"Sweat" by Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

Overview/ Summary:

This story starts out with a woman named Delia, a wash woman who lives in Florida. She begins her work for the week on Sunday so that she can be done by the following Saturday. Her husband Sykes comes in, and his mean and abusive nature shines through when he tries to scare Delia with a whip that she believes was a snake.

Delia decides that she is not going to take the abuse anymore. Sykes makes plans to make Delia leave the house that she paid for so that he can move his mistress in. Delia does not budge though, so Sykes tries to kill her with a poisonous snake that he leaves in her wash tubs. She comes home to find the snake and decides to let his plan back fire on him, freeing the snake in the house for him to find for himself.

Key Concepts/ Themes:

Hurston's "Sweat" is a story that exemplifies the theme of karma. Delia puts up with an oppressive amount of work and an abusive husband. She provides for Sykes, her husband, even though he treats "Delia more like personal property than an actual human being" (Barnes). He continuously beats her down, physically and mentally, and he even begins to torture her through her fear of snakes. However, as Smith points out, "it is clear that Delia's patience with her abusive husband is going to have some kind of resolution" (Smith). Backing up Smith's conjecture is Delia's own thought that "whatever goes around the Devil's back, is got to come under his belly" (Hurston 609). This pinpoints the exact theme of the story: what goes around, comes around. Sykes played with Delia's fears by the use of a snake, and in the end, he manages to get himself bit by his own cruelty. Delia, being the good soul she is, is not harmed by anything-- not even the spite of Sykes. Sykes, on the other hand, is a cruel, evil spirit and he gets what he deserves-- punishment from his own hand.

Important Symbols:

Two very important symbols are Delia's sweat and the idea of the snake. "Sweat" is the title of the story so this automatically tells you that "sweat" is important. Her sweat symbolizes her hard work and her strife. In the story it is said that she pays for everything and by her hard work she feeds her husband and keeps her house going. The snake represents her husband. A snake actually leads to his demise. The snake in the sense of bringing Delia's husband down could represent Delia's new power or strength.

Important Characters:

Delia Jones is the first important character in "Sweat". She is married to a man by the name of Sykes. Delia is a skinny, hard worker who does laundry for the white people. Delia Jones is a victim of abuse and betrayal. Her husband, Sykes, not only abuses her but is having an affair with a woman by the name of Bertha. Sykes is selfish and really does not want to be with Delia. He even scares her by bringing a rattlesnake home as for a pet. Throughout the story, these two characters go back and forth, but in the end Delia Jones comes out on top.


Barnes, Daniel. "Literary Analysis: Sweat, by Zora Neale Hurston." A Troubled Mind. A Twisted Soul . Helium, n.d, Web. 30 Jan 2011. http://www.helium.com/items/1195873-literary-anlysis-of-sweat .

Hurston, Zora. Sweat. 1926. 697-705. Smith, Nicole. " Analysis and Summary of "Sweat" by Zora Neale Hurston ." Article Myriad, n.d, Web. 30 Jan http://www.articlemyriad.com/summary_sweat_hurston.htm