Themes and Literary Devices in Zora Neale Hurst's Short Stories

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Zora Neale Hurston: A Harlem Renaissance Writer

Zora Neale Hurston was an American writer who belonged to the Harlem Renaissance, a literary movement which flourished and appreciated the African-American culture. Hurston employs various themes and literary devices in her stories to pass her message across. Her stories are very similar and yet exceptionally different. This essay focuses on comparing and contrasting two of her short stories entitled 'Sweat' published in 1926 and 'The Gilded Six-Bits' published in 1933.

The Story of 'Sweat'

'Sweat' revolves around a married couple of Delia and Sykes Jones. Delia is a wash-woman who lives with her husband Sykes who has no occupation. He enjoys mistreating her and uses her fear of snakes against her and places a caged rattlesnake by the kitchen door to scare Delia. Almost everyone in the town is aware of the abusive relationship. Delia is finally tired of her husband and has realized that she no longer needs him especially because she is the provider. One day, Sykes places the snake in her clothes basket without her knowledge, but Delia luckily escapes before the snake bites her. Later, he comes back to the house drunk, and the snake bites him on the neck. He slowly dies pleading with Delia to help him, but she ignores him.

The Story of 'The Gilded Six-Bits'

'The Gilded Six-Bits' tells a story of a happy newly married couple of Joe and Missie May. At first, their marriage is great, and Joe even thinks of their future together with children. Then, a man named Otis D. Slemmons rolls into town claiming to be tremendously wealthy. He sets up an ice-cream parlor and tells his stories to other people including Joe. He shows off his stick-pin and watch chain gold piece, and Joe is so impressed that he talks of Otis to his wife and even takes her to the parlor to show her off to Otis. Then one night, Joe finds Otis in bed with Missie and angrily kicks him out of the house but retains his watch chain. Joe, however, does not leave Missie. He punishes her silently and shows her that the gold chain was a counterfeit. They end up having a baby and their lives move on as normal.

The Theme of Marriage

The theme of marriage is prevalent in both stories but gets presented in different ways. 'Sweat' describes a married couple that is always arguing and verbally abusing each other. No love or affection exists between Delia and Sykes even though they have been together for fifteen years. In their marriage, the roles get exchanged as Delia acts as the home provider, and Sykes ungratefully feeds off of her money. However, Sykes affirms his dominant position in the marriage through domestic violence, threatening and scaring his wife. He first physically assaulted her only two months into their marriage. When Delia washes white people's clothes, he cruelly tells her, "Ah'll throw 'em out and put mah fist up side yo' head to boot" (Hurston, 1926, p. 1023). Furthermore, he brings home a caged snake because he knows Delia fears them and when she asks him to take it away, he tells her, "A whole lot Ah keer 'bout how you feels inside uh out. Dat snake aint goin' no damn wheah till Ah gits ready fuh 'im tuh go" (Hurston, 1926, p. 1027). In contrast, 'The Gilded Six-Bits' depicts a married couple full of love and affection for one another. Joe and Missie May are playful with each other and Joe buys his wife gifts including candy kisses. In turn, Missie May takes care of Joe's needs such as preparing him delightful meals and setting up clean clothes for him. Joe calls his wife affectionate names including sugar and honey. They have warm and tender conversations with one another as Missie May seats on her husband's lap. During one of their conversations, she assures Joe, "Ah'm satisfied wid you jes' lak you is, baby. God took pattern after a pine tree and built you noble" (Hurston, 1933, p. 1013). In another of their conversations, Joe tells his wife that he is content with what he has just as long as he is her husband. They are evidently happy within their marriage.

Infidelity in Both Stories

However, both the two different marriages present infidelity. In 'Sweat', Sykes cheats on his wife with a mistress named Bertha. He does not even attempt to hide the affair from Delia. Sykes pays for Bertha's accommodation fee at Della Lewis and even takes her out often to Winter Park. He confidently tells his mistress, "Sho' you kin have dat lil' ole house soon's Ah kin git dat 'oman outa dere" (Hurston, 1926, p. 1026). He goes on to tell Bertha that she can possess anything she wants and shows no care for his wife's feelings. Likewise, in 'The Gilded Six-Bits', Missie May cheats on Joe with the self-proclaimed wealthy man, Otis. She has an affair in their home as she did not expect Joe to return from work so soon. Joe quietly enters the house in an attempt to surprise his wife romantically but then notices weird movement in the bedroom and first thinks it is criminals. When he lights the lamp, he realizes it is Otis. Later Missie Mays sobbingly tells him, "Oh Joe, honey, he said he wuz gointer give me dat gold money and he jes' kept on after me-" (Hurston, 1933, p. 1016).

The Actions of the Victims

In addition, the victim characters from the two stories possess completely different traits when it comes to dealing with situations. Joe from 'The Gilded Six-Bits' is forgiving and sympathetic while Delia Jones from 'Sweat' is merciless and unsympathetic. When Joe finds out that his wife cheated on him, he takes some time to punish her silently through guilt, but in the end, he forgives her and moves on. After she delivers a baby boy six months later, he goes to the foot of her bed every day before work and enquires about her well-being. Moreover, one weekend he visits the candy store to buy his wife the candy kisses he used to get her before she cheated. He tells the clerk happily that all he wants to buy is the kisses; however many. He says, "Ah got a lil boy chile home now. Tain't a week old yet, but he kin suck a sugar tit ad maybe eat one them kisses hisself" (Hurston, 1933, p. 1019). He returns home and continues his playful traditions with his wife. On the other hand, Delia's situation with her husband plays out differently when the snake he had secretly planted for her bites him instead. From outside, she hears him cry out for help. He continuously calls out to her, but she never moves from where she is. When she finally walks towards the door, she looks at him in his severe condition then walks away to the Chinaberry tree where she waits for him to slowly die (Hurston, 1926, p. 1030).


Hurston, Z. N. (1926). Sweat. Retrieved from

Hurston, Z. N. (1933). The Gilded Six-Bits. Retrieved from

November 24, 2023



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