The short story opens with Delia Jones, a hardworking washwoman, trying to get a head-start on her work on Sunday evening. As she sorting the laundry on the floor she feels something slide over her shoulder, which scares her to death because she is afraid of snakes. However, it soon becomes clear that the thing that has fallen on the floor was not a snake but the whip of Delia’s abusive husband Sykes, who enters the scene.
Sykes is enraged because Delia is washing white folks’ cloths in his house. He screams at her and threatens to kick all the laundry outside, but this does not prevent Delia from working. She points out that it's precisely her job as washing woman for white people that provides for their living. She even helps herself to a skillet in case Sykes attempts to give her a beating, but Sykes is too startled and leaves. Since it is generally known that Sykes has a mistress, Delia expects he will spend the night at her place.
At the store several man from the town are talking about Sykes and Delia. They reminisce about how pretty Delia used to be when she married Sykes 15 years ago. It is apparent that Sykes is not very popular among them, the men even talk about murdering him. Shortly afterwards, Sykes comes into the store with his girlfriend Bertha. Coincidentally, Delia is just passing around the store on her way from work. It gives Sykes immense pleasure for Delia to see him with Bertha.
One day Sykes brings home a huge snake in order to abuse Delia. Everyday, Delia begs Sykes to get rid of the terrifying animal, but he has no mercy. Once, while doing her work, Delia finds the snake in the basket with the laundry. Mortified, she quickly leaves the house and goes to sleep in the barn. When she awakes, Delia sees Sykes go inside the house. A short moment later, she hears him scream out her name, so she moves towards the house. Standing by the door, Delia sees that Sykes got bitten by the snake. She hesitates. At one point she feels pity for Sykes, but eventually she backs away from the door and waits for him to die.