Quentin Compson, reminisces about his hometown of Jefferson, Mississippi, which has changed a great deal since he was a child. The town has been modernized, with paved streets, telephone poles, and a city laundry; “even the Negro women” now have cars, which they use when they are doing the laundry for the white families in town.
Fifteen years earlier, when Quentin is still a child, he and his siblings enjoy watching their black servant, Nancy, carry the bundle of laundry on her head from their house down to her own cabin in Negro Hollow. Sometimes the servant women’s husbands come and collect the laundry for them, but Jesus, Nancy’s husband, never does.
The Compson family’s regular servant, Dilsey, is sick, and as such Nancy has been working in her stead. Quentin describes an incident in which Nancy—who has also turned to prostitution—is arrested after loudly demanding payment from Mr. Stovall, a white man who works at the bank and is a respected member of the local church. Mr. Stovall kicks Nancy to silence her, knocking out her teeth. She is put in jail, where she sings and protests all day before trying to hang herself from the window bars with her dress. When the jailor finds her, he remarks that her belly is swollen “like a little balloon,” suggesting that Nancy is pregnant.
Later, Quentin, his sister Caddy, and his younger brother Jason also notice Nancy’s swollen belly while she is cooking for them. Jesus is in the kitchen with them and tells the children that Nancy has a watermelon under her dress. When Nancy says it hasn’t “come off” Jesus’s “vine,” Jesus responds that he can easily “cut down the vine” that it did come from, much to the children’s confusion.
Nancy continues to cook for the Compsons even though, after this incident, Mr. Compson tells Jesus to stay away from the house. Although everyone in the community thinks Jesus has left town, Nancy becomes afraid to walk home by herself because she thinks Jesus is back and looking for her. Mr. Compson agrees to walk Nancy home and take the children with him even though Mrs. Compson disapproves. As the group walks Nancy down a dark lane, Nancy tells Mr. Compson that she thinks that Jesus is waiting in the ditch outside her house with a razor and that he is going to kill her.
The Compsons walk Nancy home every night for a period until Mrs. Compson becomes frustrated. One night they let Nancy sleep over in their kitchen, but she wakes everyone by making a strange noise that both is and is not like singing. Mr. Compson finds no one outside the house but nevertheless lets Nancy sleep in the children’s bedroom. Quentin is haunted by the image of her frightened eyes.
Dilsey gets better, but Nancy still comes to the kitchen in the evenings to talk about Jesus. Dilsey says that Nancy can stay with her, but Nancy says that “no nigger” will be able to stop Jesus and, instead, begs the Compson children to ask their parents if she can stay in their room again. Mrs. Compson refuses, and Mr. Compson tells Nancy to “go home and lock her door.”
Nancy persuades the children to walk home with her, telling them that they will have fun. When they arrive at Nancy’s house, however, the children do not like the smell and are nervous about the fact that their parents do not know where they are. Jason begins to cry, and Nancy tries to placate the children by telling them stories and making popcorn. Eventually they hear footsteps outside the cabin, which turn out to be coming from Mr. Compson; he has arrived to take the children home. They leave Nancy sitting in her hut with the door open, again making the sound which is like singing but not singing, waiting for Jesus to come for her. On the way home, Quentin wonders who will do their laundry now. Mr. Compson carries Jason on his shoulders and snaps at Caddy when she teases calls her brother for being afraid of the dark.