The story covers several weeks in the lives of Delia Jones and her husband, Sykes, from a Sunday evening to a Monday morning, with a brief flashback to the course of their relationship during fifteen years of marriage. The action begins at a crucial moment that is to lead to Sykes’s death and Delia’s liberation. For the first time, Delia stands up to Sykes’s abuse. She has just returned from church and has begun her week’s work as a laundry woman for white people, sorting out the clothes that she collected the day before. Sykes, who has spent the day with his mistress, Bertha, lays a bullwhip across her shoulders to frighten her. She is deathly afraid of snakes. He also kicks her clothes around, grinding dirt into them, and complains not only about her working for white people but also about her hypocrisy, for she goes to church and receives the Sacrament but still works on Sunday. This irreligious, adulterous man, making such accusations and physically and psychologically abusing her, suddenly causes her to alter the relationship: She drops the meek posture of the subservient wife, takes up a heavy frying pan as a weapon, and threatens Sykes with retaliation. She declares herself willing to defend not only her person but also the house that she has paid for with “sweat” for the past fifteen years. She refuses to let him drive her out to make room for his new woman.
The following Saturday, Delia takes the laundered clothes to town. During this second segment of the story, Zola Neale Hurston chooses to present her heroine’s situation from the town’s point of view, as an assortment of men gossip on the porch of a general store. The men sympathize with Delia, recognize the abuse she has suffered from Sykes, and condemn Bertha as the dregs of a neighboring town, the only woman during the past fifteen years who would succumb to Sykes’s advances. Sykes and Bertha show up at the store to buy groceries. Sykes flaunts his importance before the townspeople and before Delia, who is passing by on her way home. Such public indignity heightens the conflict.
The third and final section of the story takes place several weeks later. No longer able to intimidate Delia with physical abuse, he plays on her fears by bringing home a real snake, a six-foot rattler in a soap box. After living with the snake for two or three days, Delia finds her Christian patience at the breaking point: She declares that she is moving her church membership to another town, because she does not want to take the Sacrament with her husband, and that she hates this man she married. The next day being Sunday, she goes off to church and does not come home until evening. As she passes the soap box and notices that the snake is gone, she imagines that perhaps Sykes has taken seriously her threat to seek justice from the white community. As she prepares to begin the week’s washing, however, she discovers, to her shock, the rattlesnake at the bottom of the clothes hamper. Frightened almost senseless, she runs out to the barn to spend the night. When Sykes returns later in the evening, he finds no matches left to light the candles. As he stumbles about drunk in the dark, the rattlesnake bites him. Hearing his cries, Delia ventures out from the barn and watches through a window as Sykes dies from poison. Unable to endure the final moments before death, and unable or unwilling to help him, she goes to sit under a chinaberry tree to imagine the look on Sykes’s face.