Zora Neale Hurston


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Sweat Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Sweat by Zora Neale Hurston.

Widely celebrated for its uncompromising portrayal of the day-to-day oppression experienced by many Black women in 1920s America, Zora Neale Hurston’s Sweat tells the tale of a washerwoman and her abusive marriage to her lazy, violent husband. On a Sunday evening, Delia Jones is sorting through laundry in her Florida home in an effort to take the pressure off her excessive workload the following day. As she works, she thinks of Sykes, her husband, and wonders where he has taken her horse and cart.

Something long and black slithers over Delia’s shoulder. She screams, terrified that it is a snake but quickly realizes that it is simply Sykes sliding his bullwhip over her shoulder to scare her. She yells at him for tricking her. Sykes is contemptuous and shouts back at her, reprimanding her for washing white people’s clothes, especially after having spent all day in church. He knocks over the piles of laundry and threatens to throw them out unless she stops working.

Having dealt with Sykes’s abuse over fifteen years of marriage, Delia angrily points out that it was only thanks to her work that they were able to buy the house. Picking up a frying pan to defend herself against any physical violence, she tells him that he and his mistress will get nothing from her and her hard-won home. Surprised by Delia’s defiance, Sykes leaves and, Delia assumes, goes to spend the night with his mistress. Later that night, he returns and tugs the blankets off Delia as she tries to sleep, but she ignores him.

Some of the town’s men gather on the porch of the local store the next weekend and discuss Sykes. None of them approve of his treatment of Delia and all agree that she is a decent, hardworking woman who was beautiful and strong before Sykes got to her and wore her down over the long years. They briefly speculate about punishing Sykes and his mistress but quickly recognize that they will not really do anything. This is seemingly confirmed when they run away when Sykes and his mistress, Bertha, come up to the store.

Sykes braggingly says that he will buy Bertha anything she wants and is delighted when Delia happens to witness this as she walks past the store. After they leave, the townsmen return to the porch and discuss how Sykes has promised Bertha that she can move into “his” house once Delia is gone and, in the meantime, is paying for her to stay at a boarding house. Delia knows that all the townsfolk know these open secrets and avoids them out of embarrassment.

One day, Delia gets home and finds a wooden box topped with a wire mesh outside. Sykes claims that it is a present, but when she looks in, the box contains a rattlesnake. Delia is utterly terrified and almost blacks out, much to Sykes’s cruel amusement. Keeping the creature as a pet continues to amuse him, as does showing it off to the town’s men and bragging about his ability to tame the dangerous beast.

The snake is the final straw for Delia, and she finally confronts her husband, declaring that she will no longer tolerate his abuse. Shocked once again by Delia’s uncharacteristic defiance, Sykes leaves the house. Later, Delia leaves for church but when she returns and begins working through the next pile of laundry, she finds the rattlesnake loose in the laundry hamper.

Initially too scared to move, Delia eventually flees the house and climbs into the hayloft. There she gradually recovers from her fright and, after thinking about the way her life is going, she manages to sleep. Sometime in the night, she is woken by Sykes demolishing the wooden box in which he had kept the snake. She watches him enter the dark house and then creeps after him.

Delia hears Sykes call her name and then hears him jump onto the bed. Next, she hears Sykes screaming as the snake strikes him. She holds herself silent and still as Sykes calls for help. When she eventually creeps into the house, she is appalled at the sight of his inflamed eye and his swollen throat rapidly swelling up to choke him. Despite this, she leaves and stands quietly beneath a tree. Acknowledging that she was well aware that her husband would be killed by the snake, she waits for it to finally happen.

Although part of the Harlem Renaissance literary and artistic movement in which many pioneering Black authors gained national recognition, Hurston’s work later drifted out of popular awareness. Hurston’s use of vernacular dialect, which many saw as furthering racist stereotypes of African-Americans (and which is prominent in Sweat), is often given as a reason for this decline in interest. However, Hurston was later posthumously recognized for her skills as a writer and her contribution to African-American literature. Sweat is often presented as a strong example of her early work and is particularly celebrated for its feminist themes of women standing up to abusive men as well as its recognition of the hard lives lived by many Black women of the period.