Martha Hale, a farmwife in a rural area in the early 1900s, is called away from her morning housework to accompany Mrs. Peters to the isolated farmhouse of John and Minnie Wright. Mr. Henderson, the young county attorney, Mr. Hale, and Mr. Peters, the sheriff, have taken Minnie into custody after someone strangled her husband in their bed. Mr. Hale had stopped by the day before to talk to John and found Minnie rocking in her chair, quiet and distracted. She claims that she slept through her husband’s murder. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are tasked with gathering necessities for Minnie while the men search the crime scene.

At the Wrights’ farmhouse, the men criticize the messy kitchen, dismiss women’s work as trivial, and go upstairs to the bedroom. The kitchen is in disarray because events interrupted Minnie’s housekeeping. The damage is not insignificant. Because no one kept the stove burning that night, all but one of the jars of fruit Minnie worked to preserve have frozen and shattered. Mrs. Hale sympathizes. She, too, was suddenly called away from her work. She wants to tidy up but worries what Mrs. Peters, the timid, compliant sheriff’s wife, might think. Mrs. Hale thinks about Minnie, her girlhood friend, and wishes she had kept in better touch over the years. Mrs. Hale complains about how the men talk about Minnie and her kitchen, but Mrs. Peters defends the men, who are doing their jobs.

A quick inspection of the kitchen shows what a cheap man John Wright was. Minnie’s rocker and stove are in bad shape, and the cabinets are make-do. When the women gather Minnie’s clothes, Mrs. Hale sees that they are shabby and mended, unlike the bright, pretty clothes Minnie wore when she sang in the choir. The women wonder whether Minnie is guilty. Mrs. Peters says that, during the trial, Mr. Henderson plans to mock Minnie’s claim about sleeping through the murder. But the attorney needs evidence that Minnie experienced some “sudden feeling” to explain why she killed her husband.

The women see that Minnie had been sewing pieces for a quilt with even, competent stitches. As they discuss whether Minnie planned to quilt the pieces or knot them, the men walk through the kitchen on their way to the barn, and the sheriff mocks the women’s conversation. When the women notice that one piece is badly sewn, as if Minnie had become upset, they exchange a silent glance. Mrs. Hale begins to undo the stitches and replace them with neat ones. Mrs. Peters objects that they shouldn’t touch anything, but she doesn’t stop Mrs. Hale.

Mrs. Peters sees a damaged birdcage, its twisted door hanging from a bent hinge. The women infer that Minnie, who once loved to sing, had bought a songbird. They wonder where the bird is. Mrs. Hale begins to imagine Minnie’s life, without children, out in the country, with an uncaring husband. She thinks of the joy a songbird might bring the lonely woman. To avoid such thoughts, she suggests that they take the quilt pieces to give Minnie something to do in jail. As the women gather supplies, they find a pretty box in the sewing basket. Inside, wrapped in silk, is the bird, its neck twisted. They lock eyes with “dawning comprehension” and hide the box as the attorney and sheriff return. Mrs. Peters misleads the attorney, saying that a cat must have got the bird. Ignoring her, the two men go back upstairs.

The women can hardly give voice to their thoughts, but Mrs. Peters recalls a boy killing her kitten when she was young. She remembers wanting to hurt the boy. She insists, “We don’t know,” but the women do know. Minnie strangled John because John strangled her bird. The bird is the clue the attorney needs to suggest motive, and the women must decide whether to hand it over or conceal it. Without speaking, they opt to hide it just as the men return. The attorney scoffs again at the women’s discussion of whether Minnie planned to quilt the pieces or . . . he can’t recall the other option. Mrs. Hale reminds him that the other option is to “knot it.”