Sweat by Zora Neale Hurston: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:00 Background to 'Sweat'…
  • 0:36 Plot Summary of 'Sweat'
  • 3:21 Analysis of the…
  • 5:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Danielle Washington

Danielle is a certified English Language Arts educator with 8 years of classroom experience, and has an education specialist degree in curriculum and instruction.

This lesson includes a brief background of the short story 'Sweat' and its author, a summary of the story, and analysis of some of its major elements. Then you'll be able to test your newfound knowledge with a quiz!

Background to Sweat and Hurston

First, some background: Sweat is a short story published in 1926 that focuses on the lives of a poor black couple in the 1920s. It was written by Zora Neale Hurston, an African American author of novels, stories, plays, and essays from the early 20th century. Much of Thurston's success would come posthumously, with many honors being placed on her work. Sweat is among these, and it shares many similarities with other work by Hurston and has been celebrated as some of her best work. Now let's take a look at the story itself.

Plot Summary of Sweat

Sweat tells the story of Delia Jones, a humble, timid woman trapped in a marriage with an abusive man who takes pride in mistreating her. The story opens up on a spring night in Florida, with Delia busy going about her job as a washwoman. We learn that her husband, Sykes, has run off with her horse and cart. As Delia is sorting clothes, she feels something long, round, and limp slide across her shoulder and fall to the floor. Delia is terrified of snakes and becomes paralyzed with fear. We quickly learn that it is her husband, Sykes, who has thrown his bull whip over her shoulder to scare her.

Sykes begins to yell at Delia for washing white people's clothes in his house. From this first exchange between the two characters, we can see how much Sykes hates Delia. When he threatens to kick all the clothes outside if she doesn't stop working, Delia reminds Sykes that it is her hard work as a washwoman during their fifteen-year marriage that has purchased their house and kept food on the table. She even goes a step further and grabs an iron skillet to defend herself, since Sykes regularly beats her. This is totally out of character for the normally timid Delia, and shocks Sykes so much that he leaves the house instead of hitting her. Since Sykes is openly cheating on Delia with another woman, she suspects that he is going to spend another night with his mistress.

As the story progresses, we learn that the men in their town all hate Sykes. On a hot summer day, they all sit around on the porch of the general store and talk about his laziness and womanizing ways. They talk about how beautiful Delia used to be before marrying Sykes, and how much he has torn her down. They even discuss killing Sykes. Just then, Sykes comes into the store with Bertha, his mistress. Delia happens to be passing by the store at the same time, and we learn that Sykes is happy that Delia has seen him with his mistress.

Delia and Sykes continue on in their miserable marriage, arguing constantly. Things between them get even worse when Sykes brings home a rattlesnake as a pet, determined to torture Delia any way that he can. Delia begs Sykes day after day to remove the snake, but he refuses. One night as Delia is sorting clothes, she finds the snake in her laundry basket. She is so terrified that she flees the house, climbs into the hay barn, and falls asleep there. She is awakened by Sykes, who is breaking down the wire snake box at the wood-pile. She sees Sykes then slowly enter the house where the escaped rattlesnake is still loose. She hears him calling her name and goes to the door, where she sees that Sykes has been fatally bitten by the rattlesnake. At this point, Delia feels a range of mixed emotions. On one hand, she is horrified by the sight of Sykes's swollen neck. She feels a surge of pity for her husband as she watches him clinging to life, despite all his bad treatment of her. She also considers the fact that help is too far away to reach Sykes in time. Ultimately, Delia runs away from the house to stand under a tree. From a distance, she imagines Sykes suffering in the house, patiently waiting for him to die.

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