs. Peters, but she supposes Minnie must feel most comfortable in the garments she wore regularly. Minnie’s clothes are old and worn and Mrs. Hale comments that John Wright must not have provided Minnie with the financial support to be well dressed. She hasn’t seen Minnie join activities with other women recently and wonders if she was ashamed of her poor appearance. This idea of Minnie contrasts strongly with her memory of the unmarried Minnie Foster as a lively and beautiful girl.
Minnie Wright’s possessions reveal to the reader the type of situation she lived in with her husband. Because neither John nor Minnie appear directly in the story, their past relationship has been described by other characters and by the physical details of their home. The poor quality of Minnie’s clothes and the many work-related possessions show that the couple was poor, or at least John was stingy, and that Minnie worked continuously.
Suddenly Mrs. Hale asks Mrs. Peters if she thinks that Minnie is guilty of the crime for which she is being held. Mrs. Hale can’t believe that she would be. Mrs. Peters confesses that her husband is certain that Minnie’s situation does not look hopeful. The women discuss the odd murder: strangulation by rope. Mrs. Peters says that she has heard the men discussing the importance of finding evidence related to the motive for such a strange and brutal act. The women observe how the kitchen is left in disarray, as if Minnie was interrupted in the middle of her various tasks. Mrs. Hale discovers that the stove doesn’t work well, and Mrs. Peters reflects, “a person gets discouraged—and loses heart.”
The discussion between the women highlights the importance of evidence pointing to a motive for murder, which foreshadows the appearance of this evidence in the text. Repeated illusions to this evidence allow the reader to fully appreciate the drastic step the women later take in hiding it. The broken stove further shows Minnie’s poor quality of life, and Mrs. Peters’ statement shows that she has begun to empathize and identify with Minnie.
The women find a quilt that Minnie Wright was working on. As Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale are admiring the quilt, the men return and are amused to hear the women speculating about Minnie’s plan for finishing the quilt by traditional methods or by knotting it. The men belittle the women’s topic of conversation. The men walk to the barn to check for further evidence. Mrs. Hale is bitter that the men would tease the women for passing the time patiently. But Mrs. Peters excuses their behavior by saying the men “must have a lot on their minds.” Mrs. Hale observes that a few squares of the quilt are poorly sewn, as if Minnie was anxious or tired as she worked, and Mrs. Hale then removes the bad stiches and sews tidy ones.
Once again, the men belittle something that gender roles associate with women. The quilt is seen as a womanly pastime, which the men see as ridiculous in the face of the more important, male-dominated legal investigation. The women repeat their reactions to this mistreatment: Martha Hale is bitter, but only let’s that show in the absence of the men, and Mrs. Peters again attempts to dismiss the unkindness of the men as unavoidable and unimportant compared to the men’s duties. Martha’s re-stitching of the quilt shows she is not averse to interfering with Minnie’s possessions, and that she wishes she could help Minnie now that it is too late to do so.
As she searches the cupboard for packing materials for the clothes for Minnie Wright, Mrs. Peters finds an empty birdcage. The women speculate about the fate of the bird that once filled the cage. Mrs. Hale says it might have been killed by the Wrights’ cat, but Mrs. Peters reports that she had learned the previous day that Minnie didn’t like cats, and so doesn’t think the farmhouse had a cat. The door of the cage is broken, as if it was pulled apart.
The bird cage connects the absence of the bird and the later discovery of its body. The image of a cage compliments a key topic: Minnie’s loneliness and her imprisonment in her life. The possibility that a cat got the bird introduces the possibility that the bird was killed, echoing the conflict at the center of the story: a murder. And the immediate fact that Minnie didn’t have a cat deepens the mystery of how the bird might have died.
Mrs. Hale berates herself for her letting her own concerns stop her from visiting Minnie. Mrs. Hale’s reasons for not coming, she acknowledges, were her distaste for the lonely farmhouse, but she hid those feelings behind the premise that she was too busy to make the short trip. The two women discuss John Wright, who was considered by many to have been a good man because he was not a drinker or a debtor. Mrs. Hale says that, despite these common virtues, his hard and unhappy personality must have made Minnie’s life with him very lonely, a loneliness that would have been alleviated by the company of a songbird.
Mrs. Hale would not feel as upset as she does over her failure to visit Minnie if she did not, on some level, believe she could have prevented this outcome by being a friend and companion to Minnie. She believes Minnie killed her husband and that her reasons for doing so were connected to her isolation and mistreatment. John Wright is considered “a good man,” which reminds the reader that these qualities of “goodness” would have been defined by other men, and not by his wife.
Mrs. Peters did not know Minnie before she met the charged woman the previous day. Mrs. Hale tells Mrs. Peters about the Minnie Foster she knew and says that she changed dramatically after she married John Wright. Mrs. Hale proposes the idea of bringing the quilt along with the clothes to the jail, so that Minnie might have something to pass the time. As the women look for Minnie’s sewing supplies, Mrs. Hale unearths a fancy red box. She opens it to discover a terrible smell. It contains the wrapped body of a dead bird.
Minnie changed after her marriage from a lively youth to a reclusive woman. This transformation is mentioned several times and here it is blamed on John Wright. This transformation speaks to the scale of John’s impact on Minnie. Whatever happened in their relationship, it was dramatic enough and hurtful enough to change Minnie’s personality.
The women notice that having its neck wrung must have killed the dead bird—its head is twisted to the side. The men return to the kitchen and, in a sudden decision, Mrs. Hale conceals the dead bird’s box under the quilt. George Henderson brings up the previous joke of the women’s concern with the quilt, wanting to know whether Minnie was planning to quilt it or knot it. The women say they believe she meant to knot it. The county attorney looks at the birdcage, but the women say that the bird must have been long-since killed by the cat. The men return for another look at the bedroom.
The dead bird, the women realize, was killed in a parallel way to John Wright: both injuries to the neck. This convinces the women that John killed the bird and that Minnie killed John in premeditated retribution. Mrs. Hale immediately hides the bird before the women have discussed what to do. This act shows the deeply ingrained distrust Mrs. Hale has for the men. Her instinctual response is to hide from the men something she knows is important, something she knows that they will use as evidence against Minnie without taking the time or care to understand its implications in terms of the awful life Minnie had been forced to live.
Mrs. Peters, as if to herself, recalls a childhood trauma in which a boy killed her pet kitten with a hatchet. She remembers her overwhelming anger that would have caused her to hurt the boy if she hadn’t been held back by others. Mrs. Hale, caught up in her own train of thought, says that John Wright must have broken the neck of the songbird. Mrs. Peters says that they don’t know the identity of the murderer. Mrs. Hale reflects on the sudden absence, the sense of loss, and the quietness that the death of the bird must have caused. Mrs. Peters is swept into another memory of her deep loneliness in the quietness after the death of her first baby.
Mrs. Peters has, until this point in the story, rationalized, pardoned, and explained the unkindness and trivializing treatment of the men. As shown through the story of the kitten, because Mrs. Peters knows how it feels to be deeply hurt by violence committed against an innocent thing one loves, she wants to protect Minnie. Mrs. Hale knows how important this bird would have been to Minnie because of her empathy for Minnie’s childlessness.
Mrs. Peters shakes off her cloud of memory and firmly says, “the law has got to punish crime.” Mrs. Hale responds by calling her own actions crimes, exclaiming that she ought to be punished for her failure to visit her once-friend Minnie, but “who’s going to punish that?” Mrs. Hale expresses her retrospective certainly that Minnie needed help, and that one reason she should have reached out to her neighbor is that all women go through “a different kind of the same thing” in their marriages. After these reflections, Mrs. Hale concludes that they ought to lie to Minnie about her canning jars of fruit and reassure her that they survived.
Mrs. Peters reacts to finding the dead bird on an emotional and personal level. Yet her mention of the law, even after this, shows how deeply society has ingrained gender roles, duty to one’s husband, and duty to the law. Mrs. Hale condenses a broad idea of the story into a single sentence: all women experience the same subservience and belittlement at the hands of men, which creates loyalty to their fellow women. Mrs. Hale’s comment about her own neglect of Minnie being a crime raises the issue of all of the similar types of crimes that are not punished or even conceived of by the law, and by implication raises all of the crimes of social oppression, belittlement, and other degrading behaviors of men toward women that the law would overlook entirely.
The women overhear the men coming down the stairs and discussing their failure to find evidence that explains a motive for the crime. George Henderson says that everything else is “perfectly clear.” The county attorney says that he plans to stay at the house, as they haven’t yet found the evidence they seek. Mr. Peters reminds the attorney about the items Mrs. Peters has collected, and the attorney starts to look at the pile of clothes and the quilt, before quickly dismissing the need to check through the womanly items saying, “a sheriff’s wife is married to the law.” The men walk out of the room.
Again, the importance of evidence related to motive is highlighted by the overheard conversation of the men. In this instance, directly after the women have found the dead bird, the juxtaposition is an example of situational irony: the men are still searching for what the women have found. George Henderson doesn’t consider whether or not to trust Mrs. Peters. He doesn’t think a woman even worthy of such concerns, which further trivializes her and her potential.
The moment the men are no longer in the room, Mrs. Peters, in a sudden burst of determination, tries to hide the dead bird in her handbag and is flustered as the bag is too small. Mrs. Hale snatches the box and puts it in her pocket. The men reappear, and George Henderson turns to the women, teasingly saying that at least they found out something: the way Minnie was planning to finish her quilt. He asks the women to remind him of the term they use, and Mrs. Hale tells him “we call it knot it.”
Here the story develops the conflicts between gender loyalty and the male-dominated legal system and the importance of evidence of a motive. Therefore, the women’s choice to conceal the evidence they’ve found is a clear act of rebellion against men and the law, a clear effort to help Minnie as best they can. The two women realize that Minnie can never receive a trial from people who will understand or even try to understand her. So they make themselves a jury of her peers who understand Minnie’s actions and judge her as justified. Knotting the quilt is, of course, a metaphor for Minnie’s act of killing her husband with a rope, and the men miss this metaphor entirely.