Sweat Essay Questions

  1. 1

    What does the title "Sweat" mean?

    The title is significant for a number of reasons. The most obvious connotation is that it refers to the life of hard work that Delia must lead in order to support herself as well as Sykes, who refuses to contribute to the household. Sweat symbolizes all the suffering that Delia has endured over the years, but it is also the means by which Delia has been able to make a life and a home for herself. Delia tells Sykes that her "sweat is done paid for this house and Ah reckon Ah kin keep on sweatin' in it" (1023). However, another level on which it functions is that the story is set in the hottest months of Florida summertime. Extreme heat is referenced repeatedly as sapping the energy of the townspeople: the men do not even fling the cane-chews as they normally do, allowing them to spill over lazily. In this context, Delia's consistent hard work is even more impressive.

  2. 2

    How does Christianity function in the story?

    Christian faith is important to the character of Delia. The warmth and love that she gathers from worshiping helps her to endure her years of suffering. The story makes repeated religious allusions. Delia is described in various ways as pure and good, compared to Sykes' evil (and association with snakes, a symbol of the Devil). Delia recalls that she "brought love to the union" of their wedding and Sykes "brought a longing after the flesh," suggesting via Biblical language that her motivation for marriage was earnest and pure and Sykes' motivation was carnal. Delia is also compared to Jesus during his night of agony in Gethsemane. However, a straightforward narrative of Christian redemption is complicated by the ending of the story, where Delia chooses not to help Sykes.

  3. 3

    Discuss the usage of snakes in the story.

    The presence of snakes is fitting firstly because of the story's setting in Florida, where the author herself was from. However, snakes are extremely meaningful in the story beyond being realistic to the setting. Hurston plays on the fact that snakes historically have signified evil. In the Garden of Eden, Satan appeared as a snake to Eve, telling her to eat the apple that would cause humanity to be expelled from paradise forever. In this way, the story can be read as an allegory for the consequences of Sykes' bringing evil into his and Delia's house. The snake could be considered as epitomizing all of his abusive and sinful behavior. Sykes, like the snake, is a cause of great suffering for Delia. But ultimately, Sykes is undone by his own evil: the snake that he introduces to their home bites him and causes his death.

  4. 4

    How is Delia's body represented in the text?

    Hurston describes Delia as "meek," especially in comparison to Sykes who wields the power within the household. Delia is further made an object by the men on the porch as they remark that her physical beauty has been ruined by fifteen years' of Sykes' abuse. Though the subordinate position she occupies as a woman and a wife allows Sykes to dominate her, Delia's strength also comes from her female body. It is with her body that she toils as a washwoman, and her sweat ultimately becomes a symbol of her hard work, resilience, and determination to survive while Sykes' superiority complex is what causes his downfall. Hurston empowers women and the bodies of women by glorifying a black woman's resilience and challenging the value of the male gaze as a source of power.

  5. 5

    How does the story use different symbols to explore gender roles?

    The story "Sweat" can considered an exploration of patriarchal power. The snake is used to maintain control within the domestic sphere because Sykes cannot take back power from Delia. Sykes is presented as an emasculated man because he does not appear to be consistently employed, and he forcefully represses Delia's confidence and rejects the economic stability that she gains from doing laundry for a living. In the same way that the snake is a source of power for Sykes, Delia's job is a source of power and a way for her to escape the imposing nature of Sykes and the restricting condition of domesticity. Hurston purposefully transcends gender stereotyping by domesticating Sykes and using a domestic chore (i.e., laundry) as a way for Delia to regain independence and power.