How does the opening scene of the story set the tone and conflict?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The opening scene of "Sweat" by Zora Neale Hurston establishes the emotionally charged tone and the marital conflict with the initial interaction of the protagonist Delia Jones and the antagonist, her husband named Sykes.

In this exposition to the narrative, at eleven o'clock on a Sunday night, Delia sorts the laundry that she has taken in from white people so that she can support herself; her wayward husband is still out. Before he enters the room she is in, he throws a bull whip onto her and terrifies Delia, who fears that it is a snake. Knowing that she is so frightened of these reptiles, Skyes cruelly laughs at her.

He slapped his leg with his hand and almost rolled on the ground in his mirth. "If you such a big fool dat you got to have a fit over a earth worm or a string, Ah don't keer how bad Ah skeer you."

With added antagonism, Sykes kicks the laundry that Delia has worked so hard to sort, and he orders her to be rid of white people's laundry. He also ridicules her as a religious hypocrite who attends church on Sunday and then works on the Lord's Day. Hearing this accusation from her adulterous and irresponsible husband causes Delia to grab her frying pan and threaten Sykes with injury, thus provoking greater conflict between them.

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