Discuss the story "Sweat" by Zora Neale Hurston. 

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Delia’s motto is  “Turnabout is fair play.” In “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston,  the protagonist Delia journeys through her abusive marriage.  She is driven to stand up for herself when her husband goes one step too far.  

Narration and setting

The narration of the story is third person with the narrator the author whose observations give the story life. The setting is Eatonville, an all-black town in central Florida.  


This is  Delia Jones’s story. She is a woman who washes clothes for a living. Despite her hard work, Delia is not appreciated by her abusive, mean husband Sykes. After being tormented, emotionally and physically abused, and disgraced, Delia has had enough. To add to her humiliation, Sykes flaunts his adulterous affair around town.

Sykes has a plan. He wants to break Delia down so that he can get her to leave the house so Sykes can move his mistress in. He decides to try to kill Delia with a poisonous snake, leaving it in her washtub. However, Sykes’s plan backfires when Delia comes home to find the snake. She leaves it loose in the house for Sykes to find, who will reap what he has sown.


It is hard to think of a more despicable character in literature than Sykes.  His attitude and actions make him hateable just as Delia tells him.  

Delia has taken everything that Sykes has dished out.  When it comes to him trying to kill her with a snake, she will stand up for herself. The home is hers.  She has planted trees and flowers.  Her hard work has paid for the house that  she will have for her old age. Delia has made up her mind.

Somehow before sleep came, she said to herself, ‘Sykes, like everybody else, is gointer reap his sowing.’


Writing in black dialect makes the story challenging to read.  The author’s intention was to make the dialogue between the characters sound exactly like it would if the reader could overhear the conversation.  This adds authenticity and interest to the story.


Symbolism is an important aspect of the story.  The title of the story “Sweat” represents the hard work of Delia in contrast to the laziness of her husband.  Her sweat has provided the home and the food on the table. Delia's sweat is a concrete reminder of her  hard life.

The snake serves as another symbol in the story.  Sykes has used the bullwhip and the snake itself to horrify Delia.   The snake, often the representative of the devil beginning in the Garden of Eden, becomes Sykes.  Sykes is the devil to Delia’s goodness.  Eventually, Delia is able to use the snake to repay and negate the devil’s influence in her life.

'Mah Gawd!' She heard him moan. 'Mah Gawd fum Heben!' She heard him stumbling about and got up from her flower-bed. She crept toward him…She saw his horribly swollen neck and his one open eye…

Karma plays a part in the story. It is defined as any action which brings upon oneself inevitable results, whether good or bad.  Sykes’s karma is not good.  Thinking to rid himself of his long suffering wife, he plants a  rattlesnake in the home to either drive her out or kill her.  In the end, Sykes is the one who is  bitten repeatedly and dies from the snake.

Her karma trumped Sykes. She has to do nothing to let Sykes receive his just reward.  She shuts the door to the house and waits until Sykes comes to see what happened inside the house.  For good or bad, she allows nature [the snake] to follow its course. 

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