ENGL 1020 Introduction to Literature
February 12, 2000
"Sweat," a short story by Zora Neale Hurston, is an account of a black Southern woman in the 1920's-30's. Written in a rather patient, smoothly flowing tone, it is rather like that of the river Jordan the main character sings of. In her style of writing, Hurston uses a lot of Southern black lingo of the times, which is a bit hard to follow although the meaning is clear. What isn't dialogue is put in very proper English, and she uses quite a bit of descriptive writing techniques that aren't confusing in the slightest, but paint a strong picture in a reader's mind. The setting is a small town in Florida and spans from the springtime to the end of summer. Delia Jones, the main character, is a strong, hard-working Christian woman, slight of build, who breaks her back to provide herself and her lazy ingrate of a spouse, Sykes, by being a laundress to the white community. Her labor, her "sweat," has provded her with a house, a pony and a buckboard wagon to haul her laundry to town with, and the food she puts on the table. Sykes, for fifteen years a very abusive and unfaithful husband (the fact of which he does not even attempt to hide), claims to own all the fruits of Delia's labors, and promises them to a mistress, Bertha, a fat woman [the type he likes-"'Gawd! How Ah hates skinny wimmen!'"(498)]. In his meanness, Sykes takes advantage of Delia's overwhelming fear of snakes, and plants one in a soapbox by the house. On an evening when she returns home from church, Sykes has been gone for almost two days, and she sets herself to doing the laundry. In opening the hamper, she finds the huge rattlesnake from the soapbox, flees the house in terror, and hides in the barn loft until dawn when she hears Sykes drunkenly stumbling into the house. Sykes's cruelly-intended practical joke backfires, the snake bites him, and as he dies of the venom, Delia lies paralyzed by fear in the flower garden, barely made it to the door of the house to see him dying, and it was too late to save him.
"Sweat" relays a theme heard often and known without a doubt to be true, but we often forget that it applies to us as individuals, as does Sykes. In forgetting that we are not immortal, that we are not above anyone else, that taking things for granted will also take them away from us, we forget the impartiality and justice of being human in this realm. Karma is real, karma is true, and karma will come back to you. Sykes completely ignores the reality that he will get his in what he says to Delia after throwing a bullwhip "snake" at her. She asks him why he did so, knowing that she was afraid of them: "'Course Ah knowed it! That's how come I done it!' He slapped his leg with his hand and almost rolled on the ground in his mirth. 'If you such a big fool that you got to have a fit over a earthworm or a string, Ah don't keer how bad Ah skeer you'" (497). To which Delia replies: "'You ain't got no business doing it. Gawd knows it's a sin...'" (497), so foreshadowing the events of his death. If not for the snake, we would not know how close to being one himself that Sykes really is.
The theme is so vivid, I found it impossible to miss. With my partner in crime, we analyzed "Sweat" inside and out, and surprisingly didn't break a sweat ourselves. We came to the same conclusion even before discussing our ideas; the theme was "You will get what you deserve," in words put shortly and sweetly. Symbolism is used by Hurston to further elaborate on the theme. For instance, Delia is terrified of snakes; Sykes, in layman's terms, is a snake. Not only that, but he brings them around to scare her with, and he brags of catching them by beating them over the head-he also beats Delia. To his great misfortune (or was it karma?), Sykes is slain by his own hand in a way. It was Sykes to bring the snake in; it was the snake to take Sykes out.
Another point in theme is taking things for granted. Sykes fully disrespected and yet depended on Delia. If not for her work and her tolerance, he would have been forced to take care of himself, something it seems that he doesn't know how to do. And yet, despite all Delia's unwavering faithfulness, her incredibly strong work ethic, and her turn-the-other-cheek method of retaliation, at least for the majority of the time, Sykes takes advantage of her and takes her for granted. He can't imagine her leaving him; it would be he to chase her off. Of course, he is not an astute enough man to ever realize that without her, he'd have nothing; she is his livelihood. He throws all she is and all she does aside, continuing to go on his escapades and freeload off her, justifiable because he is her husband. But we see that even the village men who sit in the general store all day and gossip find fault in Sykes for his maltreatment of Delia. They speak of how beautiful she once was, of how hard she works, and of how worthless a man Sykes is, especially to have gotten a hold of her. Yet through all Sykes' ignorance and abuse, Delia struggled for fifteen years to find a way to love him and for him to love her in return. It was a kind of futile hope, and she didn't let go of it until shortly before the end. It seemed that everything had died with the marriage ceremony, as told about in this passage:
She lay awake, gazing on the debris that cluttered their matrimonial trail. Not an image left standing along the way. Anything like flowers has long ago been drowned in the salty stream that had been pressed from her heart. Her tears, her sweat, her blood. She had brought love to their union, he had brought a longing after the flesh. Two months after the wedding, he had given her the first brutal beating. She had the memory of his numerous trips to Orlando with all of his wages when he had returned to her penniless, even before the first year had passed. She was young and soft then, but now she thought of her knotty, muscled limbs, her harsh, knuckly hands, and drew herself up into an unhappy little ball in the middle of the big feather bed. (498)