Study Guide

Sweat Analysis

  • Tone

    Intimate

    Oftentimes, thanks to the omniscient narrator, we're inside Delia's head and have a front row seat to her thoughts, feelings and emotions:

    Too late for everything except her little home. She had built it for her old days, and planted one by one the trees and flowers there. It was lovely to her, lovely. (25)

    Geez. How can we not feel connected to this woman after reading something like that?

    If Hurston is smiling down at us from the literary heavens above, she's probably wagging a pen at us right now and saying, "Exactly! Feel for Delia, feel for her!" 

    There's a reason the intimate, cozy and confessional tone is used only with Delia—it makes us sympathize with her and, heck, maybe even understand her situation.

    Suspenseful

    By the end of the first page, our stomachs already tighten in anticipation:

    Just then something long, round, limp and black fell upon her shoulders and slithered to the floor beside her. (3)

    We can't help but wonder—what is going on? And what is going to happen between Delia and Sykes?

    After being planted early on, the mere idea of a snake becomes a tool of suspense and Hurston doesn't disappoint us. The final scenes in "Sweat," in which Sykes is trapped alone with the serpent, shakes us to the core:

    The rattling ceased for a moment as he stood paralyzed. He waited. It seemed that the snake waited also. (102)

    With masterful prose like this, we bet Hurston and Stephen King could have been good buddies had they lived during the same period.

  • Genre

    Drama; Family Drama

    Most of the drama in this story arises from the dirty and disastrous marriage between Delia and Sykes Jones. Conflict and emotion often come out through their heated and super colorful arguments. Take this doozy when Sykes tells Delia:

    You looks jes' lak de devvul's doll -baby tuh me. (81)

    To which Delia responds:

    Yo' ole black hide don't look lak nothin' tuh me, but uh passle uh wrinkled up rubber, wid yo' big ole yeahs flappin' on each side lak uh paih uh buzzard wings. (82)

    Of course, drama also comes from actions and events in "Sweat," like when Delia notices the soap box Sykes brings home and which holds her worst nightmare: a rattlesnake. The shortness of this story makes every event, minor or major, feel like a blow in the gut—in the best of ways, of course.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The story's title, "Sweat," seems pretty straightforward, right? The story takes place during summertime in Florida, when it's hot enough to make a reptile break a sweat. The fact that Delia is a manual laborer gives us the idea that she probably sweats a lot, too, washing all those clothes all day.

    Then there's that famous line:

    Sweat, sweat, sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat! (18)

    When Delia says this, we know she's had enough of the old way of life. It marks a change in her character, almost like a rebirth—a baptism in her own sweat and tears.

    Sweat is also a reminder of the not-so-clean things in Delia's life—namely, her husband Sykes. If it weren't for him, she'd probably work less and cry less. Interestingly enough, by the end of the story, the sweat has been washed away, cleaned up, and removed.

    What about that last scene of "Sweat"? Are we surprised that Delia waits under the shade of the Chinaberry tree, a rare moment of rest?

    Well, with everything leading up to this moment, it's easy to understand why Delia isn't helping Sykes. It's not like she had some sort of snake antidote she could have used; the only possible thing she could have done is give Sykes emotional support, or perhaps a hand to squeeze. But why should she do that, especially when her husband has never offered any emotional support in fifteen years of marriage? Our verdict for Delia: Not guilty.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    She could scarcely reach the Chinaberry tree, where she waited in the growing heat while inside she knew the cold river was creeping up and up to extinguish that eye which must know by now that she knew. (108)

    Whew, this ending has a lot going on; so much so, we just couldn't help ourselves and had to make a list—it'll make it all easier to break down:

    1. Powerful images: Imagine waiting under a Chinaberry tree—a pretty peaceful act—while your husband is dying inside your house. Hurston never tells us whether this is right or wrong, but the idea (and image) of resting under a shady tree makes us feel like Delia will finally have some relief.
    2. Sensory details: Up until now, the entirety of "Sweat" has been focused on heat. So why say that a "cold river was creeping up and up"? Maybe because after death our corpses turn cold. First, we feel relief at the image of Delia resting under the shady tree, but now we feel chilly and creeped out. See what we mean about not knowing whether what Delia did was right or wrong?
  • Setting

    Small town in central Florida, 1920s

    Summertime in rural Florida: a land of snakes, gators, and sweltering heat. Okay, perhaps it's not the ideal place and time for a vacay, but it's perfect for a short story. The fact that Hurston spent many years in Eatonville, Florida as a child and often went back for visits and to perform research for anthropological studies adds a layer of authenticity to it all.

    It should be of interest to us, too, that when Hurston was commissioned by the US government to write a guidebook for the state of Florida, she wrote five paragraphs about Eatonville, in which she steered readers to the store owned by Eatonville's first mayor, a Mr. Joe Clarke. Sound familiar?

    In "Sweat," the village men on Joe Clarke's porch, "[…] chewed cane listlessly. They did not hurl the cane-knots as usual. They let them dribble over the edge of the porch" (30). Something about this description tells us Hurston was talking from personal experience.

    We love the setting not only because it's based on a real place, but also because it's a place unlike anywhere we've been to, fact or fiction. How can we not become intrigued with a town of historic and cultural significance, where heat "[…] streamed down like a million hot arrows, smiting all things living upon the earth. Grass withered, leaves browned, snakes went blind in shedding and men and dogs went mad. Dog days!" (61).

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (5) Tree Line

    We base the toughness of "Sweat" on two main criteria: the 'What-The-Heck-Are-They-Saying Factor' and the sometimes-lofty religious ideals/allusions. While we're all pretty aware of the difference between good and evil, we're certainly not all that accustomed to Deep South accents. Our advice? Read the dialogue out loud. Not only will it make more sense, you'll find the words whimsical, musical and oftentimes downright hilarious.

  • Writing Style

    Straightforward

    Give It To Us Straight, Zora

    The voice of the narrator likes to spout her version of the truth with little frills or fuss. We get lots of background info, setting, and pertinent details without any danger of being confused:

    It was a hot, hot day near the end of July. The village men on Joe Clarke's porch even chewed cane listlessly. (30)

    Easy to tell what's going on, right? A bunch of dudes on a porch, chillaxin' and hanging out. Hurston doesn't hesitate to get straight to the point.

    Colloquial, Playful

    Lyrical Masters

    Almost every word of dialogue in "Sweat" sounds like it comes straight out of the mouth of someone born and raised in small-town, central Florida in the early 1900s. Their words have a musical and even mythical effect:

    Ah jus' wisht Ah'd a' caught 'im 'dere! Ah'd a' made his hips ketch on fiah down dat shell road. (37)

    And:

    Dat niggah wouldn't fetch nothin' heah tuh save his rotten neck, but he kin run thew whut Ah brings quick enough. Now he done toted off nigh on tuh haff uh box uh matches. (88)

    Although we definitely have a few "what did she say?" moments, we still admire Hurston's style for its creativity, playfulness and authenticity to Southern dialect—even more specifically, the African-American dialect.

    In fact, now that we think about it, isn't it kind of true that even though we all speak English, we don't always understand each other? Life, like fiction, is all about interpretations.

  • Clothes

    The touch, the feel, of cotton!

    So [Delia] collected the soiled clothes on Saturday when she returned the clean things. (1)

    Our protagonist is a hardworking washwoman, a profession that was a whole lot more work back in the day when there were no washers (gah!) or dryers. She takes pride in her work and the clean clothes can be seen as a symbol of her purity as a person and her noble work habits.

    Unfortunately, Sykes makes more work for her by kicking the clothes around:

    Sykes, you quit grindin' dirt into these clothes! How can Ah git through by Sat'day if Ah don't start on Sunday? (15)

    The mess Sykes makes with Delia's clothes is symbolic of the mess he makes in their marriage. Where she tries to keep things neat and put together, he dirties, sullies and destroys.

  • Snakes

    For most people, snakes are pretty scary. They're like slithering tails with eyes and they freak out even the manliest of men (case in point: Indiana Jones and Samuel L. Jackson).

    What our lady Delia has is a snake phobia—she shakes, screams and nearly faints when the scaly beasts appear.

    So when Sykes's bring a rattler home, she says:

    Naw, now Syke, don't keep dat thing 'roun' heah tuh skeer me tuh death. [...] Thass de biggest snake Ah evah did see. Kill 'im Syke, please. (67)

    The snake itself is a symbol of Sykes and the venom he spits at Delia in the form of verbal, psychological and physical abuse. Keeping him around the house is just as dangerous as a venomous snake.

    When he brings home a snake, he goes too far and Delia kicks Sykes out once and for all:

    Ah hates you tuh de same degree dat Ah useter love yuh. (79)

    In a surprise twist of fate, the snake ends up biting and killing Sykes and saves Delia from an awful marriage. With this, Hurston seems to be warning that one's own evil will one day come back around to bite you.

  • Chinaberry Tree

    Delia waits for Sykes to die in the shade of her Chinaberry tree. She knows there is no hope for his survival and she makes no moves to help him.

    She could scarcely reach the Chinaberry tree, where she waited in the growing heat while inside she knew the cold river was creeping up and up to extinguish that eye which must know by now that she knew. (108)

    The image of Delia finding relief in the shade during a hot Florida morning symbolizes the arrival of calm and peace at the start of a new day. If Delia ever marries again, let's hope it'll be to a guy who brings home puppies instead of snakes.

  • Iron Skillet

    When Delia stands up to Sykes, a new woman emerges.

    She seized the iron skillet from the stove and struck a defensive pose, which act surprised him greatly, coming from her. It cowed him and he did not strike her as he usually did. (22)

    Yep, Delia's a changed woman and from here on out she speaks up for herself and eventually kicks Sykes out.

    An iron skillet can be pretty dangerous when wielded like a baseball bat. Getting slammed in the face with that could knock Sykes's teeth out. It's a symbolic and literal weapon against Sykes's threats of abuse and it reveals that Delia has the capacity to act in a violent manner.

    Also, have you ever heard the cringeworthy phrase, 'A woman's place is in the kitchen'? Hurston flips that idea on its head here, as Delia uses the skillet—a symbol of domesticity and, well, the kitchen—as a tool of empowerment.

    The skillet is large, heavy, and in the hands of an angry woman like Delia, it's definitely not something to laugh at.

  • The Bed

    In literature, the marriage bed often symbolizes sweet slumber, intimacy, and comfort—but Hurston has something a little different in mind when she wrote "Sweat." In this story, the bed is a reminder of an awful marriage that's getting worse every day.

    The bed is anything but comforting for Delia; rather, it's where she's bullied by Sykes and where she has her epiphany of her failed marriage:

    She was young and soft then, but now she thought of her knotty, muscled limbs, her harsh knuckly hands, and drew herself up into an unhappy little ball in the middle of the big feather bed. (26)

    Delia also receives the scare of her life on that big feather bed:

    She saw [the snake] pouring his awful beauty from the basket upon the bed. (91)

    Don't forget—Sykes's goes to escape the snake on the bed, his "ability to think had been flattened down to primitive instinct and he leaped--onto the bed" (103).

    (Un)Fortunately, the snake gets him anyway.

    The bed in "Sweat" is a place where truths are revealed. It's where Delia acknowledges the sad reality of her life and where Sykes meets the end of his. Sweet dreams.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person Omniscient 

    The narrator in "Sweat" is in smack in the middle of the hot, sweaty action of the story. While she obviously knows central Florida locals and their way of life, her voice is starkly different from that of the characters.

    This gives us a mixture of clear, formal narration with colloquial dialogue that reads just like a convo between real-life people. We think it's nothing short of genius. If "Sweat" were only written in formal language, it'd be drier than Florida summer grass; if it were pages of central 'Floridy' folk chatting with their thick slang, we'd probably go crazy.

    With a straightforward narrator we get observations like this:

    Delia's habitual meekness seemed to slip from her shoulders like a blown scarf. She was on her feet; her poor little body, her bare knuckly hands bravely defying the strapping hulk before her. (17)

    And with the characters, we get dialogue like this:

    Ah swear dat eight-rock couldn't kiss a sardine can Ah done throwed out de back do' 'way las' yeah. (36)

    Mixed together, this literary concoction transports us to a different time and place, leaving us illuminated, breathless and sticky from the sweat.

    • Plot Analysis

      Exposition (Initial Situation)

      So Fresh, So Clean

      Delia Jones is a hard working washwoman, a churchgoer, and an all-around good person. Unfortunately, she's married to a cold, violent man of little talents—except, of course, if you count courting and dating multiple women at one time a talent (which we certainly don't). This dirty life all takes place in small-town Florida, a less-than idyllic place to live post-slavery and pre-women's rights.

      Conflict

      Domestic Bliss? Not so much.

      There's conflict from the get go when Delia realizes Sykes has taken her horse without asking, but things get really hairy when she defends herself from his threats with an iron-skillet. We don't know if she'd actually hit him, but just the fact that she stands up for herself makes Sykes, "a little awed by this new Delia" (25).

      Complication

      Snake in a box

      Delia may have decided to turn the other cheek and not let Sykes bring her down anymore, but that doesn't necessarily mean she's won the war. Out of sheer nastiness, Sykes comes back with a less-than-romantic gift—a rattlesnake. This is the straw that breaks the camel's back. Delia has finally taken all the horse-poop she can muster and says that she now hates Sykes to the same degree that she used to love him. 

      Turning point

      Karma is a big brown snake…

      …And it aint' too forgiving. When the snake escapes and drives Delia out of her house and into the barn to hide, Sykes comes back. Does he hope to find her dead? We're not sure, but we do know that he's in the wrong place at the wrong time—it's pitch black in the house and he doesn't have a match. As soon as the rattler starts to whir, we know things aren't looking too good for nasty ol' Sykes.

      Resolution

      This is (er, was) a man's world!

      Sykes's has finally met his reptilian match and we're left with a pretty open and shut case. Delia sees Sykes struggle, hears his screams and pleas and almost goes to help him: "A surge of pity too strong to support bore her away from that eye" […] (108). Do we think she could have helped him in some way? Is she right or wrong in her actions? That, dear reader, is up to you to decide.

    • Allusions

      Historical References

      • Jesus
      • God