Brick Pollitt, a former college athlete, has married a New Orleans debutante and settled down to the life of a Delta planter. For some reason of self-disgust, the reason for which is not made explicit, he has become an alcoholic. His own excuse is that his wife, Margaret, a powerful, domineering figure, has psychologically and sexually castrated him and taken away his self-respect.
When a young doctor who has treated Brick’s alcoholism dies of brain cancer, Brick befriends the doctor’s genteel widow, Isabel, and her plump daughter, Mary Louise, and provides them with financial support. Although the widow becomes Brick’s mistress, the reason that he turns to her has less to do with sexual desire than with the mysterious nature of Brick’s need for something that remains unexplained. Much of the story centers around the croquet game that the three of them play during the summer the story takes place. It is told by a man who witnessed it all several years previously when he was a ten-year-old friend of Mary Louise.
Although Brick insists that he is curing his drinking problem and that Isabel has helped him regain his self-respect, he is not strong enough to resist the powerful personality of his wife or the strong allure of alcohol that helps him escape into a fantasy world. Before the end of the summer, Brick’s self-destructive behavior increases and threatens to destroy the widow and her daughter as well. As his behavior deteriorates, Brick returns to the control of his wife and neglects the widow and her daughter, who then leave town. In the last scene of the story, the narrator reports seeing Brick, grinning with senseless amiability, being driven through town by his wife, the way some ancient conqueror such as Alexander the Great might have led the prince of a newly conquered state through the streets of a capital city.