The novel is about the dysfunctional Virginian Loftis family. It centers on the funeral of Peyton Loftis, one of the daughters, with previous events told in flashbacks by the other characters.
The young, psychologically vulnerable Peyton is attached to her father, but finds her mother, Helen, emotionally remote and oppressive. Helen loathes the spoiled and beautiful Peyton, whom she characterizes as a whore. She has given all her love to her crippled daughter, Maudie, leaving no affection for Peyton or her own husband, Milton, who finds solace in a shallow mistress.
Milton, who adores Peyton, turns to alcohol as he is spurned by Helen and as Peyton slips away from the family circle. Peyton's marriage is a disaster, also, and she eventually commits suicide. The penultimate section of the story is related in a stream of consciousness style by Peyton herself. In the last part, a recreation of a revivalist meeting, it is suggested that only the Loftis family's black servants may experience genuine mourning for Peyton.
Styron incorporated many actual portions of his home town, the Hilton Village section of Newport News, Virginia. The character of Helen contains some elements of Styron's own stepmother. Part of the story occurs at the James River Country Club, which is still in operation today.