Analysis of Zora Neale Hurton's "Sweat"

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Sweat, by Zora Neale Hurston (1926), is the story of a black washerwoman trapped in a miserable and abusive marriage, who comes to stand by and allow her husband to be killed by a rattle snake without a single warning or offer of help. It is left to conjecture exactly what her motives are behind this, and on the surface it might appear to be out of revenge or cowardice, but the truth is deeper than this. Allowing her husband to die from the snake bite wasn’t about revenge or cowardice, but rather choosing the only road that lead to self-preservation.

The story opens on a Sunday evening with Delia, a lower-class black woman who makes a living washing the clothes of white folk. As always, she is pre-soaking clothing Sunday night following her trip to church, because it is the only way to have the clothes cleaned and ready for drop off by the following Saturday. Just as she is beginning to wonder where her husband is with her horse and buggy, something long and coiled drops on her shoulders. Terrified of snakes, she jumps to just that conclusion and falls for the humorless prank of her husband, Sykes, plays after sneaking up behind her with his bullwhip. “If you such a big foold dat you got to have a fit over a earth worm or a string, Ah don’t keer how bad Ah skeer you,” (530 Neale Hurston) he says to her fright. She scolds him as he continues to provoke her, abusing her verbally and kicking over the “white people’s clothing” that he doesn’t want in the house. She finally has had enough, and proceeds to grab an iron skillet and let out her frustrations which “cowed him and he did not strike her as he usually did.” (531 Neale Hurston)

Thus we already have a clear picture of who these characters are and what to expect out of them both. Despite this being both the beginning of the story and our first glimpse of their confrontations, we know that Sykes is a cruel man who regularly abuses his wife verbally, physically and emotionally. We also know that he’s used to...
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