Dolores Claiborne lives on Little Tall Island. She worked for the wealthy Vera Donovan, a rich woman whose family had owned a summer home on the island. Eventually Mrs. Donovan lived there all year long until she fell down the stairs and died. Dolores was accused for killing Vera, but asserts from the start of the interview that she "did not kill that bitch". However, in order to clear her conscience, as well as her name, she believes that she must come clean and tell the entire truth about the death of her husband, Joe St. George, which is rumored to be her doing.
During the interview, Dolores jumps to various points in time, with particular focus on three time periods: when she'd started working for Mrs. Donovan, when her husband had died 30 years ago, and the more recent events explaining Mrs. Donovan's deteriorated state at the time of her death.
Dolores begins her detailed account by describing Vera Donovan's decline into old age. She asserted that Mrs. Donovan was an overbearing and mean person, and as she grew older she would have times of awareness where she would intentionally torture Dolores, particularly by making a mess by defecating in her bed (on one such occasion she had flung her feces all over the room).
As the interview continues, Dolores recounts the start of her employment with the Donovans. At that time Mrs. Donovan, along with her husband and children would spend their summers at their house on Little Tall Island. Dolores had married a man named Joe St. George (although she recounted that her primary source of attraction to him was his forehead). Dolores was able to keep working for the Donovan's because she could follow all of Vera's strict rules, such as how many clothespins to use when hanging the sheets and remembering to place the doormats facing the right direction.
When Vera's husband had died, Dolores had expected never to see any of the Donovans on the island again, but Vera surprised her by showing up for the next summer and telling her to prepare the house for her to reside there all year. Dolores saw Vera's children a scant few more times before they stopped showing up, with the assumption that there had been an argument with Vera that drove them away.
Eventually Dolores begins describing her own family troubles. At this point, she'd had three children - the oldest was her daughter Selena, and she had two younger boys named Joe Jr. and Pete. Her husband Joe had, on occasion, been abusive to her (as, she describes, her own father had been abusive towards her mother). One night he struck her with a chunk of firewood in the back. Later that night, she had smashed a dish on the side of his head and threatened him with a hatchet. When he taunted her, she instead handed him the hatchet and gave an ultimatum - if he ever hit her again, one of them would die. Too late, Dolores realized that her daughter Selena had seen her standing over Joe with the hatchet while Joe held his hand to his bleeding ear.
Afterwards, Selena began drawing away from Dolores. At first, she seemed to be spending more time with Joe, but eventually she began drawing away from him, too. Dolores eventually stops trying to guess why this is happening and goes to escort her home from school (which is on the mainland), telling her that neither of them are to get off the ferry until Selena tells her everything. At this, Selena breaks down and tells her. Joe had spoken to her after the night with the hatchet, telling her that Dolores was a very mean woman, and that he was the victim of her abuse. Over time, he had begun getting closer and closer to her, clearly intending to have a sexual relationship with his daughter. The whole time, he insisted that if she ever found out, Dolores would blame Selena and hurt them both. Dolores, appalled by all of this, assures Selena that Joe will never touch her again. She confronts Joe and informs him that if he lays a hand on their daughter again, he will go to prison. Joe agrees, but slyly suggests that he still has the upper hand.
After dwelling on her situation with her despicable husband, Dolores decided to withdraw her childrens' college funds and leave the island with the kids but without Joe. However, when she tried, the bank workers informed her that Joe had already withdrawn all the money and placed it in a personal account that only he could access. This lead Dolores into a state of depression. One night she broke down in front of Mrs. Donovan and told her all about her situation. Vera (as she insisted Dolores call her from that point on) reacted rather distantly, although not entirely coldly, and stated that "husbands do have accidents sometimes".
Eventually, Dolores began to formulate a plan. The newspapers reported that there will soon be a solar eclipse that will pass over Little Tall Island. Knowing that everyone on the island would either be at the hotel where a celebration had been planned, or on the ferry, which Vera had rented for the day, Dolores intended to spend the time at home with Joe. She sent her children off and bought Joe a bottle of scotch. When the eclipse started, she informed Joe that she knew about his bank account. She went on to lie about it, saying that the bank manager found a rule that permitted her to take out all the money and place it in an account under her name. This enraged Joe. Dolores ran from him, leading him out into their yard. She had been out there just prior to scout out the old, unused well that was out there, which was overgrown with blackberry bushes, but not properly capped. With Joe chasing after her, she lead him directly to the well, and he fell in. Unfortunately, he didn't die immediately, since the well wasn't completely dry. She eventually came to believe that he would die and went back inside her house to try to calm down. However, she still felt nagging doubt and went back out to check on him. To her horror, Joe had almost climbed out of the well, and when she got close enough he grabbed her by the ankle. She eventually pulled free, and, as he was about to climb fully out of the well, she lifted a large nearby rock and slammed it into his head, crushing his skull. Either this or the fall back down the well finally killed Joe.
Dolores began playing her part in this "accident", acting as though she had no idea where Joe is. She claimed that they had had a fight, after which she left to see the eclipse from a different part of town, leaving Joe to drink his scotch alone. Eventually a search party found Joe at the bottom of the well. Dolores' real test came when the medical examiner, a man quite a bit smarter than the local constable, began questioning her with deep suspicion. However, due to Dolores' calculated calmness and the constable's ineptitude, the law decided that she played no part in her husband's death. Selena, however, was not convinced that Dolores was innocent, although she never come right out and said so. Of course, rumors circulated throughout the town, with many people believing that Dolores had gotten away with murdering her abusive husband, although most seemed to think it was justified.
At this point, Dolores' story jumps to the events leading up to Vera's death. Mrs. Donovan had been in a fragile mental state, fearing imaginary monsters, particularly "the wires" that would come out of the wall, and "the dust bunnies" which would all try to gang up and attack her. Dolores was always sympathetic of Vera during these times and would always come to comfort her. On the day of Vera's death, Dolores had been outside hanging Vera's sheets on the line when Vera began screaming about the dust bunnies attacking her. Dolores ran inside and upstairs in time to see Vera walking (something she had believed Mrs. Donovan was incapable of) toward the stairs. As Vera made it to the staircase, Dolores was just a moment too late to stop her from falling down. After the tumble, Dolores ran down to comfort her. Vera asked her to help her die here, instead of in a hospital. Dolores agreed and went to the kitchen, where she fetched a heavy rolling pin with the intent of using it to crush Vera's skull. However, by the time she got back to Vera, it turns out she had already died, saving Dolores the responsibility. Unfortunately, at that moment the mailman had shown up. It was clear that he believed that Dolores had killed Vera. That night Dolores was taunted by anonymous town members who said she won't get away with murder again.
The next morning she woke up with the intention of going to the police to tell them the entire story. However, before she left her house, Mrs. Donovan's accountant called to inform her that Vera had willed all her money (short of a donation to an orphanage) to Dolores. The total was said to be "somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 million dollars". Dolores was appalled by this and refused to take the money. However, the accountant stated that she must accept the money at first, even if she does intend to give it away. At this point Dolores remembered the Donovan children and asks why they hadn't inherited the money. The accountant, slightly confused, informed Dolores that the children had been dead for nearly 30 years. Vera had never told Dolores, had instead made it look like they had just had a fight and would return again someday when they could put those hard feelings behind them.
After her phone call was done with the accountant, Dolores went to the police and gave her interview.
As an epilogue, outside the interview transcript, there are several newspaper clippings. The first one is from the local paper, in which it describes Dolores being cleared of any guilt or wrongdoing with Vera's death. In a statement she gives the paper, she says that she's looking forward to a reunion with her two surviving children, Joe Jr. and Selena (Pete had been killed in the Vietnam war). In the final clipping, a nearby orphanage is astounded to have received a 30 million dollar anonymous donation.
The audiobook version of Dolores Claiborne is read by Frances Sternhagen, who played Irene Reppler in the film version of The Mist and played the part of Virginia McCain in the film version of Misery. The audiobook fully emulates an official recording, with additional sound effects, like pouring a glass of water or Andy opening his desk drawer.
Gerald's Game - During the eclipse, Dolores has a clear image of a young Jessie Burlingame sitting on her father's lap. Later in her story, she also has the impression that Jessie is in some sort of danger, although she has no idea what kind of danger and has no clear image of her at this point (this is almost certainly Jessie's ordeal in the bed in Gerald's Game).