Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American writer during the Harlem Renaissance, wrote about an all-black town of Eatonville, Florida. Hurston was able to attend Columbia University in New York City in the 1920s which was quite unusual for a black woman during this period.
The story “Sweat” is a classic example of regionalism literature. She wanted the reader to be able to hear the conversations by her characters just as they would have spoken them to each other. The dialectal writing makes for a challenge but is well worth the experience.
This story uses a third person narrator, with Delia Jones as the focus of the story. The protagonist Delia triumphs not only as a black woman but as a representative for all women who are abused but face up to their abuser.
Delia has been married to the villainous Sykes Jones for fifteen years. She has been the breadwinner the entire time. Her job entails washing clothes for the white people in the nearby town. It is a hard job, but it has paid the bills, bought the house, and provided money for Sykes to waste. Since the beginning of their marriage, Sykes has beaten Delia. He has antagonized her, demeaned her and harassed her.
Sykes wants to get rid of Delia. He has a girlfriend that he wants to move into Delia’s house. Delia is not going to budge. Knowing her greatest fear, Sykes begins to work on Delia’s nerves. He slips a bullwhip around her neck while she works. It feels and looks like a black snake... Delia is furious.
After the whip incident, Sykes shows up at the house with a box telling Delia that he has bought her a gift. She looks in the box, and there is a huge rattlesnake. Delia tells him to get it out of the house. Sykes tells her that he is going to keep it for a pet. Two or three days later, the snake begins to be restless in its caged box. She warns Sykes that by the end of the week after church, the snake needs to be gone.
When she returns, Delia does not hear anything:
Whut’s de mattah, ol’ Satan, you aint’ up yo’racket? She addressed the snake’s box. Complete silence. She went on into the house with a new hope in its birth struggles. Perhaps her threat to go to the white folks had frightened Sykes!
Beginning her Sunday night work, Delia goes into the laundry baskets to sort the clothes. She takes the lid off one of the baskets, and there is the snake. It has obviously been placed there by Sykes hoping that Delia would be bitten when she began the laundry.
Grabbing a lamp, she runs out into the darkness of the front yard.
The story’s climax
The climax takes place when Sykes gets his comeuppance.
Later in the night, Sykes returns to the house. He peeps in windows and listens for sounds; then he destroys the wire box to cover up his crime. Thinking that the snake may have done its job, Sykes enters the house. Delia can hear Sykes inside the house. She hears the rattling of the snake. Outside Delia hears a cry that might have been made by a wild animal. There was a great commotion inside the house and more animalistic cries
She could hear Sykes calling her name. Delia waited for the sun to come up. Looking in the door, she sees Sykes. He is on his hands and knees. His neck is horribly swollen, and his eyes are completely swollen shut. He called to her, but she went and stood by the chinaberry tree. There was nothing that she could (or would) do.