“Sweat” tells the story of a woman in an unhappy and abusive marriage who is eventually freed through an ironic twist of fate.
The story opens on a Sunday night with Delia Jones, a hardworking washerwoman, sorting the week’s laundry. Her husband, Sykes, returns home and plays a nasty trick on her with his horsewhip, which resembles a snake. She is frightened and scolds him, but he simply laughs. Sykes calls Delia a hypocrite for working on Sunday after church, stomps on the clothes, and threatens her with physical violence. Delia abandons her meek posture and stands to defend herself. She proclaims that her sweat paid for the house and she will do as she pleases in it, threatening Sykes with a cast iron skillet. Sykes, surprised, slinks away to spend the night with his mistress. Delia finishes her work and goes to bed. She lies awake, remembering the hopeful early days of her marriage and its swift turn to abuse. When Sykes returns home in the night to claim his place in bed, she no longer cares what he says or does.
The following Saturday, Delia is passing the town store with her pony and cart to deliver clean clothes. A group of village men gathered on the shop’s porch begin discussing Delia and Sykes. They comment on Delia’s hard work and condemn Sykes for his abuse and infidelity. Joe Clarke, the storeowner, compares abusive husbands to men chewing sugarcane, who squeeze all the goodness out of something and throw away the remainder. Another man comments that they all ought to take Sykes and his mistress down to the swamp and beat them both, and the others seem to agree, but they stay on the porch and eat a melon instead. Sykes and his mistress Bertha appear, and a hush falls on the porch. Sykes makes a great show of ordering food for Bertha just as Delia drives past.
Time passes, and Bertha has now been in town for three months, with Sykes paying for her room in a boarding house. He promises to move her into his and Delia’s house as soon as he can get Delia out of it. Delia, meanwhile, has been through a great deal of hard work and embarrassment. She tries to ignore the situation, but Bertha keeps coming by the house. Delia and Sykes fight constantly.
One hot day in August, Delia comes home to find that Sykes has caught a rattlesnake and placed it in a box by the kitchen door in order to scare her away. Delia is terrified and demands that he take it away, but she is met only with laughter and denial. People from the village come by to ask Sykes about the snake, and one man advises him to kill it, but to no avail. The snake remains in its screen-covered box by the kitchen door, and after several days digesting its latest meal, becomes more active and begins rattling its tail. Delia again tells Sykes to take the snake away, but Sykes responds that he doesn’t care how she feels. Delia then astonishes Sykes by proclaiming that she hates him and telling him to get out of the house. They trade more insults, but Sykes leaves without carrying out any of his threats.
The next day, Sunday, Delia goes to church in the next town over and stays for the evening service. She comes home after dark singing hymns. When she arrives, she finds the snake is absent from its box, and feels the sudden hope that Sykes might have had a change of heart. She goes to strike a match for light and, finding only one, concludes that Sykes and Bertha must have been there while she was gone. Delia starts to sort her washing, but upon opening the laundry hamper, she is horrified to find the snake waiting in the basket. He begins to slither out onto the bed, and Delia flees across the yard to the hay barn. She climbs up onto the hay and stays there for hours, first deathly afraid, then enraged, then horribly calm. She concludes that she has done her best and “Gawd knows taint mah fault.”
Delia falls asleep and awakens to hear Sykes destroying the snake’s box in the pre-dawn light. She watches him go inside, then creeps down to peer through the bedroom window. Delia hears the snake rattling, but Sykes hears nothing until he knocks a pot lid down trying to find a match. He suddenly thinks he hears the rattle under the stove, and he flees to the bedroom. Delia hears Sykes’s cries as he is bitten and his struggle with the snake. She feels ill and begins to creep away, but finds herself frozen when Sykes calls out for her. Eventually she gets up and sees Sykes crawling out, his neck swollen from the snakebite. She knows that it is too late to save Sykes, and she goes to wait in the yard, helpless to keep him from realizing that she knows of his fate.