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On Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat” Essay

Zora Neale Hurston bypassed the conventional African-American writer of her era by not advocating race consciousness in her short story “Sweat.” By ignoring political expectations in her writing, Hurston introduces the reader to African-American Folklore. First published in 1926, Hurston shuns her contemporaries and white, male dominated publishing companies to invoke her own writing style. Earlier critics dismissed Hurston’s “Sweat” as being a simplistic example of the African-American family. The truth is, “Sweat” is anything but simplistic, or conventional based on the Christian symbolism, and Hurston’s ability to express her own life within the character of Delia.

At first glance, the story could be described as simplistic because of the realism of the characters that Hurston has created. The protagonist, Delia Jones, is a seemingly virtuous Christian woman who struggles with her failing marriage and the hard, knuckle-baring work she must complete in order to keep the house she has called home for 15 years. The antagonist is her overbearing husband, Sykes, who is abusive – both physical and mental – and domineering. Sykes takes pleasure in parading his acts of infidelity throughout the village and right under Delia’s nose. By creating a spectacle of his marriage, Sykes provides a clear indication of his value system and his uncaring attitude toward his marriage. The climax of the story becomes apparent as Sykes’ plan to kill Delia with a rattlesnake backfires and he is the one who is killed. Delia is able to gain knowledge throughout the story about her faith, as a wife, and as a person. At first glance, the story seems to be a battle of good versus evil with good prevailing – but is it?

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Hurston’s choice to use a third-person omniscient narration gives the reader the chance to mentally picture the characters that have been described above and see the thoughts as they progress – or decline in Sykes case – through this tragic journey. The narrative point of view is the element that holds the entire story together. The narration through third-person gives the story more brutal honesty than would any other type of narration. Through the third-person, the reader is able to develop the personalities of not only Delia and Sykes, but of Bertha and the village men as well. Hurston’s choice of narration also gives believability to the story and illustrates the extreme journey that Delia has to face. Through the narration of third-person, the reader is able to feel sympathetic for Delia and her plight; had the story been told from Delia’s perspective, the story would have lost that value of sympathy. Is Delia deserving of such sympathy?

Each of the important elements of the short story – plot, symbolism, setting, and characterization – is developed directly or indirectly through the narration. The other aspects of the story – diction, personality, and scenes – arise from the narration and the point of view of the narrator. By choosing the third person narration, Hurston channels the entire story and guides the reader to a clear understanding of Delia’s tragic journey.

Hurston creates characters that allow the reader to identify with them. By using dialect of Black English, Hurston gives a sense of realism to the story. Ironically, it is because of such realism that earlier critics lashed out at Hurston for her negative portrayal of African-Americans. Hurston is able to vividly create complex characters who have to come to grips with reality: “She lay awake, gazing upon the debris that cluttered their matrimonial trail. Anything like flowers had long ago been drowned in the salty stream that had been pressed from her heart”(Hurston, 666). The journey that Delia travels on gives a clear indication of the strength she holds deep within herself. Hurston creates this strength and allows Delia to build upon it. What the reader finds within Delia’s character is her willingness to stand by her faith in all times of despair – or does Delia lose her faith?

By allowing the reader to sit across the table of Delia and Sykes, Hurston gives a glimpse into the trials of African-American women during this era: “Nobody but a woman could tell how she knew this even before she struck the match. But she did and it put her into a new fury”(671). Hurston is speaking to all women – within her era and the women of the future – as if she is saying, “See, I know what it feels like, I know the pain, we are all together in this.” If viewed from a feminist perspective, the reader would have ample evidence to support the claim. Although the story is full of Feminist perspectives, that is not the focus of this paper. However, the fact that a proper analysis of this story through a Feminist perspective could be completed should be noted.

The reader is able to join “the village men on Joe Clarke’s porch.” By doing so, Hurston allows the sense of community to shine through and feel the outrage they all feel toward Sykes: “Syke Jones ain’t wuth de shot an’ powder hit would tek tuk kill ’em”(667). The creation of the village men helps to fill in the blanks of the story where Delia and Sykes are concerned. By adding this group of Wise Men, Hurston guides the reader into the rocky 15-year relationship and follows it through the years to the literal end. This progression of Delia’s ascent allows the reader to observe the extreme hardships that she has had to endure. The progression of Sykes’ descent allows the reader to scrutinize the abusive treatment of Delia.

A round character within the story that is only described as “ol’ Satan” seems to play the leading role of redeemer for Delia. Ol’ Satan is the rattlesnake that Sykes uses to try to scare Delia into leaving him the house that he promised to Bertha – either by her leaving or by death, whichever came first. Ironically, Ol’ Satan is the snake who ruins Sykes plan and kills him instead. Known as a religious symbol of evil and Satan throughout the literary world, the snake in this story symbolizes triumph over despair – or could it be evil in disguise? “The rattler is a ventriloquist. His whirr sounds to the right, to the left, straight ahead, behind, close under foot – everywhere but where it is”(672). Interpreting this passage as Delia’s use of the rattlesnake as her weapon to defeat Sykes the reader can actually view Delia’s transformation from virtuous to vindictive.

This transformation takes place within the hay barn: “Finally she grew quiet, and after that came coherent thought. With this stalked through her a cold, bloody rage. Hours of this. A period of introspection, a space of retrospection, then a mixture of both. Out of this an awful calm”(672). The reader can interpret this passage as Delia’s crossing over in a calm time within two different approaches – the crossing of the Jordan River marks a major change in the lives of those who choose to cross. They are leaving the wild behind and entering into the Promised Land. The Jordan River becomes a type of death to the brave or fearless who crosses it. The crossing can be portrayed as a death to self for the believer and a more victorious Christian life; or it can be portrayed as a physical death and the entrance into the eternal land of promise.

During this era, the deep south of America was a place of racial division and gross inequality. A time that black men and women, although by law free, were not even considered to be human beings in the eyes of the country’s elite class. It was a time where black men were regularly sentenced to death for crimes against white people, but left to provide their own justice within the black community. The white man was considered to many black men as the devil in disguise. Delia alluded to going to the white man for help: “Ah’m goin’ tuh de white folks ’bout you, mah young man, de very nex’ time you lay yo’ han’s on me. Mah cup is done run ovah”(671). This threat is taken very serious by Sykes. In fact, the threat seems to whittle away at his masculinity. He knows that he does not want the Devil in his house: “Anyhow, Ah done promised Gawd and a couple of other men, Ah ain’t gointer have it in mah house”(666). This passage is after Delia has brought the white man’s dirty laundry into their home and she is planning to divulge their dirty laundry to them.

In order to articulate the tragedy, I must explain how Delia’s journey ends with her faith gone. Delia began her journey as a virtuous Christian woman. She gained strength and was able to stand up to Sykes – “Delia’s habitual meekness seemed to slip from her shoulders like a blown scarf. bravely defying the strapping hulk before her”(666). Her new strength stunned Sykes – “A little awed by this new Delia ”(666). She was no longer the subservient housewife he had grown accustomed to.

Delia tried to maintain her faith – “Sometime or ruther, Sykes, like everybody else, is gointer reap his sowing”(667). This foreshadowing on Delia’s point becomes a strong passage for her tragic journey. Her strength growing in leaps and bounds; she show her new found power in every chance she gets: “A triumphant indifference to all that he was or did”(667). Delia was not going to back down from this battle. With her newfound strength, Delia becomes almost Christ like because of her religious suffering – “ work-worn knees crawled over the earth in Gethsemane and up the rocks of Calvary many, many times ”(669). By using this biblical allusion, Hurston shows the struggle that Delia has had to overcome.

Like Delia’s strength, the serpent that Sykes brought home gained power at the same time: “ literally came to life”(670). It is here that Delia comes to grips with evil and accepts that power that comes with it – “She stood for a long time in the doorway in a red fury that grew bloodier for every second that she regarded the creature that was her torment”(670). By regarding the creature, she is accepting it. Through the bloody fury, the reader can interpret a rise in her evilness and depletion of her faith. Delia’s virtuousness begins to fade and is evident when she says, “Ah hates you Sykes”(670). This transformation shows that hate is not part of a Christian value system no matter how tough the situation.

In her further descent, Delia does the unthinkable within an African-American community – she threatens to bring the white man into their relationship – she might as well have said she was going to make a deal with the devil himself. “Mah cup is done run ovah”(671). This gives the reader the indication that Delia is giving up on her faith and searching for something that will bring her power over her domineering husband.

With her transformation complete after she climbs up into the hay barn, during her hours of introspection and retrospection – she gains a different type of strength – the strength of an evil, vindictive woman: “With this stalked through her a cold, bloody rage. Out of this an awful calm”(672). Delia was now comfortable changing sides from good to evil – “ descended without fear now”(672) – emphasis added. Delia was on the same side as Sykes now – the dark and evil side. The reader is able to interpret the following passage as Delia’s confession and acceptance of her fall from grace: “Well, Ah done de bes’ Ah could. If things ain’t right Gawd knows tain’t mah fault”(672). The fault lies within the “awful beauty” that has helped her into a sense of calm – her own redeemer if you will.

When Delia ran out of the house, her eternal light had been extinguished. This can be interpreted that she was aware of the circumstances that would follow, but if it meant freeing herself from Sykes, eternal damnation was a small price to pay. It was not until she reached the chinaberry tree – a biblical symbol of the Tree of Knowledge – that she realized she would not be crossing the Jordan. “ a surge of pity too strong to support ”(673). The pity that she felt was not for Sykes or her damnation, but for her own lost salvation.

The tragedy of Hurston’s short story is not the death of Sykes Jones; no, everyone who reads this story would agree that his ways warranted an awful death. The real tragedy comes in the loss of faith of Delia Jones. Her hopes of crossing the Jordan were extinguished – “While inside she knew the cold river was creeping up and up to extinguish that eye which must know by now that she knew”(673). The body of water that stood between the children of Israel and Canaan, the crossing of the river will come to all; the only variables are how, when, and with what perils. God, as Righteous Judge, sentenced the fallen man to a lifetime of hard labor: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground”(Genesis 3:19). Based on the title of the story – “Sweat” – both Delia and Sykes will be crossing the Jordan, only, they will be crossing at high tide, with no help from above. Delis Jones lived by her sweat and shall die by her sweat.

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