What is the significance of the title of the story "Sweat" by Zora Neale Hurston?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

“Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston tells the story of Delia Jones and her struggles to survive in a hostile environment.  Hurston writes the story using the black dialect common to the place and time of the story.

The narration is third person with the narrator telling the story through the eyes of this sensitive black woman who finds the courage to finally stand up to her abusive husband Sykes.  Delia represents the women who live in fear of their mates;  but something finally happens to push them to a breaking point, and they fight back.

Symbolic title

The title of the story comes from the hard work that Delia does every week washing clothes for the white people in the nearby city of Winter Park.  The sweat of her brow has made enough money to buy her home and fund her lazy husband because he does not work.  Delia’s sweat could be viewed as symbolic of all of the tedious, back breaking toil that  she has done and all of the years of struggling she has been through. Her sweat is a reminder.

Delia lives across the tracks in Eatonville, an all-black town.  Attending church, fixing her garden, and working has become the routine of Delia’s life.

When Sykes is around, much of his time is spent harassing Delia about her work. In his ignorance, he taunts her about the job that funds his foolishness and his adulterous affair with Bertha.  Sykes wants to move Bertha into the house, and he wants Delia to get out. 

One day while Delia was working, Sykes wraps a bullwhip around her neck. This scares Delia because it looks like a snake, which Delia greatly fears.

Sykes, what you throw dat whip on me like dat? You know it would skeer me—looks just like a snake, an’ you knows how skeered Ah is of snakes.

 Sykes next brings in a rattle snake in a wire cage, telling Delia that this is his pet.  She tells him to get rid of it, but he leaves it there.

By the end of the week, Delia tells Sykes that when she comes back from church she expects the snake to be gone. As Delia walks into the house, she notices the snake is not in  the cage and thinks that Sykes has gotten rid of it.  On Sunday evenings, she always starts her laundry work.  She goes into her baskets, pulls back the lid, and discovers the snake in her basket. 

It is then that Sykes has pushed Delia too far.  She closes the door and runs into her garden and hides.  Later, Sykes shows up, peeks in the window, and goes inside.  The snake attacks him biting him over and over.  Delia hears the commotion and knows the results.  She opens the door, and the snake slinks away.  Sykes is not dead, but he will be.