LIT 4386 British and American Literature
Reading Assignment: Hurston, "Sweat" (1490)
Post #10 Group A
- To analyze Hurston's story
- To add dimension of race to discussion of marriage and gender
This is a tightly wrought short-story with Hurston's characteristic use of local color -- the dialect,
the Florida village and the small-town community personalities. It is a story about a woman who comes
into her own, throws off her meekness for a mantle of defiance.
This story fits in with our discussion of madness and marriage -- it is about the maddening dog-days of August,
when one woman's anger gives her the strength to defy her abusive husband. As we review the
story, keep in mind the connection between madness and marriage we have discussed, the role of
confinement and silence -- what new elements does this story raise?
Notes and Discussion Questions:
What form is it?
How would you describe the writing style? Analyze dialect and dialogue in this story.
Who are the main characters?
What is the setting?
What is the main conflict in the story?
Read the opening two paragraphs. What do we learn about Delia Jones immediately? What type of person is she?
One of the central themes of the story is one of woman's labor and the power and the cost: The title of the story is "Sweat" -- What does
that signify about the importance of labor to this story? What does Delia's work mean to her?
Note the endless sense of labor: "How can Ah git through by Sat'day if Ah don't start on sunday?" (1491).
How does Sykes feel about Delia's work?
Why does Sykes object to having "white folks' clothes" in his house?
What does Delia's labor cost her besides her husband's resentment? Note the comments of the men at Joe Clarke's porch (1493).
What does it gain her? Note her defiance on page 1491 -- "Looka heah, Sykes, you done gone too fur.
Ah been married to your fur fifteen years, and Ah been takin' in washin' fur fifteen years, Sweat, sweat, sweat, sweat!
Work and Sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat!"
That night Delia reflects on her marriage to Sykes. Read page 1492 "She lay awake, gazing upon
the debris that cluttered their matrimonial trail.... It was lovely to her, lovely." (1492). What does this passage suggest
about the nature of her marriage? How does it compare with some of the other representations we have read?
What new elements are added to our discussion of marriage?
What does the house represent to Delia? Why is it lovely?
The role of community is very interesting in this story. The community plays an important role in judgment and the moral
judgments of these characters is conditioned to some extent by their powerlessness in the heirarchy of race and class.
What role do the men at Joe Clark's porch play? How do they feel about Sykes? about Delia? About Bertha? What is the
significance of their putting away the melon when Sykes and Bertha arrive?
Read page 1493: "Clarke spoke for the first time. "Taint no law on earth dat kin make a man be decent if it aint in
'im...." How does Clarke feel about these abusive marriages? How do the others feel?
What does it mean that they want to kill Sykes? How does this compare with their advice on killing the snake? (See page 1495)
What role, if any, do these villagers have in the death of Sykes?
What do we know about Bertha?
See page 1494: "'Sho' you kin have dat lil'ole house soon's Ah kin git dat 'woman outa dere.
Everyting b'longs tuh me an' you sho' kin have it. Ah sho' 'bominates uh skinny 'oman.
Lawdy, you sho' is got one portly shape on you! You kin git anything you wants. Di is mah town an' you sho' kin hat it."
Why does Sykes prefer fat women? What does Delia's skinnyness represent to him?
Compare his representation of his self-importance (and his purchasing power or ability to provide)
with the view the villagers have of him and with Delia's claims on the house.
How does Sykes plan to get rid of Delia? What is the relationship between the snake and Sykes in the story?
How does Delia respond to the snake in her house? ( page 1495):
"Two or three days later it had digested its meal of frogs and literally came to life.
It rattled at every movement in the kitchen or the yard. One day as Delia came down
the kitchen steps she saw his chalky-white fangs curved like scimitars hung in the wire
meshes. This time she did not run away with averted eyes as usual. She stood for a long
time in the doorway in a red fury that grew bloodier for every second that she regarded the
creature that was her torment."
This instigates Delia's next confrontation with Sykes where she declares her hatred for her husband: Read page 1496: (perhaps
my favorite line in all of literature) -- "Ah hates you, Sykes .... Ah hates yuh lak uh suck-egg dog" (1496).
This outburst apparently scares him off for a couple of days during which Delia attends the new church she joins.
The "love-feast" inspires her with joy, and she sings on the way home. How is the refrain significant?
Delia's song "Jurden water, black an col'/ Chills de body, not de soul / An' Ah wantah cross Jurden in uh calm time." What does it mean
to cross the Jordan?
Examine the representation of Delia's emotional stages of reaction, on page 1497. What is she going through?
Rather than die, she notices that Sykes comes back. Why can't Sykes capture the snake?
What does Delia do while Sykes tries to fight off the snake?
Examine the conclusion of the story. What is Delia’s role in Syke’s death? Is it justified?
To further examine this question, consider the following:
"She could scarcely reach the Cinaberry tree where she waited in the growing heat while inside she
knew the cold river was creeping up and up to extinguish that eye which must know by now that she knew" (1498).
What is it that "she knew"? That he planned to kill her? That she was there to watch him die? That she didn't help?
That she was doing the laundry on Sunday night? That she wasn't dead?
How does that imagery of the Jordan river reflect the ending of the story?
She suggests that Sykes is crossing the river -- but also a sense that he is drowning -- and he dies.
But it is Delia who is calm and who is delivered from bondage into freedom with his death.
Why doesn't Delia help Sykes? Do you think anyone would blame Delia for not helping Sykes?
why does Delia run away from her pity?
Does Delia's reaction to Syke's snake-bite conflict with her religious piety?
What does this story say about the marriage and madness?
How does this ending compare with Edna’s decision to kill herself in The Awakening?
What is the relationship between Delia's work and her ability to cross the Jordan -- as it were?