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In 1928, in the county of Yoknapatawpha, Mississippi, Nancy Mannigoe, a 30-year-old Negro woman, is condemned to death for the willful murder of the infant son of Mrs. Gowan Stevens, the former Temple Drake. On the eve of the scheduled execution, Temple tries to save Nancy by telling her father, the governor, of the events leading up to the murder. Six years earlier, Temple was a pleasure-loving college girl carrying on a flirtatious romance with young Gowan Stevens. One night Gowan got drunk and took her to a backwoods still where she was raped by Candy Man, a Cajun bootlegger. The next morning, although in a state of semi-shock, she willingly submitted to more of his lovemaking and then agreed to live with him in a New Orleans brothel. Nancy became her personal maid, and Temple reveled in her new life, until Candy Man was reported killed in an auto accident and Temple was forced to go home. Marriage to Gowan followed; but for Temple it was a dull life, and she hired Nancy as a servant to remind her of the brothel life she had loved so much. Suddenly, Candy Man returned, and Temple decided to abandon her home and marriage and once more run off with him. To bring Temple to her senses and prevent her from ruining her life, Nancy sacrificed the infant child by smothering it to death. Though shocked by the candor of his daughter's confession, the governor is unable to grant a pardon for Nancy. The next morning Temple visits Nancy in her cell. As the two women beg each other's forgiveness, Temple realizes that it is only through Nancy's sacrifice that she has been able to find salvation.