The work that will be discussed throughout the paper is Sweat by Zora Neale Hurston. This short story was published in 1926 and, despite nearly nine decades from its first appearance, covers relevant and acute topics. The tale reveals the hardships of post-war marriage through the prism of sexist attitude from the muscular part of the union. Hurston narrates the story of the oppressed woman Delia and her wicked, lazy, and cheating husband Sykes abusing his wife and making an attempt to kill her. Sweat also contains issues such as the power of karma, good versus evil, and religion.
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The author narrates the tale adding the element of particular African Americans’ English accent of the 1920s, revealing the atmosphere of the time. Although the story is not long, it consistently develops the protagonist and antagonist characters providing the readers with an opportunity to empathize with Delia’s fate and get relief and satisfaction from the final. Thus, given the mentioned peculiarities and strengths of Sweat, the discovery of the work might be important and relevant action to undertake.
The narration begins with the depiction of Delia’s, a hardworking little woman, day routine when she sorts the dirty clothes of white people that she washes and brings back to owners to earn money. Then, the author introduces Sykes, her husband, who treats her as a property, not respecting her work and personality. Not long after their marriage, he had always been tried to hurt and abuse her. And now, keeping in mind the wife’s fear of snakes, he uses the whip which looks like one: “something long, round, limp and black fell upon her shoulder and slithered to the floor beside her. A great terror took hold of her” (Hurston 2).
Delia is angry at the husband but takes his laughs indifferently and keeps doing her work. Sykes dislikes such a reaction and provokes Delia by scattering dirty clothes and saying verbal threats. The offended woman cannot take it anymore; she claims that the last fifteen years were nothing but “Work and sweat. Cry and sweat, pray and sweat” (Hurston 2). She grabs the iron skillet to get ready to defend herself as Sykes will undoubtedly try to punish her.
However, the husband could not expect such behavior and, being a pusillanimous person shocked by Delia’s courage, do not beat her as always. It might be a turning point in the story as Sykes starts to feel the wife’s growing power and decides to get rid of Delia. Moreover, the readers find out that the husband also cheats on Delia with a fat woman Bertha. He tells the mistress, “Sho‘ you kin have dat lil‘ ole house soon‘s Ah kin git dat ‘oman outa dere” (Hurston 5).
Cunning Sykes creates an evil plan to kill his wife or at least get her out of the house. He brings a poisonous rattlesnake home, puts it in a white soapbox, and says that the snake will stay at home till it dies. Delia is scared but calmly says that now she hates Sykes as much as she used to love him. The husband’s threats do not have any effect on her anymore.
On the weekend, Delia returns from the church in a good spirit and starts to sort dirty clothes; her husband is not home. Years of constant threating made her being alert to what surrounds her, and she instantly realizes that the snake is in the basket – Sykes’ devil plan – that Delia always uses during the work. She overcomes her fear and, after the rattlesnake sways into the bed, Delia escapes from the house and hides in the barn for the whole night.
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Sykes comes home drunk and damages the snake’s cell to create the reason if it bites his wife. He does not understand that she is in safety and notices the rattlesnake’s hissing. The drunken man wrongly guesses where the snake is and jumps right into the death’s embrace – into the bed. He desperately calls Delia, who comes to him after recovering from the scare. She pities Sykes, but doctors are too far, and she leaves him. Delia approaches the Chinaberry tree and realizes her freedom, power, and independence.
The tale is about two main characters – Delia and Sykes, a protagonist and antagonist, respectively. Hurston narrates the story about the black couple when the wife “becomes the breadwinner by working as washerwoman for white families” (Baroroh and Marsih 41). Delia goes the way of development from a small, weak, and oppressed woman to a strong and independent person, overcoming all the threats and dangers created by her husband. Asmarani states that the protagonist “was pretty before becoming Sykes‘s wife as can be seen from the words of Walter Thomas who likes her before” (2).
Sykes is a lazy and evil man who is confident about his control over Delia. However, the readers see all his devil essence when he is not able to handle his wife’s growing power and decides to kill her. He is a man that “imaged with the term of “self” and the sense that he can do anything without help from others. The short story turns the fact upside down” (Bere and Arianto 256).
Main themes of Sweat
Hurston tells the story of significantly opposite personalities of Delia and Sykes, emphasizing the distinction between them. This distinguishable contrast might aim to be the embodiment of a never-ending struggle of good versus evil. In this regard, Sweat follows a classic narration when the antagonist is strong at the beginning (Sykes’ constant mistreatments). Still, then the good becomes more powerful and defeats him (Delia’s emancipation).
At the climax, the readers see the power of karma when the evil husband is bitten by his snake that was for Delia. Another issue about karma is that if Delia was not so hardworking and oppressed, she would not be so alert and could not immediately notice the rattlesnake, which would have had a fatal result. Then, Sykes might epitomize sexist inclinations of the time and metaphorically embody the snake as he is vile and lethal himself (Khaoula 87). Moreover, Hurston might make some references to religion in the tale. For instance, the chinaberry tree with its poisonous fruits may mark “the origins of African-derived religions in the United States” and that African slaves “situated their narratives in the New World” (Jenkins 220).
It seems reasonable to assume that Sweat is a short story about the married couple of African Americans in the 1920s that depicts the husband’s oppressions and Delia’s struggle against them. There are two main characters in the tale – Delia, a protagonist, and Sykes, an antagonist. Their contrast might be the embodiment of the fight of good versus evil. Moreover, Sweat contains such topics as sexism, emancipation, power of karma, and religion.
Asmarani, Ranta. “The Portrayal of a Black Woman’s Perseverance in Zora Neale Hurston‟s Short Story Entitled Sweat.” Journal of Language and Literature, vol. 13, no. 1, 2018, pp. 1–6.
Baroroh, Mashbahah, and Linusia Marsih. “A Comparison of Types of Domestic Violence in Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat” and in Sandra Cisneros’s “Woman Hollering Creek”.” Journal of Language, Literary, and Cultural Studies, vol. 1, no. 2, 2018, pp. 39–49.
Bere, Noviana O., and Tomy Arianto. “Woman Violence and Resistance in “Sweat” Short Story by Zora Neale Hurston: Feminist Approach.” Jurnal Basis, vol. 6, no. 2, 2019, pp. 249–258.
Hurston, Zora N. “Sweat.” 1926.
Jenkins, Tammie. “Writing Vodou into Literature: Exploring Diasporic Religious Symbols and Lore in Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat” and Jonah’s Gourd Vine.” Journal of Africana Religions, vol. 4, no. 2, 2016, pp. 215–224.
Khaoula, Chakour. “Racial Politics in Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat”, Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif”, and James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”.” Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 17, no. 1, 2018, pp. 86–90.