An Analysis of “Sweat”

The short story “Sweat” by Zora Neale-Hurston is full of imagery and representative symbols both of biblical personalities and their corresponding traits that reminds us of life’s lessons.  Reading through some critical reviews of the author’s works and re-reading the text over also made me equate this short story to that of scenes from “Color Purple” and the environment with which the characters of Delia and Sykes seems to have been borrowed from – Celie, the perennially abused woman, and Sykes – Albert, the perennially abusive husband who flaunts his mistress about town – Shug Avery and Bertha in “Sweat”.

Both stories depict the life of an African American woman during the turn of the twentieth century.  The difference though lies in the ending of the story which was also towards Delia’s self-emancipation at the end.  Also, while Celie was assisted by Shug to empower herself, Delia showed her strength of character even from the very beginning of the story. Meanwhile, let us closely look at the symbolic representations throughout “Sweat” and their meanings, and how these all reminds us of some biblical reminders of our own weaknesses in character and humanity.First, the lead character “Delia” reminds us of a biblical character named Delilah.

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   Delilah is the lover of Samson who betrayed him by cutting off his hair where his strength comes from.  Delilah, in all he fragile beauty emasculated her husband Samson, despite his overwhelming strength.  She attacked his primary source of strength which is his hair.  Meanwhile, in “Sweat”, the character of Delia did the same exact thing to her abusive husband, Sykes.  He used a rattle snake in trying to scare off Delia and get rid of her so he can bring home his mistress, Bertha, and give her Delia’s house as he repeatedly promised Bertha.  The irony of it all lies in the ending when Delia turned the tables on Sykes and let the rattle snake bite Sykes while he was trying to find a match to light up the kitchen.

  She heard and later watched him die of the rattle snake’s bites.The second symbolic representation that comes to mind is the title itself – “Sweat”.  The title is representative of the whole theme of the story.  And I quote: “Looka heah, Sykes, you done gone too fur. Ah been married to you fur fifteen years, and Ah been takin’ in washin’ for fifteen years. Sweat, sweat, sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat!” (Hurston,560).

  Delia, in her fifteen years of marriage to Sykes has done nothing but “sweat” and labor through the marriage.  Short of two months after they got married, Sykes started beating her and hasn’t stopped since.  He also stopped supporting her and she has worked and labored and “sweat” to get them a home and to support him and his vices.  The whole story tells of Delia’s toil and “sweat”.The third symbolic element in the story also comes from Delia’s means of “toil” or living.

  And I quote “”Heah come Delia Jones,” Jim Merchant said, as the shaggy pony came ’round the bend of the road toward them. The rusty buckboard was heaped with baskets of crisp, clean laundry” (Hurston, 564).  The “baskets of crisp, clean laundry represents not only her fruits of her labor but is also descriptive of a lot of other things.  For one, Delia’s character is so much like her “crisp, clean, laundry”.  Though she tolerates the abusive ways of her husband Sykes, she also shows an inner strength of character by not letting him get into her way of living and her beliefs in life.

  Delia remains pure of heart and she purifies her heart every Sunday – which is the day of worship.  She even refuses to fight with Sykes one Sunday night when he was trying to pick up an argument with her from his day of gallivanting with Bertha – because Delia just came home from Church.  She felt so “pure” she doesn’t want anything to “blacken” her day.In another perspective, the baskets of crisp, clean laundry is also remindful of Delia’s place in society at that time.  Like so many African American women during the 1920s, Delia worked as a laundry woman for the affluent rich white folks across four miles from where she lives.  It is also a stark contrast to the color her skin but is at the same time reflective of her clean soul and character.

Then there is the bull whip.  And I quote “Just then something long, round, limp and black fell upon her shoulders and slithered to the floor beside her. A great terror took hold of her. It softened her knees and dried her mouth so that it was a full minute before she could cry out or move. Then she saw that it was the big bull whip her husband liked to carry when he drove” (Hurston, 559).  The big bull whip according to one of Hurston’s analyst is “the Satanic object associated with a snake” (Seidel 118); it is a phallic symbol, in Sykes case,”overcompensation for his ’emasculated’ condition as a dependent of his wife” (Seidel 112).

 In the story, Sykes used this big bull whip with Delia’s horse which she uses to bring her laundry to and from her place of work.  It is also likened as one way of “whipping” Delia into submission and showing him as a bully who can only be “strong” when the object has no means of fighting back – in this instance – the horse.  The big bull whip also is being used by Sykes to bring up his self worth – because he is dependent on Delia.  Delia paid for the house where they live in, and Delia makes the money in the house.  He reassures himself by carrying around the big bull whip.

Another symbolic item in the story is that of the iron skillet.  And I quote: “She seized the iron skillet from the stove and struck a defensive pose, which act surprised him greatly, coming from her. It cowed him and he did not strike her as he usually did” (Hurston, 560).  Here, the iron skillet was used by Delia defensively.  However, the symbolic meaning of the iron skillet is that its use is often associated to that of women who use it for cooking and other productive means.

  It is ironic that something usually equated to women and the subjugation of women for its role in the kitchen was used by Nora Hurston as a defensive weapon and symbol of strength versus an abusive husband.There is also the use of vibrant and bright imagery by the author to vividly describe the setting of the story.  I quote: “The sun had burned July to August. The heat streamed down like a million hot arrows, smiting all things living upon the earth. Grass withered, leaves browned, snakes went blind in shedding and men and dogs went mad” (Hurston, 562). The quotation was taken towards the end of the story like a prelude to something significant or a twist about to happen.

  It reminds us of images of summer and the sensation of the summer sun once it touches our skin.  It is also provides warning of a seemingly avenging God when a specific wrong is about to be addressed – more like an omen to an impending doom or defeat.The last imagery that strikes me in the story is the Chinaberry tree. And I quote: “Delia “ends the story holding to a chinaberry tree, a rigid, linear symbol that provides rootedness in a world of slithering sinuosity” (Hurston, 565). The Chinaberry tree has sinuous branches and roots.  This is a reminder of Delia’s husband, Sykes.

  Sykes also sounds like “snake” which is a phallic symbol of evil.  Furthermore, the Chinaberry Tree reminds me of the biblical characters of Adam and Eve.  Wherein Adam was lured by Eve into sinning against God.  In the bible, there was an Apple tree that was forbidden by God.Despite Delia’s character being “clean and crisp” like her laundry, in the ending of the story, she was like an avenging angel holding on to the Chinaberry Tree while she looks on and listen to the dying cries of her husband Sykes after being bitten by the rattle snake.

  Sykes brought upon him his own destruction – for he is the one who brought the rattle snake into their house – and put it in the laundry basket intending for Delia to be surprised and hopefully, for Delia to be dead by the time he gets home.  Instead, Delia waited for him to come home – he gets bitten by his own “weapon” against Delia, and died in the process – slowly and painfully – like “the heat streamed down like a million hot arrows, smiting all things living upon the earth. Grass withered, leaves browned, snakes went blind in shedding and men and dogs went mad…”(Hurston, 562).;