Discussion Questions for Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat”

zora

(You may like to listen to “Zora Neale Hurston, 1891-1960: A Storyteller About African-American Life in the South” before you answer the questions below)

  1. What information does the first part of the story reveal about the social and economic contexts in which Delia and Sykes live? What do Eatonville and Winter Park represent?
  2. How does Zora Neale Hurston represent Delia and Sykes in the first part of the story?
  3. What change can you see in Delia’s behavior towards Sykes in the first part of the story? Discuss what this could tell you about Zora Neale Hurston’s attitude towards gender.
  4. In the second part of the story village men on Joe Clarke’s porch talk about Delia. What do you learn more about Delia and Sykes from their talk?
  5. Comment on what the following names in the story could signify: Joe Clarke, Jim Merchant, Joe Lindsay, Moss, Thomas Walter.
  6. Why do you think Sykes dislikes skinny women like Delia? Why does he like fat women like Bertha? What could this tell you about his character?
  7. In the third part of the story, there are references to Gethsemane, the rocks of Calvary and Jurden water? What do they signify in relation to Delia?
  8. What does the rattlesnake symbolize in the story?
  9. Comment on Delia’s confrontation with her husband in the third part of the story. In what way(s) could this be important in the story?
  10. Towards the end of the story, we see Delia “climbing up in the hay barn” and lying there for an hour or more. What does she do there? Why is this important in the story?
  11. Comment on Zora Neale Hurston’s use of the sun imagery at the end of the story. What does it represent?
  12. Read the last three paragraphs of the story closely and discuss how Zora Neale Hurston represents Delia and Sykes here. Is there any change in their representations?
  13. Identify the phallic images used in the story and comment on what they could signify about the characters and the story itself.
  14. Discuss the reasons for Sykes’ harsh treatment of Delia.
  15. Discuss the significance of the title.
  16. How does the 3rd person narrative technique contribute to the story?
  17. How would you evaluate the story as a feminist text?
  18. Discuss to what extent and in what ways Zora Neale Hurston’s story challenges gender roles.

© Ali Nihat Eken, İstanbul, February 2008.

Useful links: About Zora Neale Hurston 1 / About Zora Neale Hurston 2 / Listen to the radio play of “Sweat” /