What is the significance of Minnie Wright's dead canary in Trifles?
In Susan Glaspell's play, Trifles, Mrs. Wright has been taken into custody, suspected of killing her husband as he slept.
Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale come with the sheriff and other men who are looking for evidence; the women will gather some of Mrs. Wright's things to take to her.
The men move through the house and make comments about Mrs. Wright's housekeeping, showing their ignorance of what a woman's life is really like: it is hard to keep a house and clean towels when a husband tracks in dirt; that putting up jelly is hard work and losing the jars from freezing would upset her for the time and effort lost. The men dismiss these things as "trifles."
Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters take exception to the comments: they, too, work hard with little recognition for their labors. Knowing of Mrs. Wright before she married, of her love of singing and sweet disposition, they wonder what changed her:
MRS. HALE. She--come to think of it, she was kind of like a bird herself--real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and--fluttery. How--she--did--change.
The women notice her cheerless home: no children to bring life to it; living with a hard man could have crushed the spirit of Minnie Wright.
MRS. HALE. ...Wright [was] out to work all day, and no company when he did come in. Did you know John Wright, Mrs. Peters?
MRS. PETERS. Not to know him; I've seen him in town. They say he was a good man.
MRS. HALE. Yes--good; he didn't drink, and kept his word as well as most, I guess, and paid his debts. But he was a hard man, Mrs. Peters. Just to pass the time of day with him. (Shivers.) Like a raw wind that gets to the bone.
As the the ladies continue through the house, they note the cold, the broken jelly jars that would upset any woman, and then they find a bird cage in the cupboard. The door is broken, hanging at an odd angle, and the cage seems to have been "roughed up." The women discuss the presence of a bird: Mrs. Hale had not known Mrs. Wright to have a bird, but remembered a man who had come through town the year before selling cheap canaries. They agree that the presence of the bird would have cheered Mrs. Wright and improved the dark atmosphere of her home. They assume a cat got it...except for the broken up cage...
Mrs. Hale suggests that Mrs. Peters gather the quilt Mrs. Wright has been working on. In her sewing basket, along for quilting pieces, Mrs. Hale finds a fancy box; thinking scissors might be stored there, she opens it and finds something wrapped inside a piece of silk—an expensive kind of cloth. Opening it, they find the dead bird, with its head at an old angle—as if the neck had been broken: "somebody wrung its neck."
The women begin to speculate as to what happened. Mrs. Hale is sure Mr. Wright did it out of pure meanness. Mrs. Peters recalls being a little girl and how she felt when another boy killed a kitten:
When I was a girl--my kitten--there was a boy took a hatchet, and before my eyes--and before I could get there--(Covers her face an instant.) If they hadn't held me back, I would have-- (Catches herself, looks upstairs, where steps are heard, falters weakly.)--hurt him.
Suddenly the women can guess what happened. The death of the bird must have driven Minnie over the edge. When the men return, the women hide the bird in silence. They will not provide damning evidence—instead they protect Mrs. Wright in a move of solidarity...against men who could not possibly understand the hardships a woman faces in the world.
The significance of the dead canary is paramount in the play, for it represents the missing piece of evidence that the men are desperately trying to find, and which the women, engaged in their "trifles," find almost by accident. It is only they that are able to piece together that the canary represents the one piece of evidence that links Minnie Wright to the murder, and thus they hide it. Note how, highly ironically, after having found the bird, they hear the County Attorney say:
If there was some definite thing. Something to show--something to make a story about--a thing that would connect up with this strange way of doing it.
This is what the women have done: they have found this "thing" and told the "story" that connects the canary, that Minnie obviously loved so much for its ability to sing and had been strangled by Mr. Wright, with Minnie's own strangling of her husband.