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A Summary and Analysis of Zora Neale Hurston's Karmic Story 'Sweat'

'Sweat' by Zora Neale Hurston: Summary and Analysis
Literature is a beautiful element of culture. And if the write-up is about people who created a stir in our minds with the power of their words, the element reaches a higher benchmark. The life of women aren't easy. They were tougher in the bygone eras. 'Sweat' is one such heart-wrenching story of an ordinary woman, who wanted an ordinary life, but was instead plunged into one that was all but ordinary.
Samarpita Choudhury
Last Updated: Feb 10, 2018
Readily Red!
Sweat was first published in the magazine, Fire!! in 1926.
The Afro-Americans can boast of a myriad of women writers who showcased the glaring circumstances that most women of the community endured. Zora Neale Hurston, in the pursuit of the same, penned down Sweat, which fetched her fame and acclaim. It is a short story that highlights the uneventful life of a petty washerwoman, whose turmoil and ordeal were far from being transitory and trivial.
The writer has not only held up the woman's earnest efforts to sustain a living, but has also shed light on the little instances when she remained steady in her stand, against the odds that were created by her spouse. A woman's expectations from the man of her life are not skyrocketing, but the minimum that she expects are just. Whenever her expectations are not met with, or fall short of fulfillment, she is agonized; and agonized gravely. The life of the protagonist in Sweat was a victim of such love bereft wedlock, that caused her intense pain and self-destruction.

However, just as many writers choose to give a touch of 'silver lining at the end of the cloud', author Hurston, followed suit. In the concluding lines of the story, the reader's feeling of compassion and misery for the protagonist gets replaced with a strange feeling of victory and elation. The end of the story leaves room for contemplation, whether a wrong for the wrong, an eye for an eye should merely remain limited to the books on literature, or should they be practiced in day-to-day life. And if at all they are practiced, will that render them as another wronged intent, or should we consider that as God's untold way of bringing in justice through mankind.

For a sneak peek into the life of the protagonist, please go through the summary and analysis of the story in the remaining part of this article.
Plot and Summary of Sweat
✦ This piece of fiction begins when Delia, a washerwoman, is seen working late in the night in her humble home. The night was one of the Sundays in spring, and usually at this time of the night, she retires to bed. But on Sunday nights, she burns the midnight oil to sort the work she has to do for the remaining days of the week.

✦ As she brings all her pending work to pass, she sings to herself, a tune that is melancholic.

✦ Just then, she is struck by the thought of her husband who is still away from home and is in possession of her horse and cart, which are crucial in Delia's life.

✦ We find Delia gasping in terror, fearing a snake which slipped through her shoulders and was now lying just beside her on the floor. She realizes that it was the bull whip her husband used to carry whenever he rode the horse, and he did this on purpose to take Delia by shock and terror.

✦ This was certainly rude and insensitive. But what was worse was his action of commanding her to quit washing clothes, as he found that inferior.

✦ This wasn't the end but. Skye further wrecks trouble for poor Delia, when he on purpose soils the white, sorted clothes she had arranged. He didn't ponder a while before ruining a day's hard work.

✦ Delia doesn't retaliate to this childish act of her husband, and rather urges him to call it a day, as she was not looking forward to more trouble in the middle of the night.

✦ Skye ignores her requests and questions her authenticity. He scatters the clothes, leaving an extremely upset Delia to assemble the scattered clothes all over again. He also threatens to kill her, if she continues washing the laundry of the whites.

✦ Delia confronts her husband, and both have an argument. The argument was heated and Delia held up a skillet right in front of her, trying to defend herself from his blows, which she expected.

✦ Angry and aghast, Skye leaves the house, and Delia retires for the day, quite devoid of sleep and sure that her husband has again ventured out to meet the woman, with whom he was having a illicit romantic truce.

✦ Delia is sad for the current state of her marriage. But, she consoles herself with the thought that had it not been for Bertha, it would certainly be someone else in her place, as Skye was a cheat. She knows that her husband would never be hers, but she is happy for the little home that she has.

✦ With a firm belief that Skye would be punished, she calls it a day.

✦ The following week is laborious as usual, and sooner than we realize, the spring is gone, leaving summer behind.

✦ The customers who gather at Joe Clarke's shop criticizes Skye's and Bertha's affair. But they don't utter a word of disdain directly to Skye for his unforgivable act. All of them have an acute sense of consolation for Delia.

✦ Meanwhile, Delia, who regretted the affair of her husband, loathed to hear hateful stories that people narrated about Skye and Bertha.

✦ Despite this extreme sense of goodness on the part of Delia, Bertha takes no notice of it, and one fine day, she comes up straight to call for Skye at his home. Ignoring all of it, Delia still tries to start their relationship from scratch, but to no avail. Skye is beyond any friendly gesture.

✦ As the hot summer scales up in heat, on one such hot day, Delia is in for a surprise. Skye had reached home before her and he had brought a box which contained something for Delia.

✦ Delia's unscrupulous husband had brought in a rattlesnake in the box, though he very well knew that Delia was scared of the reptile. She keeps praying to him to let go of the snake, but her pleas are unattended.

✦ One day, as Delia passes through the kitchen stairs, she notices the fangs of the snake. Later, when she talks about it with Skye, he refuses to do anything about it.

✦ On one Sunday, as she comes home, she notices the box of the rattlesnake, and finds it to be exceptionally still. She assumes that perhaps her husband has taken the nuisance outside the house, for she found no trace of it in the box.

✦ Like on all Sundays, she keeps herself busy till late in the night, sorting the clothes. To her utter dismay, she catches hold of the snake right at the bottom of a box, gazing at her venomously. Out of fear, she runs out of the room, and straight into the kitchen.

✦ Then in the pale night, Skye comes home. He wants some light in the darkness. He tries finding his way in the outstretched darkness to get some matchsticks. Just then, as he was carrying on his intense search for light, he gets bitten by the rattlesnake.

✦ He screeches in pain. Delia hears calling her for help and aid, to which Delia makes no response. She watches him die, pained and lonely.
Analysis of Sweat
Title Analysis
The author has been just in naming her piece on Delia. Right through the story, we observe Delia toiling hard to make both ends meet, which has been ignored by her husband as a thankless job. Delia is wounded in her heart, from the uncontrollable physical and mental agony that her husband renders towards her. And it takes a lot of effort to continue doing what she has been doing for fifteen long years. This got reflected in the words of Delia, which is quoted below.

"Sweat, sweat, sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat!"
Delia is diligent. She is hardworking. This gets reflected when we first meet her sorting clothes in the silence of a Sunday night. On one of the occasions, someone also quoted the following which too suggests her dedication towards her work:

"Hot or col', rain or shine, jes ez reg'lar ez de weeks roll roun' Delia carries 'em an' fetches 'em on Sat'day."
Delia's resent towards her life and its bundles of hardship also find prominence when she sings to herself as she does the painstaking job of sorting and soaking clothes, all by herself. The following excerpt from the story explains in more detail:

"She squatted in the kitchen floor beside the great pile of clothes, sorting them into small heaps according to color, and humming a song in a mournful key."
When Delia's husband commands her to stop washing the clothes of the whites, he exhibits a dash of masculine superiority and dominance, and his gesture is outright rude, for he is holding the whip in his hand, and glares at her mercilessly. This was a sheer act of ruthless dominance. Please refer to the words as spoken by Skye:

"Ah done tole you time and again to keep them white folks' clothes outa dis house."
His resent towards Delia's job grew in prominence in the following words:

"Next time, Ah'm gointer kick 'em outdoors,"
What ensued next is rather hard to comprehend. Despite the unbecoming behavior of her husband towards her, she weighs the act of remaining calm more than losing her head and react blatantly to the insanity of her husband. She is more in the mood to remain rooted to the sacred teachings she got from the Church. The following lines suggest the same:

"Ah aint for no fuss t'night Skyes. Ah just come from taking sacrament at the church house."
Soon after, this, Skye blames Delia of hypocrisy and said the following in wrath:

"Yeah, you just come from de church house on a Sunday night, but heah you is gone to work on them clothes. You ain't nothing but a hypocrite. "
His threatening mind came out clear when he said the following to Delia, ordering her to quit washing the clothes of the white folks:

"Ah aint gointer have it in mah house. Don't gimme no lip neither, else Ah'll throw 'em out and put mah fist upside yo' head to boot."
We also see that though Delia is troubled excessively by her husband, she still attempts to reason out with her malicious husband. She justifies her work of washing, and says that it is a mandate for their own survival and sustenance. She also adds that it takes a lot of effort and pain to put in extreme labor incessantly, in everything that she does, right from washing to praying:

"Looka heah, Skyes, you done gone too fur. Ah been married to you fur fifteen years, and Ah been taken' in washin' for fifteen years. "
Delia is weary and heartbroken about the sorry state of affairs her wedlock is stuck in. She is certain that there is no way this marriage can be saved. She is well aware of the illicit venture that Skye was in. Everything around her was testimony to her withering marriage, and what was worse was her vulnerability of not being able to save her marriage and her inability to walk out of it. Please read the following words from the story which demonstrate Delia's situation aptly:

"She lay awake, gazing upon the debris that cluttered their matrimonial trail. Not an image left standing along the way. Anything like flowers had long ago been drowned in the salty stream that had been pressed from her heart. Her tears, her sweat, her blood. She had brought love to the union and he had brought a longing after the flesh."
Flashes of the early days of her marriage hovered her mind all through the night. She was beaten, and Skye and spent up all his money on the many trips that he undertook in solitude. Delia was young, docile, and beautiful, unlike now when she has lost the charm of youth and beauty. Her fragile hands have now been replaced by rough and tough fingers instead. She wrestled alone in the uninviting bed against the heavy flood of thoughts that overpowered her. The author describes these events in the light of the following description:

"Two months after the wedding, he had given her the first brutal beating. She had the memory of his numerous trips to Orlando with all of his wages when he had returned to her penniless, even before the first year had passed. She was young and soft then, but now she thought of her knotty, muscled limbs, her harsh knuckly hands, and drew herself up into an unhappy little ball in the middle of the big feather bed".
She somehow reconciles with her husband's infidelity. She consoles her bruised heart, with the thought that if it was not Bertha with whom Skye ran his affair, it would have been someone else. But in no circumstance it would be her, as love had passed by her long, long ago. So, for the very first time, we come across Berta, the mistress of Skye. The below give excerpt testifies it:

"Too late now to hope for love, even if it were not Bertha it would be someone else."
However, we get to see Delia comforting herself with the thought of a happy home that she had painstakingly built, alone. The flowers, trees, the humble home, were all that she found happiness in:

"She had built it for her old days, and planted one by one the trees and flowers there. It was lovely to her, lovely."
Delia was a believer in God, and the holy teachings that we all learn. Perhaps that is why she was sure that Skye would be paid in his same coin. His wretchedness wouldn't be forgiven by the Lord. She said the following, supporting her thought:

"Oh well, whatever goes over the Devil's back, is got to come under his belly. Sometime or ruther, Skyes, like everybody else, is gointer reap his sowing."
The people of the town didn't acknowledge the affair of Skye. They didn't like Bertha and didn't have any appreciation for Bertha's looks. The author's description of the laughter of Bertha by one of the town's people is worth a read:

"Well, she sho' kin squall," Dave Carter contributed. "When she gits ready tuh laff, she jes' opens huh mouf an' latches it back tuh de las' notch. No ole grandpa alligator down in Lake Bell ain't got nothin' on huh."
Skye is still boastful of his false vanity. He tries to convince Bertha of his possession of riches and authority in the town. In doing so, he says the following to Bertha:

"You kin git anything you wants. Dis is mah town an' you sho' kin have it."
During the instance when Skye goes home with a snake, Delia requests him to move it out of the house. She reminds him that she has suffered immensely with him, she even endured the beating that he would thrust upon her. To this, he said the following:

"A whole lot Ah keer 'bout how you feels inside uh out. Dat snake aint goin' no damn wheah till Ah gits ready fuh 'im tuh go. So fur as beatin' is concerned, yuh aint took near all dat you gointer take ef yuh stay 'roun' me."
Skye hated Delia, and left no situation of mocking at her. He didn't consider her beautiful. She didn't appeal to him physically. Please refer to the following quote from the story which talks about his hatred for her:

"Ah don't want yuh. Look at yuh stringey ole neck! Yo' rawbony laigs an' arms is enough tuh cut uh man tuh death. You looks jes' lak de devvul's doll-baby tuh me."
In the last part of the story, when we find Skye has been bitten by the snake, and is helplessly yearning for Delia's help, we find Delia totally ignoring his pleas, and she remains aloof. Read the following lines from the story, which describes the situation:

"All this Delia could see and hear from her place beneath the window, and it made her ill. She crept over to the four-o'clocks and stretched herself on the cool earth to recover."
Theme of Sweat
The hardship and challenges that a woman lives along, in most parts of her life is well fictionalized in Zora Neale Hurston's 'Sweat.' The story has subtly upheld several situations and issues which are at some point correlated with each other. Thus, the story doesn't have a single theme structure. Instead it has the multifaceted theme structure that lends the story many a shade, worth knowing. Let's enlist them in the following paragraphs.
Gender (In)Equality
The very first theme that should be discussed is the case of equality, or should we say gender inequality, which of course was not effaced at that time of the last era. Delia, the protagonist of the story, can be found doing a humble job of a washerwoman. What in the first place has prompted her to inflict the hardship of doing a job that demands stamina, strength, and patience to do an inferior job, ceaselessly, day after day? Well, the answer is her ungenerous husband who chooses not to take up the task of a breadwinner for his family! On the contrary, he is an abusive husband who doesn't fail to torture his wife.
Loveless Marriage
Marriage is perhaps the most complicated institution, and the complexities increase manifold if the partners don't strike any cooperation to live the marriage. This was also the case of Delia and Skye's marriage. Skye was merciless, idle, oppressive, and evil. Delia, on the contrary, was industrious and self-giving, so much so that she had raised the bar of her patience by several notches. So, what exactly convinced her to remain dutiful and cling onto the marriage and a partner who didn't show her the minimum respect she deserved?
Labor and Strife
The protagonist Delia is seen slogging and suffering simultaneously. There wasn't present a grain of happiness that could elate her, and be content about the tough life she was leading. Man by nature craves for appreciation, acknowledgement, and love. In Delia's life, they were all absent. Amidst all, she tried to submit herself totally to the divine, which helped her sail through the rough sea.
A Rendezvous with the Characters of Sweat
Well, the characters of the story could be categorized as only two prime characters. Delia and Skye Jones. Delia is the protagonist of the story, in contrast to Skye Jones, her husband, who is the antagonist. In addition to them, we also have two other characters that demand a mention. They are Bertha and Joe Clarke. Let us know them better in the succeeding paragraphs.
Meet the washerwoman from Florida. She washes clothes for the whites, and earns a bread to feed her husband and herself. She is Delia, who has got many more things to tell about herself, besides being a washerwoman. She is strong, diligent, annoyed, weary, and above all, she is patient. She has put up with the turmoil that her husband renders to her for over fifteen years. She has been dealing with all that he metes out to her, most of the time with patience, at times with disdain, but never in retaliation. She, however, pleaded with him several times to withdraw her from the torture that he puts her through, but at the end of the day, she puts up with all of it. However, at the end of the story, we find her doing what all would term as grave and desperate. We don't want to go into the details of whether the act was just or not, but the act did at least for once leave us wondering about her valor. At the end, she left her husband to suffer in the same pain that he had inflicted upon her. She did nothing to save him from the fatality that he succumbed to.
Skye Jones
So, what readers have is Skye's failure in supporting his family, which traditionally was a 'man's job', in many parts of the world. But, he fueled his shallow ego of masculinity by terrorizing his wife. He was neck-deep in adultery. Just what all wives hate thinking even in the wildest of nightmares. He is self-centered and hollow. He had put up a show of his falsity in front of Bertha. He even stooped to the level of conspiring his wife's murder, by allowing her to fall a prey to the venom of the rattlesnake. He is abusive and doesn't hesitate to hurl blows upon his wife. He has also expressed extreme dislike for the looks of his ever-slogging wife, who feeds him and clothes him. He deliberately befriended Bertha in order to inflict sorrow upon his wife, and also thinks of bringing her into the house, after banishing his wife out of the house.
Joe Clarke
He is the elderly villager who owns the general store, where most villagers throng. He is full of resent for Skye and Bertha, and at the same time, he is distressed for Delia, for she is in deep suffering because of her husband.
She is the 'other woman' in Skye's life. She doesn't flaunt a great reputation, and stays in an infamous place in the village.
Apart from these few, there are others who made up the characters in the story, though they were not the key characters. They are:

Walter Thomas
Old Man Anderson
Elijah Moseley
Jim Merchant
Dave Carter
Now, the question that the author has left unanswered and sets a debate of sorts still remains open for discussion. We are not going to judge the actions of Delia in turning a blind eye towards the painful mourns of her husband, but we shall definitely try our bit to prevent making Delias in the first place. Perhaps, this is the message that the author has left for her readers.