It was eleven o'clock of a Spring night in Florida. (1)
The first line of "Sweat" is concise and introduces us to a very specific and important part of the story: the setting. We learn that the protagonist, Delia Jones, is a washwoman and that her husband, Sykes, has disappeared with her horse and cart.
In the middle of sorting clothes, "something long, round, limp and black fell upon [Delia's] shoulders and slithered to the floor beside her" (3). No, it's not a snake (her worst fear), but Sykes's bullwhip. He berates her for bringing 'white folks' clothes into the house and tells her to quit working. When she doesn't, he kicks the clothes around. This guy sounds like a real joy to be around, doesn't he?
A frustrated Delia defends her job and herself with an iron skillet—she's not messing around. This causes a flabbergasted Sykes to leave the house (score). Although he treats her like dirt and is sleeping with another woman by the name of Bertha, Delia vows not to let her no-good hubby bring her down.
It seems as if most of the men in town dislike Sykes—they talk about hanging him, how much of a womanizer he is, and a bunch of other stuff. When he comes into Joe Clarke's shop with Bertha, however, they all grow mute. It's a curious case of a bad man allowed to stay bad by all parties, and we're not quite sure why he gets away with so much dirt.
Things go from bad to worse on the marriage front when Sykes brings a rattlesnake home. Delia asks Sykes to kill it, but of course he won't. One day, the snake escapes and Delia flees the house. Sykes comes home and the snake strikes him with a fatal bite. Delia watches and listens to him suffer, waiting patiently for him to die.
- It's a Sunday night, springtime in Florida. Delia Jones sorts clothes in the kitchen for her job as wash-woman.
- She wonders where her husband Sykes has gone with her horse.
- Something lands on her shoulders and she thinks it's a snake—it's actually Sykes's bullwhip.
- Delia screams at him and he laughs, calls her a fool, and says he doesn't care how bad he scares her. Nice, guy, huh?
- She asks where he's been with her horse, but he changes the subject and scolds her for bringing 'white folks'' clothes into the house.
- Sykes kicks the clothes and says he'll throw them all out. He also threatens to beat Delia. It's pretty harsh.
- Although she's described as 'meek,' Delia stands up to Sykes and says her sweat has paid for everything—house and food included. Oh, and she threatens him with an iron skillet.
- He storms out and she contemplates their messy, failed marriage and falls asleep.
- Sykes comes home in the middle of the night, presumably back from a night of cheating. We think it's time for someone to learn a lesson…
- Summertime and the living's…pretty hard and hot. Delia works and sweats while Sykes loafs and cheats.
- Meanwhile, the men on Joe Clarke's porch play the part of the peanut gallery and criticize Sykes. July turns to August. Bertha keeps hanging around Sykes, who continues to bicker and antagonize Delia.
- Sykes's brings a rattler home and Delia begs him to take it away.
- His response? He doesn't have to do anything but die. Looks like he's not going listen to Delia; the snake is here to stay.
- Delia finally reaches her wit's end and tells Sykes their marriage is over.
- Say whaaaaaaat? Sykes's is shocked and leaves.
- "There lay the snake in the basket" (91). The sly little devil gets in Delia's clothes and she flees to the barn.
- Sykes comes back to the house before dawn searching for matches.
- The snake strikes and fatally bites Sykes in the kitchen.
- Delia sees and hears everything from outside the window, but does nothing.
- Sykes calls to her, "Delia, is dat you Ah heah?" (107).
- Delia waits underneath the Chinaberry tree while Sykes's meets a most unpleasant and yet most fitting death.