In the deep South of 1900, shrewish Regina Giddens readies her household in anticipation of a dinner to honor William Marshall, a wealthy Chicago industrialist who is thinking of building a cotton mill in their small town. Gathered at the table to honor Marshall are Regina's sweet young daughter Alexandra, her greedy brothers, shopkeepers Ben and Oscar Hubbard, and Oscar's wife and son, Birdie and Leo. When the kind-hearted Birdie begins to chatter, Oscar cruelly accuses her of living in the past glory of her failed family fortune and once grand plantation. After an evening of listening to the brothers' blandishments, Marshall agrees to go into business with them, invites Regina to visit him in Chicago, then bids them goodnight. When Regina suddenly declares that she plans to move to Chicago with Alexandra, her brothers unceremoniously remind her that first she needs to convince her absent husband, Horace, the head of the Planters Trust Co. bank, to invest his money in the cotton mill. Aware that her brothers need Horace's third to complete the deal, the rapacious Regina insists on a larger share of the venture. Oscar then maliciously retorts that her invalid husband is less than eager to abandon the refuge of his hospital room in Baltimore for Regina's icy charms. Ben settles the argument by offering his sister a forty-percent share, with the balance coming from Oscar's portion. Oscar reluctantly agrees on the condition that a marriage between his shiftless son Leo and Alexandra be part of the deal. To lure Horace home, Regina orders Alexandra to travel to Baltimore and bring her father back. The next day on the way to the train station, Alexandra says goodbye to David Hewitt, a young newspaper man with whom she is infatuated. On the trip home, Horace, suffering from a serious heart condition, is forced to rest at a hotel in Mobile to regain his strength, thus delaying his arrival. As Regina readies the house for her husband, her brothers taunt her about Horace's tardiness. Later, Oscar criticizes Leo's incompetence and Leo, a clerk at Horace's bank, mentions that he has been rifling his uncle's safe-deposit box and discovered $90,000 in negotiable bonds. Leo's disclosure causes the avaricious Oscar to consider "borrowing" the bonds. When Horace finally arrives, Regina briefly feigns concern for her husband until, no longer able to contain her malevolence, she lashes out at him, knowing that he is dying. When her odious brothers appear, Regina reconciles with Horace to expedite the business deal. As Horace swallows a spoonful of his heart medicine, Ben badgers him about investing his money. Pleading illness, Horace asks to postpone his answer, thus engendering Regina's fury. Later, after a party at the Giddens house, Oscar informs Regina that he must leave the next day for Chicago to close the deal. Marching into Horace's room, Regina and her brothers demand his answer, and Horace denounces the deal on the grounds that it will cheat the town's working poor by undercutting labor costs. As a furious Regina argues with Horace, Ben and Oscar descend the stairs and Oscar instructs Leo to "borrow" Horace's bonds. Later, Ben smugly informs his sister that Oscar is on his way to deliver the money to Chicago. Overhearing their conversation, Horace denounces Regina and her brothers as vultures, and Regina fires back that she hopes he dies soon. One day, while Regina is out of the house, David and Alexandra join Horace, Birdie, and the family's faithful maid, Addie, for an impromptu party. Slightly tipsy, Birdie recalls her family's contempt for the Hubbard family's exploitation of the poor who shopped at their store, and confides that Oscar married her only to gain control of the cotton in her family's fields. When Addie comments about the "people who eat the earth like locusts" Horace recites a quotation from the Song of Solomon about the little foxes who spoil the vines. Birdie then admits that she drinks to "stop the pain" and warns Alexandra that this will be her fate, too. Later, Horace visits the bank to examine his will. Stunned, Leo tries to distract Horace as he leafs through the safe-deposit box. After Leo leaves the room, Horace reopens the box and discovers the missing bonds. When Horace asks Cal, his driver, to fetch the Giddens' lawyer from Mobile, Leo overhears their conversation and alerts his father. That night, as David and Horace play cribbage, David confides that he has fallen in love with Alexandra. Regina, meanwhile, is having a dress fitted by David's seamstress mother, and coldly informs her that she objects to David's courtship of Alexandra. When Regina returns home, Horace tells her about the theft and spitefully declares that he has decided to allow her brothers the loan of the bonds, thus insuring that Regina will never share in the profits. Regina's venomous response induces Horace to suffer a heart attack, and when Regina refuses to bring his medicine from the bedroom, the stricken Horace crawls up the stairs and collapses. Regina withholds Horace's medication until the damage is irreversible. Drawn by the news of Horace's attack, Oscar and Ben hurry to the Giddens house. When Regina reveals Horace's decision to "lend her brothers the bonds," Ben and Oscar take a keen interest in his health. After Regina demands seventy-five percent of the business in the event of her husband's death, Ben scurries to bring a second doctor. Soon after, Horace dies and Regina threatens to jail her brothers for theft unless they accept her terms. Alexandra overhears their conversation, and after her uncles depart, declares she is leaving Regina and denounces her as "one who eats the earth." As Alexandra runs off into the night with David, Regina watches from the shadows of her bedroom window, completely alone.