‘Sweat’ by Zora Neale Hurston

‘Sweat’ is an iconic story by the American writer Zora Neale Hurston, who was born in 1891. It was first published in 1926 in a magazine named Fire!!, and revolves around a washerwoman, Delia – who cleans “white folks” clothes in her home – and her unemployed, insecure and abusive husband, Sykes. Their dynamic is fraught, and Sykes exploits Delia’s fear of snakes, which backfires to result in a karmic and poignant ending. The story, in the century since it was written, has been hailed “an ecofeminist masterclass in dialect and symbolism”. The dialogue is particularly powerful, and effectively allows the reader to ‘hear’ the voices of the main characters: “Sykes, what you throw dat whip on me like dat? You know it would skeer me – looks just like a snake, an’ you knows how skeered Ah is of snakes.” It’s worth reading it aloud (or listening to it spoken) to get the rhythm of it and appreciate the author’s intentions fully. Ultimately, ‘Sweat’ is a story about power and the suffocation of an abusive marriage, and how hope fails to thrive in such an environment, to the point where revenge is inevitable: “He crept an inch or two toward her – all that he was able, and she saw his horribly swollen neck and his one open eye shining with hope.”

First published in 1926 in Fire!!, available to read online on Biblioklept here

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