The story begins with a description of Mrs. Freeman, a woman who works on a farm in rural Georgia. Mrs. Hopewell, who employs Mrs. Freeman, begins the morning routine: she lights the gas heater, then her daughter Hulga goes into the bathroom and slams the door, staying in there until Mrs. Freeman has arrived and her small talk with Mrs. Hopewell is almost done. Hulga experiences “constant outrage” in the presence of her mother and Mrs. Freeman’s constant small talk. The banality of Mrs. Hopewell’s conversation is characterized by one of her favorite phrases, “that is life!”
No matter what Mrs. Hopewell says, Mrs. Freeman agrees with her. Mrs. Hopewell considers Mrs. Freeman one of the “good country people,” a group that she contrasts with the “trash” who have given her trouble as employees in the past. Whenever Mrs. Hopewell has tried to make her daughter work, Hulga’s attitude has been so negative and unpleasant that Mrs. Hopewell gave up. Mrs. Hopewell accepts her daughter’s negative attitude because Hulga lost her leg when she was ten years old in a hunting accident. Her artificial leg makes it so that Hulga “never danced a step or had any normal good times.” Hulga’s original name, at birth, was “Joy”, but when she turned 21 she changed it to Hulga to spite her mother. Hulga takes pride in ruining anything that her mother thinks is beautiful.
Mrs. Hopewell regrets allowing Hulga to return to school for a PhD. Hulga is thirty two years old, but because of a heart condition she is only expected to live to forty-five. She would like to go travel and lecture at universities, but cannot do so because of her illness. She is frustrated with her ordinary surroundings, demanding of her mother, in response to being told to smile more, “Woman! do you ever look inside? Do you ever look inside and see what you are not? God!” Having studied philosophy as a graduate student, Hulga spends much of her time reading and taking long walks. She has little interest in men, regarding most of them as unintelligent and uneducated.
We learn that a Bible Salesman arrived at the Hopewell home the previous day, and the narrator then recounts what transpired: the Bible Salesman arrived, seeming earnest and well-mannered. Mrs. Hopewell invited him inside, and he explained that he was there to sell bibles that he kept in a valise. He commented that there was no bible in their parlor, for which Mrs. Hopewell blamed Hulga. Mrs. Hopewell then lied to the Bible Salesman, telling him that she keeps a bible by her bedside. He insisted that every family should have a bible in the parlor, but Mrs. Hopewell refused and suggested that it was time for him to leave. But she was then guilted into letting him stay by his insistence that he is “just a country boy” and that “People like you don’t like to fool with country people like me.” He introduced himself as Manley Pointer, and Mrs. Hopewell insisted that she appreciated “good country people.” When Hulga arrived ready for dinner and demanded that her mother get rid of the Bible Salesman, the Bible Salesman mentioned that he has a heart condition, and Hulga began to cry, believing that the two of them must have the same condition. She insisted that he stay for dinner.
At dinner, Hulga pretended not to hear whenever the Bible Salesman spoke to her. He told his hosts about his childhood, mentioning that his father was crushed by a tree when he was eight. Hulga left the table, but Mrs. Hopewell spent two hours listening to the Bible Salesman talk about his life before telling him that she must be going. Outside, as the Bible salesman left, Hulga was waiting for him in the road and they spoke. Mrs. Hopewell saw them but could not hear what they said. She did watch Hulga walk him to the gate.
Back in the present, Saturday morning, Hulga waits for the Bible Salesman to arrive. The night before, they had made a plan to meet at 10am. She told him that she was seventeen. On the way to the gate the night before, he explained that he considered himself a serious person who is keenly aware of his own mortality. Hulga said she was the same, and felt a connection with him. Then he proposed that they have a picnic the next day. During the night, she imagined seducing him.
When Hulga shows up to the gate at 10am, nobody is there. She begins to wonder if he will ever show up, but then he appears. He is carrying his valise full of bibles. As they walk, he asks where her artificial leg joins to her body, and Hulga is offended. He then expresses disbelief when she says she is an atheist. At the edge of the woods, he kisses her. Hulga has never been kissed before and reflects that it is an “unexceptional experience.”
They enter the barn and the Bible Salesman laments that they cannot go up to the loft because of Hulga’s missing leg. She is offended and immediately climbs up. They kiss, and the Bible Salesman tells Joy he loves her. He insists that she say the same of him. She explains that love is “not a word I use. I don’t have illusions. I’m one of those people who see through to nothing.” She expresses pity for the Bible Salesman. Finally, on his insistence, she admits that she loves him “in a sense” and tells him that she is thirty years old and well-educated.
The Bible Salesman asks her to prove that she loves him by showing where her artificial leg connects to the rest of her body. When she says no, he accuses her of leading him on. Hulga then lifts up the sleeve of her pants and shows him, then taking the leg off and putting it back on again. The Bible Salesman then takes it off, and despite Hulga’s demand that he put it back on, he does not. The Bible Salesman then begins to kiss her again. When she pushes him off, he takes out one of his bibles from the valise and opens it, revealing it to be hollowed out. It contains a flask of whiskey, pornographic playing cards, and a box of condoms. He offers her a drink of the whiskey, and Hulga is shocked. She repeatedly demands to be given her leg back. She says that, in all his hypocrisy, he is a “perfect Christian.” He ridicules her for thinking that he was an actual Christian, grabs the leg and, as he descends from the loft, tells Hulga that he has a whole collection of things he’s stolen in a similar way, and that his real name is not Manley Pointer. He proclaims “you ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born.”
Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman, busy working, watch the Bible Salesman walk from the woods toward the highway. Mrs. Hopewell recognizes him and presumes that he had been selling bibles. Both she and Mrs. Freeman reflect that they could never be as “simple” as the Bible Salesman seems to be.