Rosa Moline (Davis) is the neglected wife of Doctor Lewis Moline (Cotten) in Loyaltown, Wisconsin. The small town is powered by a small industry but is still lightly settled, being rural in character while still being exposed to consumerism and mass media from the big city. This affects Rosa Moline adversely. She grows bored and becomes infatuated with a visiting Chicago businessman with whom she engages in an affair, less out of love than a desire to go to Chicago and live the high life and escape her existence. This creates tensions in her marriage and leads to a series of vignettes where Rosa sets herself apart from the town, engages with dreams and fantasies about going to live in Chicago, setting the stage for a violent conflict.
This film contains examples of:
- Babies Make Everything Better: Inverted. When the businessman has a change of heart and comes back to Rosa, he states that he wants her back, but not her baby (as the baby's father is Rosa's husband). Likewise, Rosa doesn't want to have children, and when she announces it to Lewis, she has Dull Eyes of Unhappiness.
- Downer Ending: When the businessman states that he wants Rosa back, but not the baby she's expecting from her husband, she attempts to abort by throwing herself down a hill. She gets peritonitis. She dies. The end.
- Extreme Doormat: Rosa's husband Lewis, who she resents for his lack of ambition and inability to give her the lifestyle she feels she deserves, and who likewise puts up with her adultery, her selfishness and emotional abuse.
- The One Who Made It Out: Rosa wants to escape her city and be big and famous in Chicago. Notably, when she goes to the big city, she is so out of her element and depth that she despairs and scurries back home, proving that she's not capable of really escaping.
- Small Town Boredom: Rosa hates Loyaltown and makes it clear to everyone in the town.
- Villain Protagonist: Rosa Moline is an obnoxious, selfish and shallow woman driven to madness by Small Town Boredom and ultimately a murderer.
- Your Cheating Heart: Married Rosa has an affair with a businessman. Of course, the Hays Code being what it is, she gets punished for it.