The villagers have given Giuseppina the nickname “the She-wolf” “because she never had enough—of anything. The women made the sign of the Cross when they saw her pass,” and even the parish priest lost his soul for her. Maricchia, her daughter, bemoans her own fate: No one would want the daughter of such a woman as his wife, even though her dowry and landholdings are the match of any young woman in the town.
When Nanni, a young man of the village, returns from his compulsory military service, the She-wolf falls desperately in love with him. Much older than he, with the telltale pallor of malaria on her face, she nevertheless presents an imposing and handsome figure that belies her age, with piercing, black eyes and lips that devour men with their intense color. Her passion for Nanni, however, is thwarted. Nanni will have the daughter, not the mother, and so he tells her, directly and laughingly. A few months later, she offers Maricchia to him; the dowry is discussed, and the She-wolf tells him to come at Christmastime to arrange the marriage.
Maricchia is repelled at the sight of Nanni when she first sees him, oily and dirty after his labors, but her mother imperiously forces her to marry him, threatening to kill her if she does not. After some years have passed, Maricchia is occupied with her children, while the She-wolf, almost destroyed by her continuing passion for Nanni, seems to have lost her energy and will. Nanni, now quite satisfied with his life, laughs in her face when she looks at him, while Maricchia, who has grown to love her husband intensely, reviles her mother, “her eyes burning with tears and jealousy, like a young she-wolf herself.” The She-wolf continues to visit Nanni in the fields. He chases her away again and again, yet, she returns, like an ill-treated dog, only to be chased away again. Finally, however, Nanni falls prey to the She-wolf. Maricchia senses what is happening, and even threatens to make her own humiliation public by reporting the situation to the police. This she does eventually, but the She-wolf refuses to give up the corner of the house that she has reserved for herself with the married couple.
A short time later, Nanni almost dies after being kicked in the chest by a mule. The parish priest refuses to give him the Final Sacraments unless the She-wolf leaves the house. He recovers, performs an act of public penance, and again begs the She-wolf to leave him alone, this time threatening to kill her if she comes to him again. “Kill me, then,” she responds, “for it makes no difference to me; without you I have no desire to live.” This chilling rejoinder immediately precedes the final paragraph, in which she does, indeed, seek out Nanni one final time as he is working the soil of a vineyard. As she approaches him, devouring him with her black eyes, a mass of red poppies in her hands, Nanni leaves off his work, picks up his ax and watches her draw nearer, cursing her soul in a stammering voice as the She-wolf comes toward him.