“Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston brings to the reader several difficult issues that were not talked about when the story was written. Even among the white people, physical and mental abuse, violence, and adultery were not topics for short stories.
Written in 1926 during the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston wrote about her home town of Eatonville, Florida, which was an all-black town. The black people walked across a railroad crossing into Winter Park and worked for the white people as maids, chauffeurs, and other service jobs. Her stories were based on the reality and the hardships faced by southern black women.
Told in third person, the narrator is an outside observer. The author may be the narrator. The story is told from the protagonist Delia’s point of view. The reader watches as Delia tries to survive in the hostile atmosphere created by her abusive husband Sykes.
This story comes from the wealth of experiences that Hurston remembered from her early life. The characters and their actions are authentic although names and descriptions may be different. Delia and Sykes have dysfunctional lives. She works and supports herself and Sykes. Since the beginning of their marriage, Sykes has beaten and verbally abused Delia.
Delia is a quiet, sensitive woman who works hard washing white people’s clothes. As she does her work, Delia follows an organized method. Sykes tries his best to fool with her work to harass her. Her purpose is to buy her home and have a place to retire to in her old age.
Sykes tries to interfere with her work telling her that she is debasing herself by working for the white folks. Stupidly, he has benefitted from her work, yet he demeans her concerning his own financial support. Sykes does not work.
Sykes wants to get rid of Delia and move his mistress into Delia’s house. He does this by scaring her with a bullwhip, a caged rattlesnake, and finally the released snake in her wash stands. Delia discovers this snake and runs out into the yard, closing the door behind her.
However, the narrator explains that Delia turns the tables on Sykes:
Sykes was at the wood-pile, demolishing the wire-covered box. He hurried to the kitchen door, but hung outside there some minutes before he entered… Outside Delia heard a cry that might have come from a maddened chimpanzee…All the terror, all the horror, all the rage that man possibly could express, without a recognizable human sound.
Sykes found the snake intended for Delia and was bitten many times dying as a result. Delia listened and thought of ways to help but all of them would take too long. This was Delia’s house and her story.