Zora Neale Hurston

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Sweat Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Zora Neale Hurston's Sweat. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Zora Neale Hurston

Although she was born in Alabama, Hurston’s family moved to Eatonville, Florida—the first all-black town to incorporate in the United States—when she was a small child. She considered Eatonville her hometown and used it as a setting for many of her stories. She had a relatively happy childhood until the death of her mother in 1904, after which she held a variety of odd jobs and eventually joined a Gilbert and Sullivan traveling company as a maid. Hurston earned an associate degree from Howard University in 1924 and moved to New York City, where she met a number of major authors from the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes. She began to publish short stories in various periodicals and to study anthropology at Barnard College. Hurston studied under renowned anthropologist Franz Boaz and became the first black woman to graduate from Barnard in 1928. She would go on to use her anthropological training in collecting African American folklore in the South. Hurston was married three times, with her first two marriages ending in divorce. She published a variety of fiction and nonfiction writings over the course of her life, most famously her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston continued to write, teach, and collect folklore, winning prestigious awards such as the Guggenheim for her research. In her later years, however, she suffered a number of personal and financial difficulties, ultimately dying in poverty in 1960.
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Historical Context of Sweat

“Sweat,” along with most of Hurston’s other works, was written and takes place after the 1865 abolition of slavery in the United States but before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, during the period known as Jim Crow. Segregation (meaning separate facilities and institutions for white and black people) was the law of the land in the American South, leading to the establishment of all-black towns like Eatonville, Florida. During the early twentieth century, many black writers and artists moved to Harlem, a neighborhood in New York City. These creative intellectuals formed the artistic and literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, to which Hurston was a major contributor.

Other Books Related to Sweat

Hurston’s early writings took place during the African American literature and arts movement called the Harlem Renaissance. “Sweat,” for example, initially appeared in the sole issue of the literary magazine Fire!!, which Hurston co-organized with other writers active during this period in Harlem, New York. Among this group were novelist Wallace Thurman, author of The Blacker the Berry (1929), as well as poets Langston Hughes, author of The Weary Blues (1926), and Countee Cullen, author of Color (1925). While “Sweat” is one of Hurston’s most significant early works, she is better known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), which is a coming of age novel also set in Central Florida. Similar themes of domestic abuse can also be found in works such as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982).
Key Facts about Sweat
  • Full Title: Sweat
  • When Written: 1920s
  • Where Written: Harlem, New York
  • When Published: 1926
  • Literary Period: Harlem Renaissance
  • Genre: Short story
  • Setting: 1920s Eatonville, Florida, the first all-black town to incorporate in the United States
  • Climax: When Sykes returns to the house and is bitten by the rattlesnake
  • Antagonist: Sykes
  • Point of View: Third person omniscient

Extra Credit for Sweat

Revived Influence Hurston’s writings fell out of the public eye until Alice Walker revived interest in Hurston’s work with the 1975 essay “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” published in Ms. magazine. Hurston is now widely acknowledged as one of the foremost authors of the Harlem Renaissance, and the most successful black woman writer of the early twentieth century.

New Birthday. Hurston started claiming to be 10 years younger than she actually was in order to finish her high school education at the age of 26; from this time on, she told others that she had been born in 1901 in Eatonville.