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Analysis of "Sweat" by Zora Neale Hurston


"Sweat" by Zora Neale Hurston is a story that explores themes of resilience, domestic abuse, and retribution. The protagonist, Delia, endures her husband Sykes's cruelty and infidelity while working hard as a washerwoman. The story culminates in Sykes's demise, symbolizing poetic justice and Delia's liberation from oppression. Hurston uses vivid imagery and dialect to convey the characters' struggles and the Southern setting.

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Discuss the story "Sweat" by Zora Neale Hurston.

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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Discuss the story "Sweat" by Zora Neale Hurston.

In Zora Neale Hurston's story, "Sweat," the main character, Delia is traumatized by her husband Sykes. The story's introduction shows Delia as a hard-working woman and sets the scene for the rest of the story. In this introduction, Hurston explains Delia's job as a washerwoman who collects dirty clothes from white people on Sunday to get ahead and finish her job on time.

It is clear from these few sentences that Delia's hard work stands in contrast to what we learn later about her husband. He is lazy and insolent. She is willing to work as hard as she has to in order to support them, yet he does almost nothing to contribute to the household. By portraying Delia in such a positive light, Hurston makes the ending that much more powerful when Sykes gets his comeuppance. 

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Discuss the story "Sweat" by Zora Neale Hurston.

First, I would point out this enote page for a general discussion of the themes and symbolism of the story. To summarize:

  1. The story is about the struggle between good and evil, God and Satan, as represented by Delia and Sykes. Delia’s church membership, Syke’s use of the serpent to scare Delia, and Delia’s belief that “Sometime or ruther, Sykes, like everybody else, is gointer reap his sowing" suggest that the story is a symbolic working out of this conflict in the context of a rural, Southern black community.
  2. The story can also be read as a commentary on gender and power. Sykes’ power is based on his vanity: women have value determined by his sexual attraction to them. Delia’s “skinniness” is the excuse Sykes would use to run Delia out of her own home: he says to Bertha at one point, “Sho' you kin have dat lil' ole house soon's Ah kin git dat 'oman outa dere. Everything b'longs tuh me an' you sho' kin have it. Ah sho' 'bominates uh skinny 'oman. Lawdy, you sho' is got one portly shape on you! You kin git anything you wants. Dis is mah town an' you sho' kin have it." Delia’s power, on the other hand, comes from her hard work (the “sweat” of the title): this is how she is able to have the house, and support Sykes.  
  3. Another aspect of the story is race. Sykes’ distaste for Delia’s washing is due in part to it coming from the whites; Delia, for her part, looks to the whites as a kind of moral authority; at one point she says “Ah'm goin' tuh de white folks bout you, mah young man, de very nex' time you lay yo' han's on me,” a threat that seems to have an impact. There is a sense in which Delia’s work ethic aligns her with the values of white society, in opposition to the posturing of Sykes, but it is not clear that Delia’s working for the whites, while an “honest living,” can be considered a “good thing.”

The story problematizes both Sykes and Delia; Sykes is “bad,” no doubt, but Delia for her part does conquer her fear of snakes (and of Sykes) long enough to watch him die of snakebite. It is true that at the end she is liberated from him, but her own symbolic association with “goodness” and religious faith is called into question.

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What is the rising action in Zora Neale Hurston's "Sweat"?

As in most stories the rising action of "Sweat" comprises the largest part of the story.

In the rising action of a story, the problem/conflict(s) is/are introduced with the series of events that lead to the climax.
After the main characters of Delia and Sykes Jones are introduced to the reader, the events that raise the action to the climax of the conflicts between Delia and her husband are as follows:

--As Delia sorts the laundry that she washes for white folks, 

Just then something long, round, limp and black fell upon her shoulders and slithered to the floor beside her....

She is terrified as she believes a snake has landed on her; however it is her husband's whip, instead. (This incident foreshadows another action of Sykes.) He enters, laughing at her. Delia scolds him for his cruel joke because he knows her fear of snakes, but Sykes reprimands her for washing the clothes. 

"Ah done tole you time and again to keep them white folks' clothes outa dis house."

Sykes walks through the laundry, kicking some it. He does this with the intention of irritating her.

--Delia and Sykes argue. She informs him that her taking in laundry has been the only thing that keeps them fed. 

"Looka heah, Sykes, you done gone too fur. Ah been married to you fur fifteen years, and Ah been takin' in washin' for fifteen years. Sweat, sweat, sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat!"

--Delia grabs the iron skillet and poses to fight; Sykes is surprised at her unusual aggressive stance. He does not hit her as he usually does.

--Further, Delia complains of her husband's running around on her and his disgraceful behavior. She informs him that he has not paid for anything and she is staying on their place until she is "toted out foot foremost" (dead).

--Somewhat awed by Delia's bravery, Sykes leaves and does not return until late in the night. As she lies in bed alone, Delia ponders her sad state, recalling that all Sykes has brought to their marriage is carnal desire. But, she reasons,

Sometime or ruther, Sykes, like everybody else, is gointer reap his sowing." After that she was able to build a spiritual earthworks against her husband. His shells could no longer reach her. Amen. She went to sleep.

--Late in the night, Sykes returns and kicks her over to the edge of the bed. She moves with "a triumphant indifference."

--In town, some of the men sit around gossiping. They see Delia delivering the laundry as she rides past with her pony pulling a rusty buckboard. The discussion turns to Delia and her worthless husband and his ugly girlfriend.

He allus wuz uh ovahbearin' niggah, but since dat white 'oman from up north done teached 'im how to run a automobile, he done got too biggety to live--an' we oughter kill 'im," Old Man Anderson advised.

--Then, one day Delia comes home to find Sykes there, waiting for her. As she tries to enter the house, he kicks a box toward her. It contains a rattlesnake. Because Delia is terrified of snakes, she nearly faints, and begs him to take it away, but he refuses.

--The snake is quiet for some time because it has been digesting the frogs that Sykes has fed it. But, one day Delia sees his fangs around the wire meshes over the box.

She stood for a long time in the doorway in a red fury that grew bloodier for every second that she regarded the creature that was her torment.

--That evening she begs Sykes to take the snake away; however, he refuses. Delia gets up from the table and tells her husband fearlessly that she hates him.

...Sykes departed from the house, threatening her, but made not the slightest move to carry out any of them.

--When she returns home from church at night, Delia knows immediately that Sykes has had his woman in her house. Tired, she decides to sit on the bed and rest as she works on the laundry.

At this point the climax begins as Delia lifts the lid of the laundry basket and discovers the snake inside. She runs outside and hides in the hay loft where her suffering soon ends after Sykes returns.

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What is the climax of "Sweat" by Zora Neale Hurston?

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.   

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