The short story “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston details the finer points of the abusive relationship and failing marriage of Delia and Sykes Jones. Hurston presents Delia as a hardworking woman and a faithful wife, but the same cannot be said of Sykes’ character. Sykes has no recognizable redeeming qualities. He is neither hardworking nor faithful, and be both physically and emotionally abuses his wife. Throughout the timespan of the short story, readers see the witness the relationship between Delia and Sykes escalate to a fitting but unexpected climax. Hurston uses “Sweat” as a channel through which she examines gender inequality and criticizes the oppression of females in the institution of marriage.
In order to immediately set the standard for the relationship between Delia and Sykes, Hurston begins her short story with an account of an interaction between the couple. Having been working all morning long on her day off, Delia, being so caught up in her work, did not notice her husband when he approached. She also did not notice that what Sykes had placed on her shoulders was a bull whip rather than a snake, as she had immediately perceived. It seems as though Sykes had a prior knowledge of Delia’s fear of snakes, and it can be assumed that he played the prank with ill-intentions rather than a fun prank between lovers. Hurston uses this interaction to establish both characters’ personas. This interaction particularly highlights the lack of respect that Sykes has for Delia and her hard work. A husband’s role is to cherish and provide for his wife, yet Sykes does not provide for Delia and does not ever express gratitude for Delia’s work. As the story progresses, readers gain an even deeper understanding of how mistreated Delia is by Sykes. Readers see that the mistreatment goes beyond cruel pranks and into the territory of absolute emotional abuse. Sykes calls his wife derogatory names such as “big fool,” “aggravatin’ nigger woman,” and a “hypocrite” (1-2). Sykes also scatters the laundry that Delia has been working on and stomps his dirty feet on the clothing which demonstrates his disregard for her hard work. With the stomps of Sykes’ feet, Hurston is able to portray how the value of a woman’s work is diminished by men. Although Sykes does not deserve any respect in regards to his attitude or work ethic, he still demands respect because of his position as the husband in their marriage. Sykes’ abuse of power in the relationship speaks to the inequality found in the stereotypical gender roles of traditional marriage and the overall oppression of women in a patriarchal society.
There is a reversal of gender roles in “Sweat” that challenges traditional views, and Hurston employs this reversal so that she may reveal the flawed logic and innate inequality of the stereotypical husband and wife. With the presence of Delia’s work ethic and strong will, Hurston denies typical female stereotypes. Through Sykes’ abuse of power, Hurston negates the credibility of his true power as the man in the marriage. Another way that Hurston challenges stereotypes with Delia is through her willingness to stand up for herself in the face of her abusive spouse. Perhaps a stereotypical, emotionally weak female would have been more accepting of Sykes’ abuse. It is generally accepted that females are the weaker of the two genders, and they are more willing to submit to a dominant male. Delia, however, is not a submissive female. In an attempt to defend herself, Delia tells Sykes: “Mah tub of suds is filled yo’ belly with vittles more times than yo’ hands is filled it. Mah sweat done paid for this house and Ah reckon Ah kin keep on sweatin’ in it” (2). In addition to illuminating Delia’s boldness, this quote also allows Hurston to present the persevering spirit of women through her character. Although she is trapped in a marriage with an abusive husband, she still manages to prevail and wishes to continue her hard work, regardless of how her husband feels about it. Delia has an epiphany when she stands up to her husband, and, after he has left, she contemplates the complications of her marriage.
Hurston describes Delia’s contemplation: She lay awake, gazing upon the debris that cluttered their matrimonial trail. Not an image left standing along the way. Anything like flowers had 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 the union and he had brought a longing after the flesh. Two months after the wedding, he had given her the first brutal beating. (2) While Delia had always been dedicated to Sykes in the way that a wife should be, he never reciprocated the dedication. Delia’s dedication to Sykes and his complete disregard for her dedication is a way in which Hurston reflects on the traditional image of marriage and its misrepresentation of the realities of marriage. The power bases of Delia’s marriage allow for readers to see the inequality that exists in a marriage within a patriarchal society. Sykes is a figurehead created by Hurston to be the face of an abusive husband. A mere two months into a fifteen year marriage, and Sykes had already asserted his dominance over his wife because it is socially acceptable for men to be brutes and women to accept it.
Readers see Delia’s character evolve and grow less and less concerned with Sykes. Sykes stays away from home with his mistress, but when he does come around, Delia does not exert any energy arguing with him. She does not allow him to have any power over her, proving that the way she sees the power bases in the relationship have changed. Sykes is, however, not to be ignored or undermined by his wife. He wishes to make her as miserable as possible, and, knowing Delia’s terrible fear of snakes, he brings a rattlesnake home to taunt Delia. Sykes boasts that the snake recognizes his power and would not dare bite him, paralleling his feelings about his submissive wife. While Sykes is away one night, Delia is frightened by the snake and runs away to hide. When Sykes comes home, he does not see the snake. In an ironic turn of fate, the snake, which was supposed to respect Sykes, bites him. Sykes cries out for help, but Delia does not respond to him. Sykes expected Delia, like the snake, to remain submissive and under his power, but again, like the snake, Delia is a sentient being and cannot be disregarded or walked over. Through the creation of the parallels between the snake and Delia, Hurston illuminates the source of their marital strife for a final time: Sykes had a false sense of power stemming from his male privilege.
In conclusion, Zora Neale Hurston’s short story “Sweat” illuminates the inequality in the stereotype of the traditional marriage. Hurston throws gender roles away in order to critique their legitimacy through her portrayal of a dominant female that overcomes her oppressor. Hurston’s short story sheds light on the issues associated with gender roles and the way in which a female, no matter how hardworking, can be oppressed by marriage in a patriarchal society.