Teaching Literature - Designing A Short Story Unit

Seminar Paper, 2003

25 Pages, Grade: Good


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Choosing “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston- a personal reading

3. Plan of the teaching unit

4. The “Rahmenlehrplan” and the didactic potential of the story within the unit

5. Bibliography


Background information to the Harlem Renaissance

Biography of Zora Neale Hurston

Two poems


1. Introduction

The seminar “ Literature in the English language classroom” should familiarize students with a range of contemporary short stories and approaches to using them in the context of a teaching unit on “Living in a multicultural society”. In this context the basic fact that stories in general meet a basic human need and a plurality of methodological approaches especially for young people in order to understand the “other” should be achieved was emphasized as the main potential literature in the English language classroom can have. Because of a high scale of creative activities and product- oriented procedures in experiencing new perspectives and new ethnicities the short story has a great potential to fulfil this basic need. In order to reveal the potential of Zora Neale Hurston’s short story for “Living in a multicultural society “with respect to teaching the topic of Black Americans in the USA, the subtopic of the Harlem Renaissance as the period where Black Americans became famous and the learning goals, tasks for the learners as well as the checking of the learning achievements the following parts should provide an insight in my ideas concerning a teaching unit centring on the short story “Sweat”.

2. Choosing “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston- a personal reading

“Living in a multicultural society” is with respect to the development of almost all European countries becoming multicultural or multiethnic societies a topic that should gain a great emphasis especially in teaching literature since students have many possibilities of interpreting literature and experiencing new cultures with new perspectives an the one hand. On the other hand they also became aware of their own culture. The main idea of choosing “Sweat” was to make the students aware of a different culture and the problems within this culture and cultural heritage of blacks in the USA.

Zora Neale Hurston’s short story "Sweat" (1926), takes a look at a woman dominated by her husband. Delia's husband Sykes seems not to appreciate her goodness: she works hard, is faithful to him, and tries to make the best of her situation. By comparison, Sykes taunts her verbally, abuses her physically, and badmouths his own wife to his cronies in town. At the end of the story, though, Delia gets her revenge on Sykes by turning one of Sykes' jokes back on himself: He brings a snake into the house, knowing that Delia is terribly frightened of them, and leaves to spend a night out carousing. Rather than share her bedroom with the snake, Delia escapes into the hay loft in the barn. When Sykes returns at dawn, he has no idea the snake is inside the house, and becomes the victim of his own terrible prank. Delia hears Sykes' distress, but does not move to help him. The story ends with Delia acknowledging that any medical help is too far away, and that Sykes' demise is inevitable.

When I read the story for the first time, the connection to the Harlem renaissance as the topic of the unit, the conflict within the black community and a kind of hard cultural heritage blacks had to face with reference to the content came to my mind. Furthermore the story also fits to analysis of formal means of narration, language and stylistic devices that could be worked out together with the students. In order to show the main ideas that came up with my personal reading and the help of the internet, the following passages should give a kind of analysis of the story.

Topic/ Related topics: Minorities in the USA (Black Americans- > Harlem Renaissance), female (and ethnic) voices, black language, gender relations, living in a multicultural society( black/white conflict), poverty and hard work, emotions

Background information on the author: Zora Neale Hurston was born in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated all-black town in the United States. Her mother was a seamstress and her father was a carpenter and a preacher. Her family had little money so she spent her childhood and adolescence living with various relatives. Nevertheless, Hurston attended Howard University, Barnard College, and Columbia University, where she studied under German-American anthropologist Franz Boas. Hurston returned to Eatonville after college to perform an anthropological field study that influenced her later output in fiction: she used her university education to study and write about the culture in which she was raised. Her able use of the scientific discourse of anthropology gave her work credibility and encouraged readers to think of southern black culture as a rich, complex world worthy of serious study. Hurston performed similar work in Jamaica, Haiti, Bermuda, and Honduras. Her publications include folklore collections based on this work: Mules and Men (1935) includes material Hurston collected during her field research in the rural American South and Tell My Horse (1938) describes folk customs in Haiti and Jamaica. Hurston's best-known novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), tracks a Southern black woman's search, over 25 years and 3 marriages, for her true identity and a community in which she can develop that identity. Her prolific literary output also includes the novels Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934) and Seraph on the Sewanee (1948); short stories; plays; journal articles; and an autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942). In her later years Hurston had significant health problems that kept her from writing, studying, and teaching. She was physically unable to do what Ralph Ellison did: develop a literary reputation through lectures, university teaching, and participation in a literary world. As a result, Hurston died impoverished and unrecognized by the literary community, despite the important role she played in the Harlem Renaissance. Like many of the women artists involved in this movement, she was written out of it, both by its male members and by literary history. During the 1970's, a new generation of black writers, notably Alice Walker, rediscovered Hurston's work. This brought Hurston's work back into print and back into focus in the literary and academic worlds. In 1995, a two-volume set of her writings, some previously unpublished, was released. Like Ellison and other educated black artists, Hurston knew two worlds: the mostly rural world of the South, with its folkloric traditions and its regional identity, and the more urban and cosmopolitan world of Northern cities. All black American authors deal with this divide: part of their writing is always about the definition of "the black writer." Should a black author write about the rural world of the American South? Or about flourishing urban communities, like Harlem? Hurston's interest in anthropology suggests her desire to merge these two worlds: her studies enabled her to use the respected discourse of anthropology to make visible the culture of the rural American South which was still relatively unknown to mainstream America. Like Ellison, her work tries to make visible the poor and working class black people about which most white readers and writers knew nothing. Like Glaspell, Hurston treated the lives of average citizens with respect and empathy: she wrote about characters in which most readers -- and many High Modernist authors -- did not consider worthy subjects of "serious" literature.

Images in “Sweat” that could be worked out:

(Delia: the Biblical Delilah who emasculated her Samson,

because Delia supports Sykes by doing white folk's laundry.)

bull whip: 1. "the Satanic object associated with a snake"; 2. a phallic symbol, in Sykes

case, an "overcompensation for his 'emasculated' condition as a dependent of his wife"

snake: 1. "satanic object of destruction". 2. A phallic symbol linked to the bull whip and

thus, in Sykes's case, an "overcompensation for his 'emasculated' condition as dependent

of his wife". 3. The snake represents the evil Sykes. 4. "In the context of Delia's

unremitting faith, the snake comes to represent the evil that lives inside [Delia] despite her

Christianity, a force she knows and is afraid of, but which Sykes's cruelty will not permit

her to overcome.

sweat: 1. "the traditional work ethic". 2. Sweat represents the laborious effort Delia has

made into perfecting her work. The high quality of Delia's work is an extension of her

creative self; it is thus the "the corporal medium of her [Delia's] art".

(iron skillet: "a female object used for creation . . . [which] can be used destructively but is

intended primarily to be positive, that is, to cook and create a meal. Thus, women can use

their creative power to defend themselves against the destruction that is the only intended

use of male power".)

(trees and flowers: 1. "Delia has created her [own] small world; she has lovingly planted

trees and flowers in the garden around her house. . . . Hurston presents Delia's portion of

Eden/Eatonville as a female-created place, ordered and beautiful because of the efforts of a

woman". 2. One of these trees is the chinaberry tree, symbolic of Eden's Tree

of Knowledge of Good and Evil.)

Chinaberry tree: 1. Delia "ends the story holding to a chinaberry tree, a rigid, linear

symbol that provides rootedness in a world of slithering sinuosity. . . . The phallic resonates

in this imagery . . . . Delia is frightened of Sykes not only because of his cruelty; he also

represents male sexuality ominous in its desire". 2. A type of Eden's Tree of Knowledge of

Good and Evil. "'Sweat' is an Adam and Eve in reverse, a very unblissful bower which is

made peaceful when the snake . . . bites the man . . . . Delia (Eve) stops at the Chinaberry

tree and gains knowledge . . ." (Lupton 50-51).

Narrative strategy/point of view:

- important for reader's understanding of the story
- crafts personalities of Delia and Sykes as well as their relationship
- third person omniscient narrator, draws character sketches of Sykes and Delia,
- vivid and complex characters (explicit and implicit characterization)
- long passages of narration mixed with dialogue design -> thoughts of Sykes and Delia are so different-series of contrasts develops their relationship and personalities
- credibility of an outside narrator, sympathy toward Delia
- character development and interactions, meaning, plot, symbolism develop either directly or indirectly from the narration

Issues referring to (multi)cultural ,religious context:

- reference to the black/white and male/female conflict
- images underscore marital and moral tension, feminist questions concerning the exploitation, intimidation, and oppression, economic and personal degradation of marriage in a racist and sexist society
- the interaction of three protagonists: Sykes and the snake (male ones), female character, Delia
- the title itself “Sweat“ represents physical and emotional investment of Delia (resigned to satisfy all of her economic and aesthetic needs herself)-> Delia's only source of satisfaction comes from her labour -> correlation exists between this image and the fall of man (God sentenced fallen man to a lifetime of hard labour: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground”;
- tradition of folktale, a specific black culture (specific language, Southern dialect)

Role of Race: -1926 south of America = place of racial division and inequality, black men and women, by law free, not considered to be human beings in the eyes of whites (blacks = "niggers") black men were regularly sentenced to death for crimes against white people, but left to provide their own justice within the black community, time of segregation (part of setting)

- the state of race relations: white man was considered to many black men as the devil in disguise-> the fact that Delia supports the family by washing white people's clothes adds unneeded weight to her already heavy load
- white people are mentioned three times in the story (Sykes, calls Delia a hypocrite for taking sacrament and washing the devil's clothes on the Sabbath; Old Man Anderson observing Sykes as being "too biggety to live" since a white woman showed him how to drive a car; Delia threatens Sykes by saying she will find help from white people if he did not let up on his beatings)
- matter of race is prevalent in the minds of the characters

Treatment of women: - women expected to do domestic work and be obedient, loyal wives, husband could do what he pleased, Delia survives years of her husband's cruel psychological and physical treatment, affair with Bertha -> devastating to Delia's pride, divorce was a very taboo topic

With this kind of reflections and ideas (e.g. from the essays provided in the Internet), I was sure to choose this story because of a great potential within the specific context of “ Living in a multicultural society” , gender relations and women’s problems of equality, blacks in America (content) and the context of formal narrative analysis of a short story.


Excerpt out of 25 pages


Teaching Literature - Designing A Short Story Unit
University of Potsdam  (Institute for Anglistics/American Studies)
Advanced Seminar 'Literature in the English language classroom'
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
633 KB
13 page essay, 12 page appendix
Teaching, Literature, Designing, Short, Story, Unit, Advanced, Seminar, English
Quote paper
Liane Weigel (Author), 2003, Teaching Literature - Designing A Short Story Unit, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/25637


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