Here are the questions I would like you to answer (NOTE: you will not be able to answer these questions until you have reviewed both the Week 2 Introduction and the Week 2 Lecture:
1. You have just read Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat.” In my lecture for this week, I talked about “dialect,” and how it’s sometimes difficult to read and follow. What did you think? Did you find the spoken words of the characters difficult to understand, or were you able to sound them out?
2. Next, you’ll notice that a rattlesnake takes up a large portion of the story. In literature, snakes are usually symbolic creatures (think Garden of Eden) aligned with evil. In this story, though, the snake acts in a different (and ironic!) way. In this particular story, what do you think the snake could be symbolic of?
3. Finally, most students really enjoy this story for its satisfying conclusion. Based on the ending, what do you think the theme of the story is? That is, what is the message that Hurston is trying to teach the reader?
The first story is called “Sweat” by the great American author Zora Neale Hurston. In order to fully understand the story, one should know a little about Hurston’s background . . .
As a child, Hurston grew up in the all-African American town of Eatonville, Florida. A majority of her stories take place here (or in a town very much like it.) Later, she became an anthropologist whose studies focused on African-American cultures in the United States and the Caribbean. And finally, she became a celebrated author of folklore, stories, and novels.
“Sweat” takes place in an African American town similar to the one Hurston grew up in. and the first thing you will notice is that the characters speak in dialect. When authors use dialect, they use non-standard spelling, grammar, and punctuation to give the reader an accurate sense of what the characters sound like. This is most often done to indicate the regional accents of the characters.
The most famous example of this technique is Mark Twain, who would often have his characters speak in regional accents. For example, has a narrator in one of his Western stories say the following: Smiley had a yeller one-eyed cow that didn’t have no tail, only jest a short stump like a bannanner which can be translated into standard English as: “Smiley had a yellow one-eyed cow that didn’t have a tail, only just a short stump like a banana.”
One of the great things about playing with the language this way is that the reader gets a better sense of “being there.” As you will see, Hurston is a master of imitating the dialect of the African American characters she writes about. She is recreating the speech patterns she heard as a little girl in Florida. But you should also note that the narrator of her story does not use dialect. Instead, the narrator uses the clinical standard English that Hurston would have used in her anthropological studies. This combination of techniques makes for a very interesting read.