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"Sweat" by Zora Neale Hurston is set, like many of Hurston's works, in a small town in central Florida. Hurston herself was brought up in Eatonville, Florida, and later returned to Florida as an anthropologist, studying, among other things, race and gender relationships.
Hurston's use of dialect in this story, and in what is now considered her most important novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, has always been controversial. Many writers of the Harlem Renaissance thought that the use of dialect pandered to racist stereotypes of the quaint and ignorant African-American.
Hurston's own point of view was that the dialect of southern African-Americans was itself part of their heritage and oral tradition, and that use of dialect was not only realistic, but also gave the reader a more accurate insight into the cultural background of the story. The use of dialect by Delia and Sykes identifies them as not just African American, but living in circumstances in which their culture and language had only minimal contact with white American society and were diverging from it.
Although Delia takes in washing from a white family to support her own family, the main influences on her speech patterns, as indicated by her dialect, are African-American tradition and the church, where she would have heard not white American speech but a dialect heavily influenced by the King James version of the Bible, a rich, colorful, sonorous version of Elizabethan English that also informed African American traditions of preaching.
Delia's own dialect, in combining the preaching tradition with African-American English, displays a combination of the strength and endurance she has developed as a woman living with poverty and abuse and her own deep spirituality, as exemplified in her thoughts about her husband:
"Oh well, whatever goes over the Devil's back, is got to come under his belly. Sometime or ruther, Sykes, like everybody else, is gointer reap his sowing."
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