The story begins by introducing the reader to Rose, who is a girl on the cusp of adolescence. She lives with her father, stepmother and her younger half brother in central Canada. Her father works in restoring furniture and earns very little for his hard work. They have very little space in their house. The story begins during the Great Depression, a time of great poverty, and the tension created through the collision of the limits facing Rose's family and their aspirations ends up in an outburst of emotion that allows these pent-up emotions to find expression.
Rose's father is a silent figure is distant, but Rose has a long, simmering relationship with her stepmother that is based on resentment. In order to cope with the limitations of their situation, the family have made the beating a very special occasion which involves all of the family and allows a release of all of these pent up emotions. Rose sees the beating as both "savage and splendid." Note the way that Rose imagines the beating to occur in order to imbue it with dignity:
How is a beating royal? She came up with a tree-lined avenue, a crowd of formal spectators, some white horses and black slaves. Someone knelt and the blood came leaping out like banner.
The final simile, describing the blood from her body, is both shockingly savage but also gives it a dignified, royal and ceremonious feel, showing how Rose tries to normalise domestic violence.
One day, Rose and Flo begin a quarrel that gradually escalates until Rose's father becomes involved and administers a physical beating to Rose that is shocking in terms of its ferocity. However, what happens afterwards is fascinating as Rose is depicted to experience tremendous calm and the whole family have dinner experiencing a "convalescent indolence, not far off satisfaction." Catharsis has allowed the ugly emotions to be expressed and has enabled the family to sit down and enjoy relative calm and comfort.
The story ends with a shift forty years into the future with Rose hearing a story from a very old man who horsewhipped somebody who was rejected by her town before she was born. Rose remembers Flo telling her about this. The reader is then told that Flo has been living in a nursing home and has been removed from social contact. The story ends as Rose expresses sympathy for Flo and her state, showing a massive contrast from her earlier hatred and long-standing animosity towards her.