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LIT 4930: Florida Lit and Culture


Class 21: Zora Neale Hurston

    Hurston’s "Sweat," and from Mules and Men, (79-90 in Florida Literature)
    DUE: Postcard project Outline with Research; Post 11 – group A, Response group B

Class Objectives:

    Postcard practice
    Analyze Hurston's representation of home place


Notes and Discussion Questions:

    This is a tightly wrought short-story with Hurston's characteristic use of "local color" -- the dialect, the setting in a 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.

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"Sweat"

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 the power and the cost of woman's labor: 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?" (82).

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 (83).

What does it gain her? Note her defiance on page 82 -- "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 82 "She lay awake, gazing upon the debris that cluttered their matrimonial trail.... It was lovely to her, lovely." (82).

What does the house represent to Delia? Why is it lovely?

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. Examine the role of community in place making in the story.

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 83: "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 do we know about Bertha? Why is it significant that she comes from Apopka?

See page 84: "'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. Dis 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. Is Sykes in-place or out-of-place?

How does Sykes plan to get rid of Delia? How does Delia respond to the snake in her house? ( page 85): "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 86: (perhaps my favorite line in all of literature) -- "Ah hates you, Sykes .... Ah hates yuh lak uh suck-egg dog" (86).

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." This is an important textual allusion that becomes a place metaphor in the story. What does it mean to cross the Jordan?

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 chinaberry 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" (88).

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?

Does Delia's reaction to Syke's snake-bite conflict with her religious piety?

What is the relationship between Delia's work and her ability to cross the Jordan -- as it were?


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