Sweat by Zora Neale Hurston
“Sweat” is a 1926 short story by African American writer Zora Neale Hurston. Called her best piece of fiction from this period in her literary career, “Sweat” tells the story of Delia, a washerwoman, and her unemployed husband.
Delia works as a washerwoman in a small town in central Florida. Her unemployed husband, Sykes, resents the fact that she cleans clothes for white people. Although the two have been married for fifteen years, the relationship has been abusive. He takes her income and berates her as well as beats her. His life is one of leisure, while Delia’s is one of sweat and hard labor.
Sykes has also been carrying out an affair with Bertha. One day, Sykes decides that he is tired of being with Delia, and hatches a plan to poison her. He places a rattlesnake in her pile of washing clothes, knowing that she is afraid of snakes and hoping it will bite her. Instead, the snake bites Sykes.
While Sykes is dying, Delia sits outside under a chinaberry tree, ignoring his pleas for help. Like her husband, she has come to realize that their relationship has run its course, and indeed, she does not need him since it has been her wages that have supported them, and even allowed Sykes to pay Bertha’s rent for the past three months.
“Sweat” is a powerful examination of domestic abuse and the survival of strong women. Delia works by the sweat of her labor to provide for herself and comes to an understanding that she is finally free.