Zora Neale Hurston sets her story in a poor African American Southern community, probably modeled on Eatonville, Florida, where she grew up. She paints a vivid portrait of the hard work through which people struggle in vain to lift themselves out of poverty. The story focuses on one black woman, Delia, and her husband, Sykes. Her situation is made miserable by verbal, emotional, and physical abuse that he inflicts on his wife, and his efforts to bring his mistress into their home—a house that his wife owns. Hurston contrasts the sweat that Delia expends, earning enough to pay for her own house by doing laundry for white people.
American realism, which dates to the 19th century, is concerned with presenting a full range of social groups and focuses on the complications of their difficulties. It is often associated with reformist works such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin or cautionary tales of social climbing such as The Rise of Silas Lapham or The House of Mirth.
The U.S. variant is located within the larger global currents of social realism that gained currency from the turn of the 20th century. The focus shifted to urban, industrial settings, such as in Maggie, but the Great Depression helped broaden the scope once more to include the rural poor.
While Hurston’s story is squarely within the realist camp, she also employs elements of Christian allegory, especially the serpent. In this mixture her work resembles that of other, contemporary American realists, such as John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.