The novel begins with Costantino Ledda's conviction and sentencing for the murder of his cruel uncle. Though innocent of the crime, he accepts the guilty verdict as punishment for marrying Giovanna Era through a civil ceremony rather than an expensive church wedding. When her husband is taken away, Giovanna has no way to provide for herself, her mother, and her son, who soon dies of malnutrition. Out of desperation she divorces Costantino, according to a new law for wives of convicts, and marries a wealthy but brutish landowner. When the true murderer confesses and Costantino returns, he and Giovanna begin a forbidden and ultimately destructive affair.
Deleda's tragic story of poverty, passion, and guilt portrays the primitive and remote world of the church, pre-Christian superstitions, and laws dictated from the mainland, in her native Sardinia, where society hangs in a delicate balance. Once this order is disrupted, none of these characters can escape the spiral of destruction dictated by fate, God, and society.