Sweat (short story)

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Zora Neale Hurston, the author of Sweat

Sweat is a short story by the American writer Zora Neale Hurston, first published in 1926.[1] The story revolves around a washerwoman and her unemployed, insecure husband.

Robert E. Hemenway, the Chancellor of University of Kansas and the author of a biography of Zora Neale Hurston, praised Sweat as "a remarkable work, her best fiction of the period".[2]


Delia is a washerwoman who works long hours in a small Central Florida village. Her husband Sykes does not work, yet he resents that Delia cleans "white folks'" clothes in their home. Sykes scares his wife of fifteen years by using her fear of snakes. The marriage is an abusive one, ever since Sykes began beating Delia two months after marrying. Observers in the town remark how the once-beautiful Delia has lost her shine because of her abusive husband. With that said, Delia has come to the conclusion that she does not need Sykes nor his abuse, particularly considering it is her wages that paid for their home.

Tired of Delia and seeking out freedom with his "portly" mistress Bertha, Sykes hatches a plan to poison Delia by planting a rattlesnake in her washing clothes. In a bit of karmic fate, however, it is Sykes who is poisoned by the rattlesnake, fatally, in the neck. In response, Delia sits meditatively below a chinaberry tree waiting for her husband to expire, and ignoring his pleas for aid.


Delia is an abused wife and her jaded view of Sykes and his mistreatment of her grows as the story progresses. Delia comes to feel the same way about her marriage as Sykes does: that the relationship has run its course. Delia portrays a woman from the Deep South in the first half of the 20th Century who comes to discover freedom as independence from men.
Sykes is a stereotypical abusive husband. He physically and mentally abuses Delia, takes her income while failing to make his own, and has an affair on the side. Despite being out of work, for three months he has paid his mistress Bertha's rent. After he has "wrung every drop of pleasure" out of Delia, he plots to poison her with a rattlesnake, but the plan backfires after he is fatally bitten in the neck.


Domestic abuse
Sykes abuses Delia physically by beating her, economically by taking her income, and emotionally by putting her down for her body type. The story investigates the psychological effects of an abusive relationship.

Empowerment and Survival

The working life versus the trifling life
The story's title "Sweat" refers to all the physical labor that Delia performs, which contrasts with Sykes' life of leisure and entitlement. The story does not refer to any job or income for Sykes, but he does somehow pay his mistress Bertha's rent, and he and his mistress even go on "stomps" -- probably dates at a nightclub.


The clothing represents Delia's hard work, but Sykes unfolds and steps on the whitest pile, which symbolizes his lack of care for her, as well as his entitlement considering that he lives on Delia's wages. The laundry is the symbol of the sweat and blood that she puts in day after day to earn her living.
Delia has a phobia of snakes, which Sykes uses to intimidate his wife. When Sykes uses a real rattlesnake in an attempt to poison her, which he sets outside the kitchen door in a wooden box, he is actually bitten in the neck, making the snake a symbol for karma. Snakes are also a biblical symbol for evil and being that Delia is afraid of snakes she is in effect afraid of evil. Sykes uses a bullwhip to scare Delia and also uses a rattlesnake to try to kill her, so his being associated with snakes means he is also associated with evil.
The chinaberry tree
After Sykes is bitten in the neck by the rattlesnake, Delia sits under a chinaberry tree while hearing the distant moaning and wailing of Sykes. This symbolizes her peace at letting Sykes pass on. The tree is also where Delia realizes she has achieved freedom.


The setting is in a small town in Central Florida near Orlando. The events take place in the spring. Snakes actually are prevalent in the area.


  1. ^ Hurston, Zora Neale. Sweat. Literature: A Pocket Anthology. Fourth Edition. Edited by R. S. Gwynn. New York: Penguin, 2009.
  2. ^ Robert E. Hemenway (1977). Zora Neale Hurston. University of Illinois Press. p. 47. ISBN 978-0-252-00807-8.