3 Sentence Summary
Zora Neal Hurston’s “Sweat” is a compelling tale of a woman trapped in an abusive marriage, finding liberation in a surprising turn of events. Delia’s resilience and strength shine as she confronts her lazy and cruel husband, Sykes, who tries to force her out of their home. In a twist of fate, Sykes’s plan to scare Delia with a rattlesnake backfires, leaving him facing the consequences instead.
Summary Read Time: Less than 5 minutes
Actual Book Length: 233
First Published in: 1997
Below is the detailed yet quick Sweat book summary:
“Sweat” takes off on a tranquil Sunday evening in spring. Our protagonist, Delia, a diligent laundress in sunny Florida, is engrossed in sorting through the garments she’s collected from her clients. As the church bells cease chiming, she dives into her weekly routine. She separates white clothes for an overnight soak, priming them for Monday morning’s laundry.
The calm is shattered as Delia finds herself shuddering in terror when she feels something sinuous fall over her shoulder. Unbeknownst to her, it’s her husband Sykes, cruelly delighting in her fear by draping his bullwhip around her like a serpent. His laughter echoes in their modest home as he revels in her momentary fright.
A contentious exchange sparks between Delia and Sykes, stirring the air with tension. The bone of contention ranges from Sykes’ inconsiderate behavior towards Delia’s horse to his disdain for Delia bringing home her white clients’ laundry. He even spitefully disrupts her neatly piled clothes and dirties them under his boots. Yet, despite his relentless provocation, Delia decides to focus on her work.
However, Sykes doesn’t relent, criticizing her for working on the Sabbath. At her wit’s end, Delia stands her ground, reminding him of her labor that has maintained their home and lifestyle for a decade and a half. Sykes’ empty threats hold no water as a spark of newfound defiance gleams in Delia’s eyes, causing him to retreat from their home.
Late at night, Delia finds herself in a reflective state, mulling over her turbulent marriage with Sykes. Despite her quest for love, she’s met with domestic violence and infidelity, watching Sykes squander money on other women. She draws solace from the sanctuary she has created, a home teeming with vibrant flowers and trees. Resolving that Sykes’ wickedness will eventually backfire, she mentally detaches from him. She succumbs to sleep, disregarding his belated arrival in bed.
The narrative takes us to a sweltering July day, where a congregation of men at Joe Clarke’s store share stories about Delia and Sykes. They sympathize with Delia, portraying her as a tireless worker constantly ill-treated by the idle Sykes.
The group disapproves of Sykes’ mistress, Bertha, and struggle to comprehend Sykes’ attraction towards her. They reminisce about a time when Sykes was more decent towards Delia, but, as Clarke explains, he appears ready to discard her now. While they agree on punishing Sykes and Bertha, the blistering heat discourages action. Instead, the talk devolves into plans of slicing a shared watermelon, which is interrupted by the ostentatious arrival of Sykes and Bertha.
August in the town witnesses Bertha comfortably settled, her lodgings financed by Sykes. He fuels her hopes of inheriting Delia’s house once Delia is driven away. Keeping a low profile, Delia channels her energy into work, trying to remain oblivious to Bertha’s intrusive presence. Nevertheless, tension escalates between Delia and Sykes. One afternoon, Delia is shocked to find a rattlesnake in a box, a ‘gift’ from Sykes. His refusal to remove it, coupled with his boastful claims of snake-handling abilities, adds a chilling edge to their strained relationship.
Part 3 – How Does “Sweat” Book End?
As the days pass, the snake, no longer sluggish, becomes increasingly aggressive. Sykes adamantly refuses Delia’s plea to remove it, his intention to expel her from the house all too clear. Amid their bitter exchanges, Delia declares her loathing for him and shares her shift to another church to evade him. Sykes departs, hurling threats but taking no action, after Delia hints at exposing his cruel behavior to her white employers.
Following a soothing church service at Woodbridge, Delia returns home to an ominously empty snake box. Navigating through the dim-lit house, she finds a lone matchstick, suspecting Sykes of sharing the rest with Bertha. Her resentment flares at the thought of Sykes bringing Bertha to their home while she was away. Ignoring her vexation, she lights a lamp and commences her laundry work, retreating to the bedroom for the comfort it provides. Delia’s routine is disrupted when she encounters the rattlesnake nestled among the clothes in the laundry hamper. This prompts her to bolt out of the house, leaving her lamp extinguished by the wind.
Awakening to the predawn rustling of Sykes dismantling the snake box, Delia finds solace in the barn’s hayloft, mentally absolving herself of the marital strife they face. She stealthily monitors Sykes from beneath the bedroom window, hearing the horrifying mixture of rattles and Sykes’ terrified screams as the snake delivers its lethal bite.
Remaining in the flowerbed, Delia listens to Sykes’ agony-filled moans throughout the morning. She eventually approaches the house, only to retreat to the garden after witnessing Sykes, disfigured from the snake bites. Delia rests under a tree, comprehending that Sykes, in his final moments, would have seen her washtubs and lamp, thereby knowing she was present as his life slipped away.