The short story opens with Delia Jones, a hardworking washwoman, trying to get a head start on her work on Sunday evening. As she sorts laundry on the floor of her house, she feels something slide over her shoulder, which frightens her terribly because she is afraid of snakes. However, it soon becomes clear that the object that has grazed her shoulder and fallen to the floor is not a snake at all but the bull whip of Delia’s abusive husband Sykes, who enters the scene.
Sykes rails at Delia, who he criticizes for washing white folks’ clothes in their house on Sunday, the Sabbath day. He screams at her and threatens to mess up and soil all of Delia's carefully sorted laundry, but this does not prevent Delia from working. She points out that it's precisely her job as a washwoman for white people that provides for their living. She defends herself with uncharacteristic tenacity, threatening Sykes with an iron skillet in anticipation of one of his habitual beatings. Sykes is startled and leaves angrily. Since it is generally known that Sykes has a mistress, Delia expects he will spend the night at her place.
The next Saturday in front of the store, several men 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 arrives at the store with his girlfriend Bertha. Coincidentally, Delia is just passing the store on her way from work. It gives Sykes immense pleasure to taunt Delia by parading Bertha around.
One day, Sykes brings home a huge snake in order to further terrorize 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. Terrified, 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, so she moves towards the house. Standing by the door, Delia sees that Sykes has been 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.