Delia’s Trek Toward Freedom
Hurston’s Sweat is a short story that represents not only the constraints of a racially divided society but also, and more notably the oppression of women in a patriarchal society. Delia is a microcosm for women of the time, physically inferior, meek at times, but irrepressible no matter how demeaned she feels. Sweat as a feminist text delves into ideas of intersectionality, the oppression of women and African Americans, and presents an uplifting narrative of a way towards freedom. Delia is a resilient character, one who must overcome the abusive nature of her husband and the fears that belittle her existence to that of a victim. Hurston uses this text as a symbolic way of portraying freedom, the snake represents both masculinity, as it is a phallic symbol, and it represents the power that Sykes holds over Delia, sweat to Delia is not only the result of her physical labor, it is the source of her power, as work gives her the ability to obtain independence and take back control from her physically superior husband.
Early on in the narrative it becomes evident that through Delia’s physical body she manifests her authority and her contrasting repression. While this notion is vital to the story, it also becomes clear that patriarchal society surrounding Delia focuses solely on the physical appearance as a functional way to objectify women and quantify her existence. Physically, Delia is small and submissive, she does her work and attends church, but does not defy her husband or her duties until she has a moment of insolence that leads to her freedom. Hurston describes, “Delia’s habitual meekness seemed to slip from her shoulders like a blown scarf. She was on her feet; her poor little body, her bare knuckly hands bravely defying the strapping hulk before her” (1023). This is a defining moment for Delia as a woman, though Hurston describes her using words like ‘meek’ and ‘poor’, her physicality does not limit her empowerment even in the face of her domineering husband. Delia is at a disadvantage because of her size, but Sykes feels threatened enough to get a snake to keep Delia in line because he realizes in this moment that he is losing control. Delia is not only subject to her husband’s objectification but it is the eyes of the white porch dwellers that place a value on her based on her physical appearance. Elijah Moseley elaborates, “Too much knockin’ will ruin any ‘oman” (1024). Elijah’s statement focuses on the power of men, with their ability to value or ruin woman with just their hands, but it also demonstrates the indifference men have to the struggles of womanhood. The men on the porch go even further in their objectification, relating Delia to a sugar-cane, diminishing her to her external self and thus placing no value on her as a person. Sykes and the men on the porch represent men as a whole, their tyranny not subject to that of a certain race, rather, as Hurston suggests, their oppressive nature is an attribute of masculinity as it is this attribute that destroys them in the end.
The interplay between Delia and Sykes is no more about marriage or the representations of femininity and masculinity then it is simply about power. It is evident that Delia exhibits power through her control of funds which she rightfully earns, but financial power does not protect her from the abuse of Sykes. There is a power play between the two, Sykes’ physicality and Delia’s resilience although it is clear that Sykes is dependent on Delia for support. Sykes’ dependence emasculates him and he feels as if he needs to exert his power in other ways. Sykes says, “Git whatsoever yo’ heart desires, Honey. Wait a minute, Joe. Give huh two bottles uh strawberry soda-water” (1025). Sykes dangles power in front of Delia by giving her the option of getting what she wants, but then takes the power away quickly by choosing for her. Sykes pushes further by getting a snake and attempting to scare Delia into submission, her fear controlling her rather than Sykes. As Delia begins to understand that Sykes will not protect her from the snake, she has no choice but to face her fears head on. 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 torment” (1027). In this sense Delia’s fear transforms to resilience and anger, and by taking away her fear of the snake this empowers her to no longer be subjected to Sykes’ oppression. Delia takes back the power from Sykes and overcomes everything that disparages and subjugates her and her sex.
Sweat places feminism and race at the forefront of the narrative, intersecting both these notions by signifying them through Delia’s repression. Hurston writes a distinctively feminist text, shaped by ideas of empowerment and individuality. Delia regains her power by continuously working hard, her sweat as a symbol of power, and by freeing herself from an oppressive marriage. Three symbols focus on Delia’s oppression and freedom, the snake, the interplay between light and dark, and the Chinaberry tree. The snake is a phallic symbol, thus representing men and masculinity as a whole, in the end the snake kills Sykes suggesting that the nature of men will destroy them if they give in to authoritative desires. Furthermore, snakes are a biblical symbol of evil, by taking this into consideration it is evident that Hurston portrays masculinity and maliciousness in correlation with one another. The Chinaberry tree is where Delia goes to rest once she is finally free, “She could scarcely reach the Chinaberry tree, where she waited in the growing heat” (1030). The tree as a symbol of peace and freedom, both of which she can only reach once Sykes dies. Delia’s freedom exemplifies strength and resilience, while pinpointing the atrocities of a patriarchal culture. The notions of light and dark, represent two things in the text. Light is a symbol of purity, enlightenment, and optimism; this becomes clear as Delia is able to escape the darkness of the house and make it to freedom while Sykes is left trapped in the dark. Darkness epitomizes both death and beauty, as Sykes remains in the dark, however, Delia is a black woman and she is the protagonist and hero of the story. These contrasting ideas, portray the ambiguity that intersections of identities exemplify. Hurston’s story rectifies the ideas of female inferiority and gives Delia, and women as a whole, hope for escaping oppression.
Delia’s story is a characterization of the oppression of women in society and in marriage. Sykes is a physically superior tyrant whose ultimate downfall is his desire to control and demean women. Hurston’s purpose is clear, this story is simply about empowering women and showing them that they have power even when it seems like they are helpless. Delia goes from a victim of abuse and fear, to a woman who taps into her power without fear of backlash. Delia’s sweat, the result of her labor, gives her the strength and the power to overcome, her femininity proves powerful in the end as the snake, a symbol of masculinity, kills Sykes and Delia is set free.
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Hurston’s Sweat is a short story that represents not only the constraints of a racially divided society but also, and more notably the oppression of women in a patriarchal society. […]