Sweat Study Guide

"Sweat" is a short story by Zora Neale Hurston, published in 1926. Hurston was "a product of the Harlem Renaissance," an African-American political and artistic movement that took place in Harlem, New York in the 1920s, "as well as one of its most extraordinary writers" (Joyce 1019). She was born and raised in Eatonville, Florida, and that setting is recreated in "Sweat." Eatonville is notable for being "the first black township to be incorporated in the United States" (Joyce 1019). She was in certain ways a mysterious figure, and a mischievous one too: for many years Hurston gave the impression to scholars that she had been born in 1901, when in fact she was born in 1891. Discussing the matter in her 1942 autobiography, she wrote: "This is all hearsay. Maybe some of the details of my birth as told me might be a little inaccurate, but it is pretty well established that I really did get born" (Joyce 1019).

"Sweat" first appeared in the only issue that was ever published of Fire!!, an African-American literary magazine established in Harlem. Besides Hurston, Fire!! counted among its founders other luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Langston Hughes. The magazine folded after its first issue after its premises burned down.

In "Sweat," Hurston depicts the difficult life of Delia Jones, a hardworking washwoman who lives with her abusive husband Sykes. Though their relationship rapidly deteriorated after marrying, Delia is challenged in "Sweat" as never before: Sykes has brought a mistress to town, who he parades around and spends on lavishly without seeming to contribute financially at all to the house he and Delia share. He terrorizes Delia by bringing a snake to the house, as Delia is terribly afraid of snakes. However, this eventually brings about Sykes' own demise.