On a Sunday night, Delia Jones, a hardworking washerwoman, is sorting the week’s laundry. Her husband, Sykes, returns home and plays a nasty trick on her with his horsewhip, which resembles a snake—he throws it onto her shoulder, terrifying her. When Delia realizes what has happened, she tells Sykes that it’s a “sin” to frighten her in this way. Sykes is amused and unconcerned.
This scene introduces Delia as a hard worker. Sykes’ cruelty to Delia sets the tone for their relationship throughout the story, showing Sykes to be abusive and sadistic. The specific trick he plays on her, using his whip to mimic a snake, sets up snakes as threats and associates both the snake and Sykes’ abuse with the Christian concept of sin.
Sykes redirects the conversation to reprimand Delia for bringing “white folks’ clothes” into the house, obviously trying to pick a fight. Delia refuses to take his bait. She continues with her washing as he calls her a hypocrite for working on Sunday after church and he stomps on the clothes.
Sykes continues his abuse of Delia by expressing frustration with her work, although her work reminds him of their position as poor black people in a racist and segregated society. His effort to twist Delia’s Christian belief against her fails because she is more interested in behaving virtuously and making ends meet than in his opinion.
When his insults and interference fail to get a rise out of Delia, Sykes 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 and somewhat cowed, slinks away with a parting insult to spend the night somewhere that Delia “knew too well.”
While Delia usually embodies meekness as a virtue, she is no longer willing to accept Sykes’ threats towards her. Her years of hard work to build and maintain their home have brought her a sense of well-earned pride. Sykes, not knowing how to deal with a victim who fights back, flees the situation. His cowardice contributes to his negative image as a domestic abuser. His flight to somewhere Delia “knew” begins to subtly introduce the idea of knowledge as tied to negativity and sin, as it is implied that Sykes has gone somewhere unpleasant and upsetting to Delia.
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. She mourns the effect that years of hard work and violence have had on her former beauty. While she thinks that it is too late for her to find love, she consoles herself with the thought of finding peace in her lovely home.
This passage explores the effects of abuse on its victims—in Delia’s case, it has harmed her both physically and emotionally. Sykes took advantage of her love and has tried to take everything away from her. Her only hope left is to enjoy the fruits of her many years of hard labor.
Thinking more about the ways that Sykes has wronged her, Delia concludes that he will eventually get what is coming to him. This thought helps her to create a “spiritual earthworks” to defend her emotions from Sykes. Having found emotional peace, Delia goes to sleep. When Sykes returns home late in the night to rudely claim his place in bed, she no longer cares what he says or does.
Delia’s thoughts in this moment elaborate her Christian belief that Sykes will eventually be punished for his sins. This belief brings her comfort and the ability to emotionally withdraw from the relationship, thus protecting herself from the emotional harm of further disappointment.
The following Saturday, Delia is passing the town store with her pony and cart to deliver clean clothes. A group of village men who are 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. They think that Delia has to work so much because Sykes does not fulfill his responsibility to support her.
Here readers see that Delia’s hard work and Sykes’ abuse are both well known in the community. Further, the villagers confirm the moral values set up in the opening scene of the story: Sykes’s behavior is unacceptable, and Delia is simply doing her best. Although these men live in the same poor black town as Delia, not everyone here has to work quite so hard. Sykes has made her life exceptionally difficult.
Several men lament the effects of Sykes’ abuse on Delia. They wonder about his preference for other women and about why he has treated her so badly. 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.
The men in this conversation do not consider domestic abuse to be normal, and they struggle to understand why Sykes would disrespect Delia so thoroughly. Joe Clarke’s explanation illustrates the way that abusers may treat their victims as objects rather than people. This group of men appears to see both infidelity and abuse as worthy of punishment, as might be consistent with a Christian moral framework, since they include Sykes’ mistress in the call to action.
However, the men find that “the heat [is] melting their civic virtue” and they stay on the porch instead of taking any action based on their discussion. They ask Joe to bring out a melon to share. Everyone chips in and they are about to slice up a large melon when Sykes and his mistress Bertha appear. A hush falls on the porch and the men hide the melon away in order to exclude the newcomers.
Despite their good intentions, even people who see the wrongness of abuse are often unwilling to intercede. Instead, they decide to reap the benefits of community collaboration in the form of a shared melon. Although they are living under the same conditions of poverty and segregation as Delia, they are able to rely on their social bonds to access things they might not be able to afford on their own. They express their disapproval of Sykes through social exclusion rather than direct action.
Sykes makes a great show of ordering food for Bertha just as Delia drives past. He seems to enjoy flaunting his infidelity in public in order to hurt Delia and impress Bertha. Sykes and Bertha leave, and the men on the porch enjoy their melon while critiquing Bertha.
Sykes demonstrates that his taking a mistress is, at least in part, simply one more way of being cruel to Delia. He also seems to enjoy playing the role of the benefactor in his relationship, suggesting that Delia’s independent income from work may be threatening to his ego. Once again, the village men’s disapproval of Sykes becomes disapproval of his mistress.
Some time after, the narrator states that Bertha has now been in town for three months, and Sykes is paying for her room in a boarding house (the only one that will take her). Sykes promises to move Bertha into his and Delia’s house as soon as he can get Delia out of it.
Here readers see that Sykes’ abuse of Delia has shifted towards trying to get rid of her. He considers himself entitled to the house, despite all the sweat the she has poured into its maintenance. The fact that only one boarding house in town will take Bertha further drives home the community’s disapproval of Sykes’ abuse and infidelity.
Delia, meanwhile, has been through a great deal of hard work and embarrassment. She has been “over the earth at Gethsemane and up the rocks of Calvary.” She has tried to ignore the situation, but Bertha keeps coming by the house. Delia and Sykes fight constantly.
Delia continues to struggle against poverty as well as the emotional difficulties of her position. The mentions of suffering at Gethsemane and Calvary connect Delia to Biblical accounts of Christ’s suffering prior to his crucifixion. She unquestionably has the moral high ground in this scenario, while Bertha and Sykes’ attempts to torment her are morally reprehensible.
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—seemingly in order to scare her away. Delia startles with fright and demands that Sykes take it away, but she is met only with laughter and denial. Later 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 rattlesnake represents an escalation of Sykes’ abuse of Delia, from a false snake to the real thing. All the people around Sykes warn him of its danger, but he will not listen, In Christian iconography, snakes are associated with the Devil and with temptation towards sin. In the book of Genesis, for example, the serpent tempts Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, leading to Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden. By recalling this story with the snake as a tool for Sykes’ cruelty, Hurston foreshadows a coming downfall.
The snake remains in its screen-covered box by the kitchen door, and after several days digesting its latest meal, it becomes more active and begins rattling its tail. Delia gets angry and once again tells Sykes to take the snake away, saying that she will not stand for this treatment. Sykes responds that he doesn’t care how she feels. Delia gets up from the dinner table and astonishes Sykes by proclaiming that she hates him and telling him to get out of the house. They trade a few more insults, but Sykes leaves without carrying out any of his threats.
Both the snake and Delia “warn” Sykes to change his behavior in their own ways. Like Delia shedding her meek demeanor, the snake awakens from its sluggish state and starts to rattle. Sykes continues to demonstrate his cruelty and cowardice by fleeing rather than doing anything that might actually resolve the situation. Delia’s righteous anger is enough to chase him off for a while, but not to inspire him to change his ways. The snake as a danger and as a symbol of sin remains.
The following day, Sunday, Delia goes to church in the next town over and stays for the evening service, which raises her spirits. She comes home after dark singing hymns. When she arrives, she finds the snake is absent from its box, and she is struck with 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 continues to find comfort in Christianity, and her lightness of heart brings a renewed hope for positive change. Perhaps the snake (and the evil abuse that it symbolizes) is really gone! Her long experience of Sykes’ behavior, however, brings Delia back down to reality.
Delia starts in on sorting her washing, but upon opening the laundry hamper, she is horrified to find the snake waiting in the basket. It begins to slither out just as a gust of wind blows out the lantern and Delia flees across the yard to the hay barn.
As always, Delia wants to return to her work, which brings her comfort and stability in the midst of a difficult life. In a horrifying mirror of the opening scene, she is interrupted by a real snake and forced to flee to safety. The danger may have been invisible at first, but it was still there.
Delia 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.” She falls asleep.
Delia has to process the latest deadly manifestation of Sykes’ abuse. Much like her experience of building a “spiritual earthworks,” she returns to the conclusion that none of this is her fault, with the implication that Sykes will have to deal with the consequences of his own actions. On some level, Delia knows that something bad is about to happen.
Delia awakens to hear Sykes destroying the snake’s box in the pre-dawn light. She watches him linger outside the kitchen and then go inside, and she creeps down to peer through the bedroom window.
Instead of going out to meet Sykes, Delia simply watches him arrive. Part of her calm seems to include the decision to let Sykes confront what he has done on his own.
Delia hears the snake rattling, and the narrator notes that the rattlesnake is a “ventriloquist” and can be hard to locate from sound alone. 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, exclaiming in fear.
Delia knows that the snake is in the house, but she has given up on trying to do anything for Sykes. Finally he is the one afraid. This moment is, in many ways, a reckoning. After many years of bringing Delia fear and pain, Sykes is now the one to suffer.
Sykes freezes for a moment, then begins moving again and, hearing the rattlesnake, leaps onto the bed. Delia then hears a horrible, almost inhuman cry, followed by more screams, and sees Sykes pull a stick from the window to beat the snake with. She feels ill and begins to creep away when she hears him calling for her. She finds herself unable to move, listening to him cry out.
Sykes’ confrontation with the rattlesnake is also a moment of coming face to face with the abuse and sin it represents. He brought all of this into the house, damaging his own soul and humanity. Although she knows that Sykes has brought this upon himself, Delia struggles to turn aside because she is a compassionate person at heart.
Eventually Delia gets up and sees Sykes crawling out on hands and knees, his neck swollen from the snakebite. She feels an immense wave of pity, knowing that it is too late to save Sykes, and she goes to wait in the yard, understanding that he knows that she knows what is happening to him.
By the time Sykes is bitten by the snake, Delia cannot change course. She has left him to “reap his sowing” as she thought early in the story, and both of them have come into horrible knowledge. The emphasis on knowing in this final scene once again evokes the Book of Genesis and the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from God’s grace. By eating the forbidden fruit, they gained the knowledge of good and evil, and thus could no longer be innocent. In Delia and Sykes’ case, a snake has also brought knowledge and a downfall. While Delia will now be free of Sykes’ abuse, witnessing his death is its own loss of innocence, and she is pained by it even while she knows she was justified in not intervening.