Sweat by Zora Neale Hurston: Racial Struggle in Twentieth Century
Zora Neale Hurston, an African American author, portrays the racial struggles of her time in a racist, systematic society in the 20th century. In her short story, “Sweat”, she conveys many thematic and literary techniques such as allusion, symbolism, and imagery, through the African American vernacular in a time period that was predominant in its prejudices against blacks.
“Sweat” tells the story of Delia Jones, a resilient and religious washer-women who is encased in a fifteen year marriage to her husband Sykes, who is unfaithful in his marriage and is abusive. Throughout the story, the theme of strength is alluded by the Bible as it builds upon Delia’s strength. Allusion is an indirect reference to a literary figure, event, or object. Delia’s strength was alluded to when she examines “…triumphant indifference to all that [Sykes] was or did”(Hurston 3) in his physical and verbal abuse. The author includes a significant part at the beginning of the short story when,” She seized the iron skillet from the stove and struck a defensive pose, which surprised him greatly, coming from her”(Hurston 2). This scene alludes to her religious devotion and the fortitude within the integrity of herself. This part becomes the igniting moment when Delia transforms from being seen as acquiescent to defiant in the eyes of the reader and from ‘weak’ to strong in the eyes of Sykes. The scene alludes to the Bible when Delia has the iron skillet in a position to defend herself. Iron in the Bible is used to refer to its own strength, just as the iron skillet in the “Sweat” is used to refer to the growing of Delia’s strength. Proverbs 27:17 reads, “Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend”(Proverbs James King Version). This brings about change of empowerment in Delia that begets her to speak up for herself and later encourages her to kick Sykes out. This demonstrates the theme of strength. Delia’s religious background is referred to throughout the story when she is praying “…to build a spiritual earthworks against her husband”(Hurston 3). Hurston attributes her spirituality as a weapon to build a protective layer from Syke’s physical and verbal torment. This spiritual strength gives Delia the ability to descend with the absense of fear in the end of the story as she watches Sykes “…reap his sowing”(Hurston 3).
Zora Hurston uses symbolism to attribute deeper meaning in objects and events that occur in the short story. Namely to symbolize Syke’s character’s contradiction to Delia’s Christianity. As the snake was the representation of the Devil in the Garden of Eden, the snake in ‘Sweat’ is the symbol of Sykes. Zora illustrates Skyes as the evil antagonist character as he is verbally and physically abusive, unfaithful, and childlike. Sykes knew that Delia is deathly afraid of snakes. Knowing this, he brings home a six-foot rattlesnake unbeknownst to her. Delia regarded the snake as “… the creature that was her torment”(Hurston 6). The snake symbolizes Sykes himself and his malevolent qualities that characterizes him throughout their marriage. The snake in nature is a predator that has explicitly prey on small animals. In its predatory nature, it uses its venom to subdue its inferior victims. Sykes preys upon Delia as he sees her as ‘inferior’ to him. He uses his ‘venom’(abuse and adulterous behavior) in an attempt to ‘weaken’ Delia but actually destroys his marriage and his own personage.
The author uses Imagery to represent Delia as the protagonist character. Imagery has the ability to create visual representations of actions and characteristics that adheres to the physical senses. Within the literary work, Delia’s, “She squatted in the kitchen floor beside the great pile of clothes, sorting them into small heaps according to color, and humming a song in a mournful key…”(Hurston 1) is imagery that depicts her as a hardworking woman. In Delia’s marriage, she is the sole contributor to her household as a washerwoman, to support herself and her loafing husband, who spends her hard-earned money “…by ordering magnificently for Bertha”(Hurston 4), a side character. This shows that despite the constant disrespect, even as she is faced with it, Delia is resilient in her work ethic as she is not only able to provide the necessities for herself but in Syke’s ability to buy luxuries for another woman.
To conclude, the spirit of Zora Hurston is one of literary in its biblical context that are thematically explained through Delia’s strength and Sykes malevolent character. She depicts that characters in the story differently using symbolism, allusion, and imagery that decides the characterization of them individually. Delia being the central protagonist character of the story, while Sykes being the evil antagonist.
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