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There are five characters who appear in the story: Sheriff Peters, and his wife; Lewis Hale, and his wife Martha; and Henderson, a county attorney. There are two further characters who are not actually present in the narrative. These two are John and Minnie Wright, neighbours of the Hales. Although they do not actually appear, they are at the very heart of the story. John’s murder is the central event and his wife has been apprehended as his apparent murderer. The four characters who are actually present in the narrative have the task of looking around the Wright house looking for clues as to the motive.
There is a clear-cut gender divide in this little group of people who assiduously search the Wright home. Sherriff Peters comes across as bluff and hearty, Lewis Hale more serious, and Henderson appears rather wry and sarcastic, but all three alike are dismissive of the women and their ability to materially assist in the investigation. They seem to have a dim view of women in general, believing them to be capable of little more than house-keeping and child-bearing. What they abjectly fail to realize is that the two women, in all likelihood hit upon the correct motive for the murder. For Martha and Mrs Peters are able to see the significance of apparently minor domestic details that the men cavalierly dismiss. To them, such feminine matters are simply not important whereas Minnie’s fellow-women recognize that such details lead right to the heart of the matter. From their careful examination of the house, allied to what they know and remember about the Wrights, they are able to build up a sobering picture of Minnie as a desperate and lonely individual who endured years of misery at the hands of her husband, by all accounts an utterly mean-spirited man, and was finally driven to murder him when he killed her canary, the only company she had.
Martha remembers Minnie from years back, fresh and lively and attractive, and is deeply grieved over the fact that this former bright girl came to be trapped in such a loveless, childless marriage, which crushed the spirit out of her. Martha is also consumed with guilt because, although she was a neighbour, she never made the time to go over and see her, and comfort her.
'Oh, I wish I’d come over here once in a while!' she cried. 'That was a crime! That was a crime! Who’s going to punish that?’
However, although she gets emotional over the whole affair, Martha is no helpless, hand-wringing female On the contrary, she resolves to protect Minnie from the evidence that will surely convict her. If she was not able to help her before, she will do so now. Therefore she comes across as a strong, determined woman, willing to defy the men and the law. Mrs Peters appears altogether quieter and more timid, but she backs up her fellow-woman.
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