Study Guide

Sweat Quotes

  • Marriage

    […] humming a song in a mournful key, but wondering through it all where Sykes, her husband, had gone with her horse and buckboard. (2)

    It's Sunday night—do you know where your husband is? Well, if you're Delia you can probably take a wild guess that Sykes is up to no good. The fact that she wonders where her husband is, and that he's taken her horse and her buckboard, shows us that this marriage is pretty light on trust.

    "If you such a big fool dat you got to have a fit over a earth worm or a string, Ah don't keer how bad Ah skeer you." (6)

    Thanks, hubby! Here, Sykes reasons that because Delia is scared of his bullwhip, she deserves the shock. This sort of attitude and action add fuel to the flames of his bad guy status—and not the cool leather-jacket motorcycle-riding bad guy, either. We're talking the ugly, lazy, and angry dude that nobody really wants to deal with.

    His wife gave a little scream of dismay, and quickly gathered [the clothes] together again. (14)

    Why does Sykes come home and kick his wife's work around? We think it's a pretty telling action of his character. He doesn't respect his wife or her work and is probably intimidated by the fact that she's the real man of the house (i.e. breadwinner).

    "Ah'm so tired of you Ah don't know whut to do." (23)

    Sykes says this to Delia and we wonder why he doesn't just leave. Maybe it has something to do with that nice, big, comfy house and all the free cooking. Just a hunch.

    She lay awake, gazing upon the debris that cluttered their matrimonial trail [...] Anything like flowers had long ago been drowned in the salty stream that had been pressed from her heart. (25)

    Okay, now our hearts are breaking! It seems totally unfair that Delia, or any woman for that matter, should have to be with someone as cruel as Sykes. The image of her tears flowing like a 'salty stream' is also a nice metaphor—not much can grow with salty water, nor can a relationship grow without love.

    "Ah been married to you fur fifteen years, and Ah been takin' in washin' for fifteen years. Sweat, sweat, sweat." (18)

    Wait, fifteen years? Is it just us, or does that seem like an awfully long time to put up with a no-good mooch husband? Then again, it is the 1920s and the fact is, she's standing up to him now, and better now than never.

    She had brought love to the union and he had brought a longing after the flesh. (25)

    Okay, so Delia brings something good and pure like love to the marriage, while Sykes brings an appetite for lust and sex. Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and Delia may have been hoping he'd change all along. In this case, old habits die hard (exhibit A: big Bertha).

    After that she was able to build spiritual earthworks against her husband. His shells could no longer reach her. (26)

    If a 'spiritual earthworks' (something like a shield, a wall, or a protective layer) will help Delia survive alongside Sykes, then we say go for it. Spirituality can be a powerful weapon, especially if you believe in God and the Devil.

    "Ah hates you, Sykes," she said calmly. "Ah hates you tuh de same degree dat Ah useter love yuh." (79)

    Does anyone else think of this as an "Aha!" moment? This is one of the best lines of "Sweat" because Delia completely speaks her mind, and her words are a sign that he has abused her one too many times. In other words, adios Sykes!

    "Delia, is dat you Ah heah?" (107)

    These words, spoken by a desperate and recently snake-bitten Sykes, are one of the nicest things he ever says to her. Ever. We, along with Delia, are not exactly sympathetic to the fatal mess he's gotten himself into, bitten by the very rattler he brought into Delia's house to scare her.

  • Society & Class

    At that moment, Sykes and Bertha arrived. A determined silence fell on the porch and the melon was put away again. (46)

    It's pretty striking that after talking so much smack about Sykes, not one guy says a word to his face about flaunting his mistress around. Their silence says a whole bunch about society and, more generally, the frustrating (in)actions of men.

    The men returned soon after they left, and held their watermelon feast. (52)

    Huh? Why do Joe Clarke's customers scatter when Sykes arrives and reappear right after? We think Hurston is saying something pretty critical about society in this scene—people sure know how to talk the talk, but few can walk the walk.

    The village soon heard that Sykes had the snake, and came to see and ask questions. (69)

    Hold on just a minute…are they coming to ask questions about the snake or about why he'd bring it home in the first place when his wife has a phobia? All of their questions are about the snake, where Sykes caught it, and what they'd do with it. They ask absolutely no questions about Delia, which shows the lack of real support in the community.

    The village men on Joe Clarke's porch even chewed cane listlessly. They did not hurl the cane-knots as usual. (30)

    Okay, so it's Saturday and maybe these guys don't work, but Delia does. We get the sneaking suspicion that these men are unemployed. Again, Hurston is making a broader comment on small-town life and society at large. Are the men unemployed by choice or are there just no jobs out there for an African-American male?

    There's plenty men dat takes a wife lak dey do a joint uh sugar-cane. It's round, juicy an' sweet when dey gits it. But dey squeeze an' grind, squeeze an' grind an' wring tell dey wring every drop uh pleasure dat's in 'em out. (40)

    Joe Clarke preaches to the men on his porch about the vermin sometimes found amongst men. At the same time, he's also preaching to us (by way of Hurston), telling all men to behave and all women to watch out. Okay, maybe these guys aren't entirely full of it—this is some pretty wise advice.

    A grunt of approval went around the porch. But the heat was melting their civic virtue, and Elijah Moseley began to bait Joe Clarke. (42)

    We all know the feeling: when it's so hot outside you just can't bring yourself to do anything. But what if that happened to you every day? We're sure it'd be hard to get much of anything done. The fact that the heat drives the men into laziness tells us something—and we're not sure it's a good thing. What might Hurston be trying to say here about 'civic virtue'?

    She avoided the villagers and meeting places in her efforts to be blind and deaf. (59)

    Ah, the old ignorance is bliss trick. Delia tries super hard to not get mixed up in the Sykes-Bertha affair, but it's impossible not to, especially when Bertha comes calling at the front door. Talk about no class.

    Ah'm goin' tuh de white folks bout you, mah young man, de very nex' time you lay yo' han's on me. (82)

    In the 1920s, threatening to turn your African American husband over to the white police was a dangerous claim. In some places, it might even carry some clout today.

    Perhaps her threat to go to the white folks had frightened Sykes! Perhaps he was sorry! Fifteen years of misery and suppression had brought Delia to the place where she would hope anything that looked towards a way over or through her wall of inhibitions. (86)

    This quote shows us just how segregated life was back in the time this story takes place—going to the white folks is literally one of Delia's last resorts. It might be hard to imagine for some of us, but the rampant and implicit segregation reflected in this story demonstrates just how much things have changed in the last 90 years.

    Orlando with its doctors was too far. (108)

    We think this short line is noteworthy because it reveals just how isolated this small town in Florida was. Life wasn't easy, nor was it convenient. A simple need like going to the hospital is not so simple if you live in a rural place with no car. And if a snake bites you, well, you're pretty much a goner.

  • Men & Masculinity

    Then she saw that it was the big bull whip her husband liked to carry when he drove. (3)

    Um…overcompensation, much? Any man who needs to drag around a whip is trying too hard in our books. Not only is it a phallic symbol, it proves that Sykes enjoys intimidating and scaring his wife.

    You sho is one aggravatin' nigger woman! (8)

    Woah, Sykes. Why exactly is your wife agravating? Because she feeds and clothes you? Because she works while you scamper and 'stomp' with your lover in Winter Park? This statement is totally unfair and unjustified…but that sums up much of what Sykes says.

    Don't gimme no lip neither, else Ah'll throw 'em out and put mah fist up side yo' head to boot. (16)

    We never actually see Sykes carry through with a beating, but he sure threatens Delia a lot. This sweet statement comes right after he kicks her clothes around and she tells him to stop.

    Ah oughter mash you in yo' mouf fuh drawing dat skillet on me. (27)

    Sykes strikes again. Now he's really mad because Delia threatened him with an iron skillet, giving him a taste of his own medicine. It's important to notice how he uses the word 'oughter' (ought to)—he's too awed by her bravery to challenge her.

    The village men on Joe Clarke's porch even chewed cane listlessly. (30)

    Where are these men getting all this time to chew cane, and why are there no women enjoying this yummy treat? Hurston says a lot about men with a story in which men don't do much but talk. Get up, get out, and go do something, dudes.

    Did Ah tell yuh 'bout him come sidlin' roun' mah wife--bringin' her a basket uh pecans outa his yard fuh a present? Yessir, mah wife! (37)

    Here, Merchant tells the other men on Joe Clarke's porch about Sykes trying to woo his wife. We gotta wonder why Sykes is still alive if he's threatened the masculinity of Merchant and other men around town. Our theory? Hurston's pointing out the flaws in men (or, you know, human beings) in that they often say one thing and do another.

    Just then Delia drove past on her way home, as Sykes was ordering magnificently for Bertha. It pleased him for Delia to see. (49)

    Sykes has absolutely no shame being out in the open with his mistress, Bertha. Not only is this a cruel act on Sykes's part, it's scary how pleased he is with himself when Delia rides by on her horse and sees them.

    Dis is mah town an' you sho' kin have it. (58)

    Something tells us Sykes is a bit delusional when he says this to Bertha. This guy loves feeling like he's got power, even when he clearly doesn't. Sykes has no home, no job and no money—at least, none of his own. The only power he has is what he forces on Delia.

    Ah ain't gut tuh do nuthin' uh de kin'--fact is Ah aint got tuh do nothin' but die. (66)

    This is Sykes response to Delia's pleas to take the snake out of the house. The retort is selfish, childish and just plain cruel. This is the point when we really, really don't like him.

    "Naw, Walt, y'll jes' don't understand dese diamon' backs lak Ah do," said Sykes in a superior tone of voice. (73)

    This is what Sykes says when he brings a snake home, positively gloating at his reptile trapping skills. The village comes to see if it's true and he struts his stuff like a peacock, bragging about something that really isn't very impressive to begin with. Oh well, we all know what he's got coming.

  • Suffering & Struggle

    She was on her feet; her poor little body, her bare knuckly hands bravely defying the strapping hulk before her. (17)

    Okay, it's pretty easy to be on Team Delia and not Team Sykes. It's the perfect image of weak vs. strong, like the mouse vs. the lion, or David vs. Goliath. On the outside, it seems like she's got little chance against the hulk.

    Ah been takin' in washin' for fifteen years. Sweat, sweat, sweat! (18)

    Here, Delia stands up for herself and defines her role as the bread-winner and laborer in the marriage. Sticking your hands in tubs and cleaning for fifteen years sounds pretty awful; doing it with a husband like Sykes sounds agonizing, and she drives the point home with the repetition of the word 'sweat.'

    Mah tub of suds is filled yo' belly with vittles more times than yo' hands is filled it. (20)

    Delia has fed Sykes for fifteen years and receives no thanks. What's that about? Perhaps it has something to do with laziness—he got used to a certain lifestyle and then just decided to never change it. Of course, Delia didn't help matters by staying quiet for so long, but better late than never, right?

    She had the memory of his numerous trips to Orlando with all of his wages when he had returned to her penniless, even before the first year had passed. (25)

    Delia knew Sykes was trouble in the first year? Oy. We think a lot of Delia's inaction can be explained by the fact that the story takes place in the 1920s, when women had few rights or opportunities. It could also be due to her religious sense of duty, or the hope that maybe, just maybe, Sykes will change.

    Hot or col', rain or shine, jes ez reg'lar ez de weeks roll roun' Delia carries 'em an' fetches 'em on Sat'day. (32)

    Joe Lindsay—one of the porch customers—lets us know just how hard of a worker Delia is. There is a sense of respect and awe for her by the men. They sympathize and root for her, just like us. You go, girl.

    Delia's work-worn knees crawled over the earth in Gethsemane and up the rocks of Calvary many, many times during these months. (59)

    Ouch. The image of Delia crawling (although not literal) makes us wince. These months are full of suffering for Delia—living with Sykes while he spends her money on another woman, working all day every day, and trying not to succumb to the struggles in her life. Just hold on for one more day, Delia, hold on.

    "You done starved me an' Ah put up widcher, you done beat me an Ah took dat, but you done kilt all mah insides bringin' dat varmint heah." (76)

    The last straw for Delia comes when Sykes brings the snake home. This dirty and insensitive action pushes Delia to act and finally kick the guy out of her house. At least something good came out of his dumb idea.

    Fifteen years of misery and suppression had brought Delia to the place where she would hope anything that looked towards a way over or through her wall of inhibitions. (86)

    What exactly is Delia hoping for? We think she hopes Sykes will leave her alone by threatening to turn him over to the police. The fact that she doesn't really believe the white police will help her is significant to the time period of "Sweat"—African Americans were definitely not high on the priority list when it came to law enforcement.

    She could sit and reach through the bedposts--resting as she worked. (90)

    All Delia wants while she's cleaning and folding clothes is one tiny moment of rest. She sits on the bed and works, but before she can settle down, the snake appears. Hey, at least it probably got her adrenaline running.

    […] dawn, a huge brown hand seizing the window stick, great dull blows upon the wooden floor punctuating the gibberish of sound long after the rattle of the snake had abruptly subsided. (104)

    This quote is the only time we see Sykes suffer in "Sweat." We know he's been bitten at least once by the snake and is in a world of pain. The real challenge of this scene is how to react and how to feel. We know that Sykes is no good, and yet, we are led to feel slightly uncomfortable at the feeling of relief that comes with his death.

  • Religion

    Sunday night after church, she sorted them and put the white things to soak. (1)

    Right from the first paragraph we know how important work and church are to Delia—one feeds her belly and the other feeds her soul. As the story progresses, we see that religion and faith are just as important as her job in getting her through life.

    "Ah aint for no fuss t'night Sykes. Ah just come from taking sacrament at the church house." (12)

    Delia uses church as a reason to not fight with her husband, but to no avail. This quote places Delia and Sykes at odds with each other—she tries to maintain harmony and peace, while he tries to pick a fight. If she's a saint, Sykes is definitely a sinner. This isn't the only time we might be led to make this comparison, either.

    "Yeah, you just come from de church house on a Sunday night, but heah you is gone to work on them clothes." (13)

    Sykes tries to make Delia feel bad for working and tries to exert power over her by forbidding her to work on a Sunday—it is the Sabbath, after all. But, hello, if she doesn't work, how would he eat and how would she pay for the house? Maybe if Sykes did a little more than just shout and cheat she could afford to take time off. What a loser.

    "Anyhow, Ah done promised Gawd and a couple of other men, Ah aint gointer have it in mah house." (16)

    Wait—Sykes is religious, too? He must be talking about the village men, but we know for a fact they don't like him, so he must be just talking out of his backside…if you know what we mean. And how does he figure it's his house? Sykes doesn't pay for anything and has a lot of nerve posing as a devout, property-owning man.

    "Oh well, whatever goes over the Devil's back, is got to come under his belly. Sometime or ruther, Sykes, like everybody else, is gointer reap his sowing." (26)

    Delia is convinced that either God or the Devil will eventually punish Sykes for all of his bad deeds. We're not sure if this faith is a good coping mechanism, or a way for Delia to avoid taking matters into her own hands.

    "Dat's de reason Ah got mah letter fum de church an' moved mah membership tuh Woodbridge--so Ah don't haf tuh take no sacrament wid yuh." (79)

    Oh, snap—it looks like Delia has finally found the way to free herself from Sykes. By moving her church membership she is physically and spiritually severing herself from Sykes and her old life.

    She stayed to the night service--"love feast"-- which was very warm and full of spirit. (84)

    Hmm, sounds like the opposite of what's going on in Delia's house. The church is like chicken noodle soup for her tired soul—it's a way for her to feel some sort of love in her life, because she sure ain't getting any from Sykes.

    "Whut's de mattah, ol' satan, you aint kickin' up yo' racket?" (86)

    Nope, Delia's not talking to Sykes here; she's talking to the snake. Unfortunately, 'satan' is not where he's supposed to be (in his box) and has escaped, appearing in the most sacred of places—the bed.

    "Well, Ah done de bes' Ah could. If things aint right, Gawd knows taint mah fault." (94)

    We're with Delia on this one. If we were God, we'd be on her side, too. She's been a good, faithful wife for 15 years, cooking, cleaning, keeping house, and going to church. In fact, in many people's books, she's a model wife, and Sykes definitely doesn't deserve her.

    "Mah Gawd!" She heard him moan, "Mah Gawd fum Heben!" (107)

    Oh Sykes, there's probably no use in pleading for help from God when all your life you've been a jerk. You cheat on your wife and beat her, and you're a glutton and a liar. Good luck on the other side.

  • Gender

    But she was a wash-woman, and Monday morning meant a great deal to her. (1)

    Right off the bat, we're introduced to Delia's strong work ethic; it appears to be central to her identity. As the story continues, we come to learn that she works just as hard—or harder—than all the men in her hometown, and most definitely shows up her no-good husband. We like her already.

    She lifted her eyes to the door and saw him standing there bent over with laughter at her fright. (4)

    Ugh. Here, Sykes is laughing at Delia for being scared of his bullwhip. This is a classic case of bullying, something he likes to do quite often to his wife to exert control and continue to take advantage of her. From the moment we meet him, we can see Sykes is a disrespectful, pitiful man who uses his might to intimidate Delia.

    "You sho is one aggravatin' nigger woman!" he declared and stepped into the room. She resumed her work and did not answer him at once." (8)

    Insults are all this guy seems to be able to offer. Is it Delia's fault she was born a woman? No. Is it Sykes's fault that he treats her poorly? Yes. All she's trying to do is work and all he's trying to do is cause problems. We think Sykes is just intimidated by his wife's impressive ability to provide for the two of them. We never said he was a good guy.

    He stepped roughly upon the whitest pile of things, kicking them helter-skelter as he crossed the room. His wife gave a little scream of dismay, and quickly gathered them together again. (14)

    What's wrong with this scene? Delia's working and Sykes's destroying. Hurston is showing a big divide between the sexes in "Sweat"—the men make messes and women are left to clean them up, literally.

    She seized the iron skillet from the stove and struck a defensive pose, which act surprised him greatly, coming from her. (21)

    Normally, we're all about peace and love, but we can't help getting emotional at this act of defiance by Delia. She's had it once and for all and defends herself with a weapon, tired of being threatened by Sykes and tired of him sneaking around with Bertha. She's also using a skillet—a symbol of domesticity—to make her threat. It's like she's grabbing her femininity by the handle and wielding it like a sword; It's a very empowering scene.

    "Ah'm so tired of you Ah don't know whut to do. Gawd! how Ah hates skinny wimmen!" (23)

    First Sykes calls Delia an aggravating woman, and now he's insulting her for being skinny. Maybe he doesn't like skinny women because it's a sign of overwork and it reminds him that he's lazy? Or maybe he's just an evil man desperate to hurt his wife however he can.

    "There's plenty men dat takes a wife lak dey do a joint uh sugar-cane. It's round, juicy an' sweet when dey gits it. But dey squeeze an' grind, squeeze an' grind an' wring tell dey wring every drop uh pleasure dat's in 'em out." (40)

    Amen, Joe Clarke. Here, he uses this beautiful metaphor to describe how some guys treat their women worse than a piece of sugar cane—they objectify them, use them, and spit them out when they're done. Still, despite his wise insight, when Sykes appears, Joe's mouth stays shut. If he sees so many men mistreating their women, why doesn't he say something?

    "Ah aint gut tuh do nuthin' uh de kin'--fact is Ah aint got tuh do nothin' but die." (66)

    This is how Sykes responds to Delia when she asks him to take the snake out of her house. Here he shows how much of a macho man he is, telling Delia that the only thing he has to do is die. Ah, if only he knew what he had coming his way…

    Nobody but a woman could tell how she knew this even before she struck the match. But she did and it put her into a new fury. (89)

    Delia realizes that Bertha has been in her house while in the kitchen. It's a woman's intuition—a feeling she has that she just knows is true—and it makes her extremely mad. We don't blame her, either. It's bad enough to cheat, but it's just straight wrong to bring the lover into the home.

    Outside Delia heard a cry that might have come from a maddened chimpanzee, a stricken gorilla. All the terror, all the horror, all the rage that man possibly could express, without a recognizable human sound. (104)

    In one of the final scenes of "Sweat" Delia hears her husband suffering and dying, and does nothing to help him. And the extra special touch here is that Hurston compares Sykes to a chimpanzee and a gorilla, something less than human—perfectly fitting to his character.