Study Guide

Sweat Themes

  • Marriage

    Ah, marriage. To have and to hold, in sickness and in health…and through beatings and adultery? Let's just say—the union between Delia and Sykes in "Sweat" is by no means a pretty one. We find ourselves scratching our heads at how the pair lasted so long, especially with such a nasty start:

    Two months after the wedding, he had given her the first brutal beating. (25)

    Sounds like red flags to us, but hey, who are we to judge?

    Questions About Marriage

    1. Why do you think Delia stays with Sykes for 15 years?
    2. Do you think Delia is a good wife?
    3. Was it easy or hard to get a divorce in the 1920s? Do you think this has something to do with Delia staying with Sykes?
    4. Can we find any redeeming qualities in Sykes as a husband?

    Chew on This

    "Sweat" is a story that encourages women to be single.

    Lots of marriages were unhappy marriages in the 1920s because men and women were not considered equal.

  • Society & Class

    "Sweat," like many of Hurston's stories, focuses on a very specific sector of society—Southern, working class African Americans. Another distinction to this micro-society is the fact that we never see white people—we barely even hear about them. We know that Delia does their laundry, but she never talks with them or about them. That being said, we think it's pretty daring of Hurston to have purposefully left out a specific part of society (the white majority) to focus on the minority.

    Questions About Society & Class

    1. Judging by the characters presented, are the most of the towns folk lower class? Why or why not?
    2. Why do you think Hurston focuses on Delia, a working woman?
    3. How are whites viewed in the context of the story?
    4. How are African American men viewed in "Sweat"? More specifically, how is Sykes seen by his peers?

    Chew on This

    Delia is an ideal African American woman while Sykes is nowhere near an ideal African American man.

    "Sweat" plays with and uses stereotypes of African Americans to add depth to the culture.

  • Men & Masculinity

    Florida in the 1920s seems to be a world dominated by men who don't do much of anything—unless you consider cheating, abusing, gossiping and spitting sugar cane something. (For the record—we don't). If Hurston was alive and well, we'd call her up and ask her what's up with these men in "Sweat"—are they based on real people she knows? Based on previous boyfriends or husbands? Because they sure don't seem like the ones you'd want to bring home to momma.

    Questions About Men & Masculinity

    1. Why do none of the men (minus Joe Clarke) seem employed?
    2. Why does Sykes stay with Delia if he seems to like Bertha better?
    3. Compare and contrast the way Sykes treats Delia and how he treats Bertha.
    4. How do the rest of the men view Sykes?

    Chew on This

    Insecure men use violence and power to seem manlier.

    The only real man in the story is Joe Clarke because he tells the truth and doesn't make outrageous claims.

  • Suffering & Struggle

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

    With these lines from "Sweat," we completely understand and sympathize with Delia Jones. She seems to have the worst life ever, full of endless manual labor, physical exhaustion, abuse and tears. Her only salvation is going to church, and even if you're not the praying type, we can all appreciate how it makes Delia's life a bit easier. Hey, if we were with Sykes, we might become churchgoers ourselves.

    Questions About Suffering & Struggle

    1. Why does Delia continue to suffer with Sykes? Why not let him go?
    2. How could Delia ease her suffering besides divorcing Sykes?
    3. Do you think Delia would suffer more or less as a single woman?
    4. What other characters demonstrate suffering and struggle, if any?

    Chew on This

    To reach salvation, one has to first go through a long period of suffering.

    Delia becomes a better person as a result of her struggle in life.

  • Religion

    It's always amazing how much pain one human being is able to endure, and Delia Jones in "Sweat" is no exception. She runs her own household, works full time, feeds and clothes her husband, and deals with his daily verbal, mental, and physical abuse. How could anyone keep on with their lives given such dire circumstances? For Delia, it's all thanks to G-O-D. Delia's faith is a big part of her life, and Hurston's story is ripe with allusions to religious symbols, themes, and metaphors. In fact, the story itself could be seen as one big testament to the power of faith, as Sykes' sins catch up with him in the end while Delia's devotion brings her to a better place.

    Questions About Religion

    1. How would the marriage of Sykes and Delia be considered in the church?
    2. Do you think Delia stays with Sykes out of a sense of religious duty?
    3. What comfort does Delia get from God? Mention quotes from the text.
    4. Is Delia's faith a help or an excuse for why she is still with Sykes?

    Chew on This

    Without faith in God, Delia would not have survived her marriage to Sykes.

    Before breaking up with Sykes, Delia was not a true believer.

  • Gender

    Gender is a central theme to "Sweat," like the big, scaly snake that Sykes brings back to the house—you simply can't ignore it. In the 1920s American south, being a woman meant you'd most likely face a lifetime of prejudice, restrictions and discrimination. Given this historical context, we can see what makes Delia such a remarkable and powerful character. Not only is she able to survive her gender-based oppression, she's able to triumph. Now that's what we call girl power—you go, Delia! Beyoncé would be proud.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Why do you think the only woman with dialogue in "Sweat" is Delia Jones? What effect does that have on you as a reader?
    2. How would you categorize or describe Bertha? What sort of women is she?
    3. What do the men do in "Sweat"?
    4. Do you think Delia Jones is an exceptional woman, given the historical context (1920's rural American south) of the story?

    Chew on This

    Differences in gender continue because both men and women allow it.

    Delia Jones standing up to Sykes is a revolutionary move for both the 1920s and today.