Folklore and Vernacular in Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Sweat’
This paper, by referring to particular characters, themes, and plot development in Hurston’s “Sweat”, analyzes the ways folklore and vernacular are portrayed in this story.
In “Sweat,” Hurston exhibits her talents for characterization. As she did in a number of her earlier stories such as “Drenched in Light,” she also makes wonderful use of black language and idioms, switching effortlessly from the standard English of the narrator to the vivid language of the townspeople, Sykes, and Delia.
Although Delia and Sykes marry for love-at least she did-the marriage can not hold together. Sykes turns away from her to other women and spends whatever money he earns on self-indulgent living. Delia’s response is to retreat into her religion and to accept her situation meekly, that is until Sykes brings home the rattlesnake. Only her obsessive fear of snakes causes her to turn against Sykes, and once she declares her hatred for him, there is no turning back. Readers are sympathetic toward Delia because she works so hard and suffers so much. In addition, the townspeople agree that she is a fine woman; moreover, when Sykes first married her, Delia was a good-looking woman. His treatment of her has destroyed her beauty as well as her spirit.
The townspeople, the men on the porch of the store in town, function as a communal chorus, prefiguring the townspeople in Their Eyes. Joe Clarke, who runs the store, re- marks that nothing can turn Sykes into a decent man; he has chewed his wife like a piece of sugarcane, sucking all the juice and sweetness out of her and then discarding her. Joe will become Jody Starks, who attempts to do the same with his wife Janie in Their Eyes (Bloom 45).
Delia’s religion is a significant part of her life; she even changes her church so that she does not have to take the sacraments with Sykes. Indeed, one of the ironies of the story is that she rejects Sykes right after having attended her church’s love feast, a service that emphasizes love for one another and redemption. Instead of Delia’s forgiveness of Sykes, she turns away from him, refusing to warn or save him from the rattler. As readers, however, we have compassion for Delia and understand her failure to warn Sykes (Bloom 49).
Sykes Jones is a bully, brutally beating his wife and turning to other women for consolation and flattery. He claims to like fat women, and the townsmen, who discuss Sykes, say that he has always liked them. As the critic John Lowe points out, Hurston recasts jokes in the black community about some men’s desire for heavy women, providing us with a variation on the classic blues expression about “Big fat mommas wid de meat shakin’ on huh bones / Evahtime she wiggles, skinny woman los’ huh home” (quoted in Lowe 73).
Because Delia is independent of him-she has worked to support both of them and managed to buy a house-Sykes’ sense of his masculinity is threatened. We have little compassion for someone so brutal and clearly mean-spirited, who deliberately sets out to kill his wife in order to gain her property to give to another woman. Because the townspeople see through Sykes for what he is, no-good and mean, we tend to view him in the same way. The fact that Sykes acquires a snake to kill Delia, and is in turn killed by the rattler, is a neat bit of poetic justice; one might go so far as to say that Sykes kills himself out of his own meanness.
In contrast to Sykes, Delia elicits our sympathy. An independent woman with a strong work ethic, her desire for love and companionship with someone who will reciprocate is commendable. She does not seek Sykes’ death; she reacts to his devious plan to kill her. Indeed, his plan to eliminate her seems to paralyze Delia as much as the snake itself.
Clearly Hurston wants her readers to pay attention to the theme of male domination of women. In particular, she focuses on the inordinate pride of the male and his abusive treatment of women in order to feed that pride.
There are also allusions to racism brought out in Sykes’ hatred of seeing his wife wash the dirty clothes of white folk. Although he despises her job, one that can be traced back to slave days, at the same time he seems incapable of providing the means for her to quit. Ironically, Delia’s laundry tubs alert Sykes to the fact that his wife might have saved him from the rattler’s bite.
Delia’s strength as a woman, as well as her ability to work to support herself as well as her husband despite his infidelity and brutality, seems only to make Sykes more anxious about his manhood. Her religion and her fear of snakes become interwoven in Hurston’s use of the snake as both a religious and a phallic symbol. Just as the snake represented the evil of self-pride in the Garden of Eden, so the snake represents evil in the hands of Sykes. He uses the bullwhip, which resembles a snake, to brutalize Delia, and he does it purposefully, even laughing about it. With the rattler, Sykes raises the level of his hatred to psychological and physical death. The snake comes to represent all that is evil about a twisted masculinity.
The end of “Sweat” is ironic, since the snake presumably bites Sykes on the marital bed. Sykes calls for light, but it is far too late for him to see the light about himself and his relationship to Delia. He is lost in the darkness; what is left for him is the coldness of death itself. Hurston provides an excruciating pun at the end of the story, as death creeps up to extinguish that eye or ‘I’ that was once Sykes. The removal is total.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Zora Neale Hurston: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.
Hurston, Zora Neale. “Sweat” (1926), in The Complete Stories. New York: Harper Collins, 1995.
Lowe, John. Jump at the Sun: Hurston’s Cosmic Comedy. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.