The central character, Delia Jones is a hardworking but timid woman living in Florida. She provides for herself and her husband Sykes by working as a washwoman for white people. She holds tight to her Christian beliefs, in which she takes great solace in her difficult life. She even changed the church that she attends so that she could worship in peace apart from her husband. Sykes neither contributes to the house financially nor allows her to work in peace. The men in town say that Delia was very pretty when she married Sykes as a young woman, but hard work, regular beatings, and psychological torture have affected her beauty. The fact that Delia is thin and wiry contributes to her husband's unreasonable hatred of her, as he prefers large women like his mistress Bertha. Delia also takes great pride in the house that she has painstakingly built for herself and in which she hopes to live out the rest of her days in peace, whether that takes place with the cooperation of her husband or not. Though their marriage has been troubled for a long time, Sykes begins to make things even worse by first bringing his mistress Bertha to stay in their town, and then bringing a snake home to terrify Delia, who is extremely scared of snakes. One day, when Sykes decides to set the snake free in the house with the seeming intention of murdering Delia, it is he who gets bit instead. For a moment, Delia considers helping Sykes, but in a moment of reckoning she decides to wait for him to die.
Sykes is Delia's husband. He abuses her both physically and psychologically. He has given her many beatings and verbal insults over the years, but he escalates this abuse in "Sweat" by bringing to town his mistress Bertha and bringing an enormous, six-foot rattlesnake to his and Delia's house. It is unclear if he works and has any income, but if he does, he is not using it to contribute to the house that he and Delia share, which she has paid for with her washwoman's wages. Instead, he spends liberally on his mistress Bertha. He pays for her to stay in town at a boarding house, and buys many gifts for her at the local store. Sykes is an unpopular figure around town, as evidenced by the conversation among the men sitting outside the store. They disapprove of his mistreatment of Delia, and they also consider him to be arrogant and entitled. This arrogance seems confirmed by what Sykes repeatedly tells Bertha, which is that she can "git anything you wants. Dis is mah town an' you sho' kin have it" (1026). Sykes brings about his own downfall via his regime of abusing Delia, because the snake he brings to their house to frighten and possibly kill her ends up biting him instead.
Bertha is Sykes' mistress, who he brings to town from Apopka, Florida. At the time of "Sweat," Bertha has been in town for three months, and Sykes pays for her to stay at Della Lewis' house, described as "the only house in town that would have taken her in" (1026). Sykes is especially fond of Bertha because she is large in size ("fat" as the men outside the store say), and he prefers large women, whereas Delia is thin. Not much is known about Bertha, but Sykes takes great pleasure in parading her around town, particularly in front of Delia, and going to dance parties, or "stomps," at Winter Park. Sykes spoils her by buying many gifts, and frequently brags to her that he runs the town and she can have anything in it.
Jim Merchant is one of the men who discusses Delia, Sykes, and Bertha on the porch of the town store. He says that Sykes is having an affair with Bertha because Sykes likes big women. He also states that Sykes once came around to his house trying to seduce Merchant's wife by offering a basket of pecans.
Walter Thomas is one of the men who discusses Delia, Sykes, and Bertha on the porch of the town store. He says that Delia was very pretty before Sykes married her and ground her down, and that he would have married her if Sykes had not claimed her first. Thomas remembers that Sykes was once very humble and obliging because he feared losing Delia, but after they married he became complacent and even began to hate and abuse her.
Joe Clarke is the owner of the local store and one of the men who discusses Delia, Sykes, and Bertha on the porch of the town store. He compares the way some men treat their wives to the way one might treat a piece of sugarcane: by wringing it out for its sweetness until it is a crushed up reed.
Moss is one of the men who discusses Delia, Sykes, and Bertha on the porch of the town store. He says that Sykes is not worth even the bullet and gunpowder that it would require to kill him, at least to Bertha.
Elijah Moseley is one of the men who discusses Delia, Sykes, and Bertha on the porch of the town store. He says that Delia has endured enough abuse to kill three women, let alone ruin their beauty.
Joe Lindsay is one of the men who discusses Delia, Sykes, and Bertha on the porch of the town store. He notes that Delia never fails in her work routine, no matter the weather.
Old Man Anderson
Old Man Anderson is one of the men who discusses Delia, Sykes, and Bertha on the porch of the town store. He suggests killing Sykes because he is so arrogant and unpleasant.
Sweat Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Sweat is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.