The brief story “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston reveals the brutality towards women and females’ fight against the construction of patriarchy. It was an incredible achievement that considered the obstacles that most black women authors faced during that time (Levine). Usually, most women who experience oppression often opt for resistance as the only way to struggle over their existence as women (Levine). The main character, Delia Jones, portrays many themes in the story. In this paper, the short story will be viewed through the lenses of feminists, Christianity, and hard work, which are the main issues.
The short story possesses strong feminist undertones. Delia, the breadwinner in the relationship and works as a wash woman, clearly portrays a theme of feminism (Hurston). She has to provide for her insecure husband. Hurston presents her as a hard-working and independent wife devoted to her partner (Levine). However, her husband, Sakes Jones, is the opposite in that, other than being unfaithful, he is also not a hard worker. He abuses his wife both physically and emotionally. Delia claims that her life is nothing but “work and sweat” (Hurston). She also laments, “Looka heah, Sakes, you done gone too far. 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” a clear indication of how she was being harassed by Sakes (Hurston). The title “Sweat” is symbolic in that it reflects all the arduous work Delia performs throughout the story compared to her husband, who is depicted as lazy. Despite all these, Delia remains a strong woman.
Sakes feel more threatened by Delia being hard-working and bringing in all the income in the house. All this is justified by the quote, “You sho is one aggravatin’ nigger woman!” (Hurston). The saying by Sakes makes no sense because Delia clothes and feeds him and therefore has to say and do all these things so that he can feel masculine. However, Delia survives abuse and adversity and maintains a purpose as well as dedication to her job as a potential pathway to success (Levine). As the story nears to end, Delia asks her husband, Sakes, to leave after enduring long periods of both physical and emotional abuse. Delia is trapped in marriage and is regularly seen being abused by Sakes, and therefore uses fears to his advantage to affect their relationship. She says, “Ah hates you tuh de same degree dat Ah useter love yuh .”She highly condemns Sake’s behavior.
Secondly, Christianity plays a significant role in “Sweat”. The story itself interacts more with biblical stories where faith aids as a source of emotional backing for Delia. Her husband, Sakes, deceitfully uses Christianity to assert social control over Delia (Hurston). A biblical story, Garden of Eden, is indeed portrayed and complicates the idea of “meekness” and relocates the source of “original sin.” The first fight between Sakes and his wife happens on Sunday night after she returns from church. While in bed, Delia feels that she needs spiritual earthwork to defend against his shells (Hurston). Using this language for battlefield, Delia’s feeling can be termed as a conflict to spiritual warfare (Bere 251). Similarly, Hurston equates Delia’s misery by her husband to that of Christ before the crucifixion.
Sakes bring a rattlesnake as a technique to chase Delia out of the house and take what is not his. The snake is portrayed as a symbol of evil in the Christianity setting. The strategy suggests that Sakes is in union with evil, contrary to the will of God. Delia reinforces the connection by terming the snake “ol’ satan” (Hurston). Sakes often see Delia as a hypocrite for minor actions she does when he routinely participates in all major offenses and breaks Christian doctrines by committing adultery and beating his wife. At some point, Sakes is bitten by the rattlesnake he lets loose in the Garden of Eden. Just like in the Biblical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Sakes can be likened to eve, who first met and was persuaded by the snake (Bere 255). His wife, like Adam, does not emerge unscathed either. As the story nears to end, Delia is absorbed in her husband’s eye as she pauses 2o and “knew the cold river was creeping up and up to extinguish that eye which must know by now that she knew”. The emphasis seen on the words “know” and “knew” echoes what happened in the Garden of Eden; that is, eating the forbidden fruit that gives one knowledge of evil as well as good.
Lastly, attitude towards work is portrayed by structuring it around the contrast between Delia and her husband, Sakes. Through them, Hurston affirms the value of hard work as a foundation for moral integrity and persistence under challenging circumstances. Similarly, she condemns the sense of laziness revealed by Sakes as morally bankrupt. In “Sweat 1926”, hard work is allied with honesty and worthiness. Delia has vigorously labored to provide the household with everything, indicating that she owns a significant claim to the family. Being a washerwoman for long guarantees her a sense of self-confidence that not even Sakes can threaten. As Sakes attempts to stop her wife from washing the clothes, Delia asserts that her washing job has sustained them in terms of feeding and paying for the house, and thus she has the right to continue doing it.
Sakes find it difficult to deny the claims of Delia’s right to the house; instead, rather than responding, he leaves the house. He finally tries to scare her out or even kill her. Hurston portrays Delia’s suffering just like Christ’s in the Biblical stories. The comparison is coupled with her years of hard work. On the other hand, Sakes believes that even without working, he can own everything in the house that Delia has toiled for without owing her any loyalty by simply assuming that he is a man and her husband. He even goes to the extent of promising Bertha, his lover, that she will be able to live in the house even though his wife has a considerably bigger claim on it than he does. He claims, “Sho’ you kin have dat lil’ ole house soon’s Ah kin git dat ‘oman outa dere. Everything belongs tuh me an’ you sho’ kin have it”. It clearly indicates that Sakes feels very much entitled to what he wants without considering who worked tirelessly for it. Other men in the community perceive him for his infidelity nature and for failing to contribute financially to the household.
In conclusion, the story discloses the challenges associated with many marriages through the prism of chauvinist attitudes from the muscular part of the union. Hurston indicates this through a narration of an oppressed woman Delia and her cheating, lazy as well as wicked husband. Sakes really mistreat her wife. However, Delia is portrayed as a sympathetic character, and the death of Sakes is a kind of justice. Also, Hurston advances a stark of disparity between the righteous, hard-working behavior displayed by Delia and the nasty, entitled Sykes. However, she gives a chance to individuals who lack Delia’s saint-like persistence. The most crucial thing in the story is not just the capacity to labor but, most importantly, respect for work, both other people’s and one’s own.
Bere, Noviana Osinta, and Tomi Arianto. “Woman Violence and Resistance in “Sweat” Short Story By Zora Neale Hurston: Feminist Approach.” Journal Basis 6.2 (2019): 249-258.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Sweat. Rutgers University Press, 1997.
Levine, Kaitlyn. “The Oppressed African American Female Voice in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and “Sweat”.” (2022).