“Sweat” is a fictional short story in Southern American literature written by Zora Neale Hurston. Telling an unfortunate and dark story of domestic abuse, the focus of this fiction focuses on the struggles and perseverance of the hardworking protagonist Delia. “Sweat” demonstrates a feminist perspective of overcoming abuse and achieving justice based on themes and symbolism of good and evil as well as female empowerment.
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The plot of “Sweat” is interesting in that it offers a significant number of contrasts. The social class of underprivileged and wealthy, race of black and white, the roles of women and men are inherently contrasted and compared throughout the story. To some extent, each one is also a contrast between good and evil, in the context of this story. Whites are negatively described in the story, while African Americans are good hardworking folk. Delia is a good woman while Sykes is a bad man. Delia thought to herself, “Fifteen years of misery and suppression had brought Delia to the place where she would hope anything that looked towards a way over or through her wall of inhibitions” (Hurston).
Of course, life is more complex than such a bipolar approach. However, the character of Delia is a representation of virtue, patience, and to some extent purity as she continues to work hard and tolerate her husband while being a contributing member of society and the church. Meanwhile, Sykes is a representation of vice and darkness through his actions and violence. It is a clash of good and evil, but goodness triumphs in a most ironic and karmic turn of events as the snake that Sykes hoped would kill Delia ended up suffering the fate he wished upon his wife as fate led to his undoing.
The primary symbol to explore in the context of the feminist perspective and major themes of this essay is the snake. Rattlesnakes are a common threat in Florida during certain seasons, and Delia was rightly fearful of them as the bite could be deadly. The symbolism of the snake is shown from the beginning of the story as Sykes throws a whip at his wife, “Sykes, what you throw at whip on me like dat? You know it would skeer me–looks just like a snake, an’ you know how skeered Ah is of snakes” (Hurston). Subsequently, they erupt into an argument and it becomes another demonstration of Sykes’ abuse and control over his wife.
Hurston foreshadows the fate of Sykes at this point as the snake symbolism becomes representative of death as well. Furthermore, it should be pointed out that the snake in this story is a Biblical allusion as well since serpents in Christianity have always represented evil (Carter 605). The snake’s venom is a symbol of the abuse and toxicity which Sykes brings. Therefore, when he tries to use that “evil,” a rattlesnake to get rid of his wife, it turns on him. In a manner, his abuse and toxicity were the fundamental cause of his demise.
As demonstrated by the themes and symbolism in “Sweat,” it is evident that the short story has strong feminist undertones. The story’s publication in 1926 by a black female author was an achievement of its own due to numerous societal obstacles. Therefore, viewing the story through a lens of feminist literary criticism, critics agree that Hurston’s gender and race identity are reflected in the writing, and deliver a strong political message on social inequality. “Sweat” primarily tells a story of a marriage, one that is deeply grounded in the stereotypical and most traditional roots of marginalized groups and societal expectations.
Delia is a homely woman, a caretaker of her own home but others as well in order to earn money. Meanwhile, her husband, despite his affairs, alcoholism, and abuse has dominant control over her life. While skillfully presenting this female inequality in the plot, Hurston subtly shows aspects of feminism (Burke).
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Delia is strong and independent, despite her race and living in a patriarchal society, she is underprivileged by both race and gender. However, she is able to support her family and survive abuse and adversity, empowerment which in its very nature emasculates men. She maintains a purpose and dedication to her job as a potential pathway to success, and similar to Hurston herself, Delia succeeds in spite of obstacles and can achieve some level of liberation from her abusive husband.
It is implied that Delia will be able to live a much freer and happier life independent from Sykes. In the context of the time period and society, it was expected that a woman can only achieve stability and happiness in marriage. Hurston’s life and upbringing likely influenced the development of the story “Sweat” and its feminist themes and plot are an excellent literary example of early progressive feminism, representing a black female voice in a largely masculine, patriarchal society (Banu 41).
“Sweat,” tells a story of an abusive marriage and a protagonist who struggles with being underprivileged in race and gender while working hard to achieve something in life. Hurston portrays this life as a continuous struggle between good and evil which represents itself in various forms. Furthermore, it is a story of feminism and feminine empowerment as the author demonstrates motifs of a woman that is able to achieve happiness and independence by overcoming obstacles and becoming free from an abusive relationship.
Banu, Sheela R. “A Feminist Reading of Zora Neale Hurston’s Sweat.” Rock Pebbles, vol. 17, no. 4, 2013, pp. 38-41. Web.
Burke, Marion C. “Zora Neale Hurston’s Sweat and the Black Female Voice: The Perspective of the African-American Woman.” Inquiries Journal, vol. 4, no. 5, 2012. Web.
Carter, Catherine. “The God in the Snake, the Devil in the Phallus: Biblical Revision and Radical Conservatism in Hurston’s ‘Sweat.’” The Mississippi Quarterly, vol. 67, no. 4, 2014, pp. 605-620. Web.
Hurston, Zora N. “Sweat.” Biblioklept. 2013. Web.