As the short story by Zora Neale Hurston, “Sweat” begins, the reader is introduced to the protagonist, Delia, as she is sorting clothes on a spring night in Florida at her home. The main character in Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat” is a washerwoman and has a habit of working late Sunday night to get a start on her week after she’s gone to church. She is singing a low song in “a mournful key” and wondering where her husband, Sykes is since he has her horse and working equipment. As she ponders his whereabouts, she feels something like a snake fall around her shoulders and screams, only to look up and see her husband standing over her with the bullwhip he uses to ride the horses. This is quite a striking image and already, the reader of “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston should be aware that this image is not coincidental—her husband Sykes is an imposing and oppressive figure, indeed.
Delia is quite angry because her husband purposefully made it look like a snake and she scolds him. He does not seem concerned with her feelings and yells at her because she has white people’s clothes in the house, something which he’s told her he doesn’t like. She tries to ignore him as he kicks the neat pile she’d made all over. He is bound and determined to fight with her and keeps trying to provoke her with his words. Suddenly, tired of his verbal abuse, she screams about how hard she’s been working and picks up an iron skillet from the stove as if to strike him. He is taken aback by his wife’s actions, especially since she usually just bottled up her anger. As the narrator states in one of the important quotes from “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston, “It cowed him and he did not strike her as he usually did.” From this point, it is clear that he is also physically abusive toward her and this makes her rebellious action even more surprising.
Sykes finally leaves his wife alone to ponder her unhappy life and marriage. He is sleeping with another woman, Bertha, and he spends all of her hard-earned money buying her trite gifts. All that keeps her happy is the prospect of going to church and her well-maintained but small house. He comes back in around dawn and steals the covers before a new scene begins. It is clear that this is a troubled household and that Delia’s patience with her abusive husband is going to have to have some kind of resolution. In an instance of foreshadowing, she thinking, “Oh well, whatever goes over the Devil’s back, is got to come under his belly” which means that she knows eventually Skyes will get what’s coming to him.
The previous scene is cut off and the reader sees that some time has gone by. Delia sets out to do her washing and passes by a group of men sitting at a store. The tone and focus of “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston changes for a while as the men comment on how pretty Delia used to be and how it’s such a shame that she’s beaten so often and lost her good looks. They talk about Syke’s behavior with the Bertha woman and generally frown upon him, with one saying, “There oughter be a law about him… He ain’t fit tuh carry guts tuh a bear.” Clearly the whole town seems to have a negative reaction against Sykes and so too does the reader by this point. On her way back, Delia sees Sykes out front of Bertha’s telling her that he will buy her whatever she wants. As the narrator states, “It pleased him for Delia to see.”
More time passes and the narrator lets us know that Bertha has been in town for three months and that, as stated in one of the important quotes from “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston, “Delia and Sykes fought all the time now with no peaceful interludes. They slept and ate in silence. Two or three times Delia had attempted a timid friendliness, but she was repulsed each time. It was plain that the breaches must remain agape. One afternoon, Sykes comes home with a box and tells Delia to look inside. Nestled within the box is a giant rattlesnake that Dykes caught. He refuses to get rid of it, even though it is driving Delia mad. Although it had just had a large meal when Sykes caught it, it begins to grow hungry again and always rattles around, scaring Delia to death. One night, however, Delia comes home to find that the snake is loose. She is able to get out of the house and wait and sees her husband come home. He makes a lot of noise in the kitchen and is bitten by the snake. Instead of helping him, however, Delia simply lets him die.
The reader can speculate on whether or not Delia was too afraid to move to get help for her husband, but it is the general consensus that she purposefully let him die. While you could argue both, if you are going to contend that she was just afraid, you’d better take a closer look at the text before trying to defend your point.
Other articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include The Role of Oppression in “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston • Comparison of Themes in “A Rose for Emily” “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “Sweat” • Analysis and Summary of “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hursto • American Literature in Historical Context : 1865 to Roosevelt • American History Since 1865: Major Events and Trends • Realism in American Literature