Zora Neale Hurston

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Sweat: Situational Irony 1 key example

Situational Irony
Explanation and Analysis—Ironic Endings :

In "Sweat," situational irony underlies the resolution of the story—the abusive Sykes is killed by the very snake he brought into the house to terrorize his wife. This produces a narrative twist, leaving the reader with a sense of surprise. 

The protagonist, Delia, is a hardworking woman who is constantly subjected to her abusive husband's mistreatment. Despite her best efforts, Delia can never seem to please Sykes and frequently faces his verbal and physical abuse. One day, Sykes brings a rattlesnake into their home to scare Delia, who is afraid of snakes. Sykes believes that he can control the snake, saying:

Taint no use uh you puttin' on airs makin' out lak you skeered uh dat snake—he's gointer stay right heah tell he die. He wouldn't bite me cause Ah knows how tuh handle 'im. Nohow he wouldn't risk breakin' out his fangs 'gin yo' skinny laigs.

This passage primes the reader to believe that the snake's exit from the house will be predicated on death. However, Sykes erroneously believes this exit will occur due to the snake's death and not his own. Irony is produced by this gap between Sykes's expectations and the unfolding reality of his fatal mistake. 

The irony of Sykes's death is enhanced by the fact that he can't find a match to produce light due to his own malice—he previously removed the matches from the house to spite Delia. This causes him to leap blindly in the darkness when he hears the snake rattle, leading to his demise:

"Mah Gawd!" he chattered, "ef Ah could on'y strack uh light!" 

While Delia remarks that Sykes's foolishness will be the "death of her," the reality is the opposite—Sykes's cruelty and callousness result in his own death by snakebite.