Sweat by Lynn Nottage


Gender in Sweat by Zora Neale Hurston

August 26, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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Nature’s Role in American Literature

May 29, 2019 by Essay Writer

The role of nature in American literature operates on three levels. Firstly, nature in American literature provides a refuge for characters from the austere conformity required by American society, allowing them to be themselves without fear of retribution. Secondly, in its most basic form, it becomes a symbolic representation of good and evil, of which the characters must confront. Finally, it progresses the plot of each selection it is a part of, as well as guides the development of the protagonists’ moral compass. Each of these assertions can be evidenced in the works of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, Ann Chopin’s “The Awakening”, and Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat”.

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn provides a comical but accurate critique of the inanity of American Society. The two main characters, Huck and Jim, constantly find themselves in danger and distress anytime they come in contact with man’s realm. However, when they are alone in nature, they are free to be themselves and they feel content and peaceful. This can be evidenced in Huck’s words to Jim as he states “We said there warn’t no home like a raft. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.” (Twain, 119). Being immersed in nature with Jim develops Huck’s moral compass as he begins to see Jim as not only a fellow human being, but also as a friend. However, every time he returns to society he regresses and only ends up in the same miserable positions he had been at the onset of the novel. The last lines of the novel Huck states “Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” (Twain, 302).

Ann Chopin’s primarily feminist work The Awakening explores the effects of America’s patriarchal society on the protagonist Edna. Throughout the novel Edna experiences several “awakenings which are often symbolized by natural elements such as the ocean or birds. Edna’s interactions with nature drive the plot of the novel as well as transform her character. For example, Edna’s transformation begins when she goes for her first successful swim in the ocean and upon entering: “a feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and soul. She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.” (Chopin, 570). For Edna, the ocean is the great unknown, it’s depths contain the woman she desires to be and in it she feels a taste of freedom from her ordinary life. When she states that she wants to swim where no woman has swum before, she is wanting to challenge the patriarchal values of American society at that time which have kept her from being her true self. From this point on, Edna will begin to question the order of her life, and begins to rebel against it, all while discovering her latent self. Interestingly, her character development, as well as her life, begins and ends with a swim in the ocean. Although Edna struggles hard against the oppression she faces, the loss of her battle is foreshadowed by Mademoiselle Reisz’s comparison of her to a bird. She tells Edna “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.’ “Whither would you soar?” (Chopin, 613 ).Edna’s progression as a character abruptly coincides with the conclusion of the novel, as the broken- winged Edna gives up her fight for herself. Her descent is represented symbolically by a “bird with a broken wing” who was “beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water.” (Chopin, 638 ). Edna then goes to the only place that she can be free to be herself, the endless abyss of the ocean.

Finally, Zora Neale Hurston’s Sweat concerns protagonist Delia’s struggle against her abusive, unfaithful, good for nothing husband. For Delia, nature symbolically manifests itself in the forms of good and evil. Evil takes the form of the snake her husband introduces in an attempt to drive her from her home. Good takes the form of refreshing water, water that has religious connotations in the healing it brings to Delia. The healing power of water can be evidenced in the gospel song Delia sings:”Jurden water, black an’ col’ Chills de body, not de soul An’ Ah wantah cross Jurden in uh calm time.” (Hurston, 523).The evil symbolically represented by the snake can be evidenced when Delia thinks to herself “Oh well, whatever goes over the Devil’s back (the snake), is got to come under his belly.” (Hurston, 519 ). For Delia, the snake and Sykes is the devil that must be defeated in order for her torment and suffering to come to an end. Delia is ultimately saved by nature at the conclusion of the novel, as the snake bits Sykes, and the healing water of the river “was creeping up and up to extinguish the eye which must know by now that she knew.” (Hurston, 525 ).

In conclusion, nature has a profound effect upon both the characters and the storylines of these great American literary works. The peace that each character is able to discover in nature, whether it be the ocean or the river, provides excellent commentary on the paradox of chaos and rigor of human society. Does the peace and tranquility of nature offer more happiness and contentment than human civilization? The argument of nature versus civilization begs the question, what is natural for mankind when society no longer fulfills its basic needs.

Work’s Cited:

Chopin, Kate N. “The Awakening”. The Norton Anthology American Literature. 9th ed. Vol. C. New York: WW Norton, 2017. Pg 570-638.

Hurston, Zora N. “Sweat”, The Norton Anthology American Literature. 9th ed. Vol. D. New York: WW Norton, 2017. Pg. 519-525.

Twain, Mark. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, The Norton Anthology American Literature. 9th ed. Vol. C. New York: WW Norton, 2017. Pg. 119-302.

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Portrayals of Domestic Abuse and Passive Resistance in “Sweat”

March 5, 2019 by Essay Writer

Zora Neale Hurston’s short story “Sweat,” published in 1926, focuses on Delia and Sykes Jones and their volatile marriage. The protagonist, Delia Jones, suffers at the hands of her abusive husband, the antagonist, Sykes. In her work, Hurston discusses the various forms in which domestic abuse manifests itself. Abuse is not exclusive to physical violence; rather, abuse may take the form of emotional manipulation and degradation. Though Delia is a victim of both Sykes’s physical and emotional abuse, Hurston ultimately uses her character to demonstrate a sense of female power and righteousness. When Sykes is ironically killed as the result of his abusive nature, Hurston creates a space to explore the exertion of feminine power in the form of passive resistance. It may be argued that Delia’s character exemplifies the constraints on female autonomy in the institution of marriage and showcases the passive expression of resistance that must be used to exert power in such a confined position.

The short story begins with what could be interpreted as a playful joke between husband and wife. Delia is busy with laundry when Sykes sneaks up and plays a prank on her. He tosses a bull whip around Delia’s shoulders, and she mistakes the whip, as he had intended, for a snake. Though this interaction may seem innocent enough, it quickly becomes apparent that the Jones’s marriage is not a happy or healthy one. Sykes intentionally preys on Delia’s fear of snakes, and he plays this joke with malicious intent. Hurston writes, “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. […] She lifted her eyes to the door and saw him standing there bent over with laughter at her fright” (349). Knowing that Delia would be terrified by the idea of a snake, Sykes uses Delia’s fears to gain superiority over her. In this situation, he has all the power, and she is left at his mercy. Though seemingly powerless in this interaction and, more broadly, in her marriage, Delia attempts to defend herself against her husband’s abusive nature without overstepping her position as his inferior. She tries to reason with her husband, telling him that his foolishness will be the death of her, but he is not willing to admit any fault. Instead, he further demeans his wife by calling her racial slurs and begins to undermine the importance of her work, kicking and dirtying the laundry that she had been working on.

The beginning of the story and the depiction of Sykes abuse encapsulates the horror of the Jones’s marriage. It is a marriage in which Delia suffers in her powerless position while Sykes abuses his inherent male power and dominant position. Though Delia attempts to speak up for herself, to express some form of autonomy and self-worth, she is ultimately stuck in this abusive relationship with no legitimate way of escaping it. The people of the town are aware of Sykes’s abuse, but they are also aware that there is no way to end it or help Delia. One of the townspeople, Clarke, says, “Taint no law on earth dat kin make a man be decent if it aint in ‘im. There’s plenty men dat takes a wife lak dey do a joint a sugar-cane. It’s round, juicy and sweet when dey gets it. But dey squeeze an’ grind, squeeze an’ grind an’ wring tell dey wring every drop uh pleasure dat’s in ‘em out. When dey’s satisfied dat dey is wrung dry, dey treats ‘em jes lak dey do a cane-chew. Dey throws ‘em away” (352). Sykes’s abuse is treated as a fact of life. It is as though it is natural for a man to act this way. It is acceptable for a man to physically abuse his wife, to demean the value of her work, to belittle her appearance, and to cheat on her and bring other women into her home. This acceptance of Sykes abuse exemplifies the unfair division of power between genders. Further, it demonstrates Delia’s true strength and ability to suffer through this abuse. She, as society dictates, is not capable of rebelling against her husband. Instead, she must essentially grin and bear his abuse.

When Sykes is killed by a rattlesnake that he had maliciously brought into the house to manipulate Delia, it becomes apparent that Delia is not entirely submissive in her marriage. Delia arguably could have saved Sykes. She could have warned him about the snake. She could have run to his rescue and taken him to a hospital for treatment. However, as an act of passive resistance, Delia sits as her husband dies. Having suffered through Sykes’s abuse without any legitimate form of escape, Delia is justified in her final decision not to help her husband in his final moments. Because she was never capable of standing up for herself in a way that was taken seriously, her only option to express some sense of power was to express it passively. This may be viewed as a criticism of the confining nature of gender roles in the institution of marriage as well as a comment on the nature of feminine power.

Delia Jones’s character may be viewed as an example of passive resistance as a form of feminine power. Because of her prescribed role in her marriage, Delia is forced to sit idly by as her husband abuses her. She is not capable of standing up for herself or changing her situation. She is stuck in an abusive marriage because of the socially constructed standards surrounding gender roles in the institution of marriage. While Sykes’s abuse is accepted as a fact of life, Delia is expected to live as his inferior. Because of her confined position as a wife, she is unable to express any legitimate form of power. This seemingly powerless position forces Delia to express her power through an act of passive resistance. She does not purposely kill her husband, but she willingly allows his death to occur. Delia, after all of the abuse she has suffered, is able to stand up for herself by doing nothing.

Work Cited

Hurston, Zora Neale. “Sweat.” The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, edited by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, 3rd ed., vol. 2, W. W. Norton, 2007, pp. 349-357.

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Delia and her transformation in the story “Sweat”

January 24, 2019 by Essay Writer

Delia Jones is a weak protagonist who goes through unfortunate events with her husband to emerge as a strong protagonist in the end of the story “Sweat”. Delia starts off emotionally weak at the beginning of the story because she cannot stand up for herself, especially around her husband Sykes. She is a weak character because she is intimidated and fearful. Humans always mature when they run into bumps in the road. Delia hit bumps of her own and directly had an effect in the creation of a morally strong woman.

Delia begins the story absolutely terrified of her husband after his affair and other problems. Hurston writes in the first quote, “She lifted her eyes to the door and saw him standing there bent over with laughter at her fright” (Hurston 212). Right from the beginning of the story, Hurston makes it evident that Delia is terrified of her husband. She has the right to fear her husband, by the name of Sykes, after he over-criticized her for bringing “white folks” clothes into the house. The reason for Sykes being so critical of the “white folks” clothes could be because he is having an affair with a woman named Bertha who might happen to be white. Sykes tells his lover to,“git whutsoever yo’ heart desires, Honey” (Hurston 216). This part of the story is eye opening because Bertha does not have any actual lines in the story. Sykes might be critical of the “white folks” clothes because he does not want any relation between his wife and Bertha. The only explanation for her being white would be because of those clothes brought into the home cause it seems that he is using Delia’s hard earned money to buy Bertha anything she wants. Despite the mental abuse from her husband, Delia finds a way to make the best of the situation and focuses on her work to distract herself from Sykes. The narrative goes along and slowly Delia puts the negativity from her husband in the past.

Delia becomes a strong protagonist because of the way she turns her life around with self-confidence and concern about her own well being. The reader learns that she is done putting up with Sykes when Hurston writes, “She stood for a long time in the doorway in a red fury that grew bloodier for every second that she regarded the creature that was her moment” (Hurston 217). She chooses to act morally through her hard work and confidence in defending herself. The language that Hurston uses, such as “red fury” and “bloodier”, really emphasizes Delia’s hatred towards Sykes. The fact that she did not walk away after one incident shows there is some kind of secret attachment she has for her husband or that he threatened her if she decided to leave him. The secret attachment that Delia holds could be for tons of different reasons. The best explanation for it might be because Delia is one of those wives who does not care how her husband treats her. The occasional woman marries a man for his assets and company they give the woman. The other explanation for Delia accepting the harshness from Sykes could be him threatening her. If she is actually married to Sykes for the assets she could take a lot if they got a divorce. He can stay married to Delia and have an affair with Bertha without losing any assets or his wife.In this quote from Delia, Hurston writes, “If things aint right, Gawd knows taint mah fault” (Hurston 219). This is evidence that Delia and other humans should stay true to their own beliefs and how she knows she has done nothing wrong in such a toxic marriage. She is get- ting the message that Sykes is the one making her feel like a useless doormat. Finally, Hurston wants the reader to see that it is possible to move on from physical and mental abuse, “you done starved me an’ ah put up widcher, you done beat me an ah took dat” (Hurston 217). She took the degrading language and punishments from her husband. Delia explains how she takes everything Sykes throws at her and it does not effect her anymore.

How do humans deal with hardship, like Delia, and why is it so hard to get over the past? Life is always full of ups and downs, just when life seems to be going smoothly something can change in a heartbeat. Zak Khan states, “…it’s important to detach yourself from a situation long enough to think clearly without having people hanging over your shoulders” (Khan). Khan’s article relates very well to Delia and how she loosens the relationship with her husband. She is productive and does things that make her happy instead of thinking about Sykes, who cheats and is abusive. Gunjan Gupta explains why it is so hard to get over the past, “What happened in the past, happened. It happened because it had to happen that way. Now, it’s done. It’s over. It is what it is. I can’t do a thing about it, can I?” (Gupta). Gupta explains that a human can never for- get the past, he can only keep it as a memory and learn from it. Delia could not forget the fact that Sykes had an affair and abused her, but she learned a lesson to be confident in defending herself.

Delia is a strong protagonist because of the way she overcomes the hardships brought into her life. Delia, in “Sweat”, does not seem to stay true to her beliefs. She is a woman of God and asks for forgiveness for her husband as she goes on to watch him die. The reader can see as have saved his life. This is perfect evidence that Sykes was threatening her and now she is free. This quote from Delia also seems to be sarcastic. She says she can not do a thing about her husband’s death when really she could from her husband. If their relationship was really about assets and threats then the death of her husband is exactly what she desired. She continues to get through the negativity, even with her aggressive and abusive husband, Sykes. Delia comes along as a better person as she lives life in a way to make her happy but not to the extent of selfishness. All humans face adversity at some point in their life, and most people come out with more knowledge and being stronger than ever. Adversity makes people better if you are able to fight through it just as Delia did. Hurston developed Delia this way to show how humans can be their strongest, in times of struggle, if they are patient and stick to strong morals.

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