The story begins at eleven o’clock on a Sunday night in spring. Delia, a laundress, is alone in her Florida home, sorting the dirty clothes she has collected from her clients when she returned the previous week’s clean ones. Delia always begins her work Sunday nights after she returns home from church so that she can have the white items soaking overnight, ready to be washed on Monday morning.

Suddenly, something long and black falls over her shoulder. Believing it is a snake, Delia freezes in terror. Her husband, Sykes, stands in the doorway, laughing at her. The “snake” was his bullwhip, which he draped over her shoulder in order to enjoy her fear. 

Delia and Sykes begin to argue. She takes issue with him using a whip on her horse. He objects to her bringing white people’s laundry into the house. When she goes outside to get her washtub, he kicks the sorted clothing piles into disarray. Although Delia tries to turn to her work and avoid arguing with him, Sykes persists, criticizing her for working on the Sabbath and stomping on the white clothes with dirty boots. Finally, Delia objects, pointing out that she cannot get the washing done in time to return it to her customers if she does not start work Sunday nights. Sykes threatens to hit her and Delia snaps, grabbing a skillet and telling him that since her work has paid for the house and their lives for fifteen years, he will not take the house from her. Although Sykes responds with more threats, he is intimidated by Delia’s newfound confidence and leaves the house. 

Delia lies awake, reflecting on her life and marriage. Although she sought love with Sykes, he has been violent and unfaithful since early in their marriage, spending his money on other women and beating her. Although she realizes it is too late for her marriage to be good, she takes comfort in the house that she has built and made beautiful with flowers and trees. After declaring to herself that Sykes’s evil ways will someday come to hurt him, she is able to mentally separate herself from him and go to sleep. Eventually, he comes to bed, still angry, and she ignores him.

The next scene takes place in July. A group of men gathered on the porch of Joe Clarke’s store discuss Delia and Sykes. They describe Delia as hard-working and ill-treated by Sykes, who does not work to support her and has beaten her so much she is no longer pretty. The men think Sykes’s mistress, Bertha, who comes from another town, is unattractive, and they do not understand what Sykes sees in her. Jim Merchant says Sykes likes fat women and recalls a time he made advances towards Merchant’s own wife, who turned him away. They discuss how Sykes used to treat Delia better, but, as Clarke says some men do, he has taken what he wanted from her and is now ready to throw her away. Old Man Anderson suggests they take Sykes and Bertha to the lake and whip them both, saying that Sykes has become arrogant since a Northern white woman taught him to drive a car. The others agree on principle, but it is too hot to do much of anything. 

Instead, they begin talking Clarke into opening a watermelon for them to share. Clarke agrees they can slice it if they each pay a share, but before they can cut it, Sykes and Bertha arrive. Sykes orders extravagantly for Bertha as Delia drives by in her wagon, bringing more laundry home. 

Having lived in town three months, Bertha is firmly established there. Sykes pays her rent at Della Lewis’s boarding house. He promises her that he will get rid of Delia and let Bertha have the house. Delia, trying to ignore the situation, has avoided seeing people in town, spending all her time working. However, she cannot ignore Bertha coming to her house to call for Sykes. Delia and Sykes continue to fight. 

One hot day in August, Delia comes home to find a box next to the steps. After Sykes tells her he has brought her something, she looks inside and finds a large rattlesnake. She tells Sykes to take it away, but he refuses, saying the snake won’t bite him because he knows how to handle it. When people from town come to see the snake, Sykes explains that he caught it when it was sluggish after eating several frogs. When they advise him to kill it, he brags about his ability to handle the snake. 

After a few days, the snake has digested the frogs and become active and angry. Again, Delia asks Sykes to remove it, and again he refuses, making it clear that he intends to force Delia from the house. She tells him she wants nothing to do with him, that he should leave, and that she has changed churches to avoid seeing him. They both declare hatred for each other. After Delia threatens to tell the white people she works for about Sykes, he leaves, making threats but taking no action. 

The next day, Delia attends church at Woodbridge, where the “Love Feast” service restores her calm and makes her troubles seem far away. When she returns home, she realizes the snake’s box is empty and wonders if Sykes has taken the snake away. Coming into the dark house, she reaches for a match in the match safe behind the stove. Finding only one, she assumes Sykes has given the other matches to Bertha. Angry at that and at the thought that he has had Bertha in the house while she was at church, she lights a lamp and begins her laundry work, bringing the soaking tubs inside and deciding to sort the clothes in her bedroom, where she can sit comfortably on the bed. 

Delia opens the laundry hamper and discovers the rattlesnake inside, among the clothes. As she jumps in fright, the snake slithers out of the basket. Taking the lamp, Delia runs outside, where the wind blows out the lamp. She runs to the barn and climbs to the hayloft, where she lies awake thinking until she comes to the conclusion that the problems in her marriage are not her fault and then falls asleep. 

Delia awakens in the predawn light to the sound of Sykes outside, breaking apart the snake box. After letting the house door stand open for a few minutes, he cautiously enters. Delia sneaks out of the barn and crouches beneath the bedroom window, where she can hear the snake’s rattle sounding inside the house while Sykes fumbles to find a match in the now-empty box and wishes out loud for light to see the snake. Terrified, Sykes jumps onto the bed. Delia hears screams and more rattling as the snake bites Sykes. 

Delia lies in the flowerbed all morning, listening to Sykes moan in pain and call for her. Eventually, she creeps to the door and sees him, his neck and face swollen from snake bites. Although she feels pity for him, Delia returns to the garden to sit under a tree, knowing Sykes must have seen her washtubs and lamp and must know, as he lays dying, that she is there.