Analyze the plot of "Sweat."

2 Answers

jameadows's profile pic

jameadows | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

This story is about an African American washerwoman named Delia whose husband, Sykes, is abusive. She takes in white people's washing, and her sweat has provided food and housing for her and her husband, but he resents her for having to wash white people's clothing. The love has long ago left their marriage, and now, all she hopes for is to stay in her house. Delia sees Sykes buying food for his new woman, Bertha, who is her husband's latest conquest in a string of conquests. Sykes's behavior has earned him widespread criticism from his neighbors, and he then brings Bertha to the town and spends time with her openly. 

At the end of the story, Sykes brings a rattlesnake to the house in a box and refuses to kill it, though Delia asks him to do so. Delia tells him that she is finished with him, and he leaves home. While he is away, the rattlesnake escapes from its box, and when Sykes returns, he is fatally bitten by it. The rattlesnake is a symbol of the hate that Sykes has brought to the house and the way in which his hate eventually causes his demise. In the end, the rattlesnake liberates Delia from her abusive husband. In some ways, this story is an inversion of the Adam and Eve story, in which the snake corrupts Eve. In Hurston's tale, the snake liberates the woman rather than corrupting her.

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jk180's profile pic

James Kelley | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

Posted on

I just wrote and lost a detailed answer to your question. Maybe it'll show up yet. For now, though, let me quickly summarize.

1. We might want first to agree on a definition of "plot." See the link before for a full discussion, which includes the following defintion:

In literature, a plot is all the events in a story 2particularly rendered towards the achievement of some particular artistic or emotional effect. In other words, it's what mostly happened in the story or novel or what the story's general theme is based on, such as the mood, characters, setting, and conflicts occurring in a story.

2. We can identify important plot elements in the story, including the laundry basket and the rattlesnake.

3. We can characterize the plot in general terms, such as a "revenge plot" or even a "cosmic revenge plot." The man seems to get what's coming to him, and woman seems to contribute in at least a very small way to his death. After all, she doesn't summon help right away when she sees that he's been bitten by the snake.