Throughout the Harlem Renaissance time period, many black Americans struggled to make ends meet and live a fulfilling life. Most black Americans were poor and few had the luxury of comfortably working and living among white Americans – who often reject their identity as a black person. In addition, some poor black Americans hid their frustration and/or depression by appearing to be satisfied through smiles and singing. In Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat,” Delia Jones hides her frustration about her unfaithful husband, Sykes, and the hard work she must do with songs and an overall contemptuous tone – even when feeling angry.
Hurston highlights that Delia labors as hard as a man by maintaining a well-paying job and being the sole provider of the family; Delia is also given immense emotional strength to kill Sykes with no remorse. Moreover, Hurston makes subtle claims about race and segregation when describing Delia’s job as a washwoman. Black Americans were increasingly trying to get proper jobs during the Harlem Renaissance, but Delia was lucky enough to have an acceptable job as a clothing washer. Some jobs offered did not pay enough for a whole family to live off of.
Delia’s clothing washing job paid bills and was enough for her husband, Sykes, to use and spend carelessly. However, even so, Delia has to work very hard in order to achieve that money. Gordon E. Thompson states that Hurston “is a woman telling tales about women” and she does not monopolize the tradition for women” because he believes storytelling is gender neutral. Hurston builds Delia to be a strong woman who works even while she is tired. Hurston shows us how tired Delia is through imagery of her looks instead of having Delia tell the reader that she’s tired: Delia never looked up from her work, and her thin, stooped shoulders sagged further … her poor little body, her bare knuckly hands … Delia’s work-worn knees… ” (Hurston 2-5).
Visibly, Delia is weak with her sagging shoulders, worn knees, etc. Her body is seemingly withering away because of its weak appearance. Through use of dialect, even people around the area that Delia and Sykes lived spoke about how hard Delia worked. “Heah come Delia Jones, Jim Merchant said … ‘Yep,’ Joe Lindsay agreed. ‘Hot or col, rain or shine, jes ez reg’lar ez de weeks roll roun’ Delia carries ’em and fetches ’em on Sat’day” (Hurston 3).
The men only see Delia working and assume that is all she does; she works everyday no matter what the weather is like in order to do her job. Hurston provides her audience with a hard-working woman instead of a hard-working man to show that women can do hard work just as a man can. Moreover, not only does Hurston show a hard-working woman, but also a woman who is the sole provider for the family. Having a black woman as the only provider is an advance in African American culture because, stereotypically, a man is the provider for the family; however, Hurston gets rid of this stereotype in “Sweat” and makes Delia the sole provider.
She works hard as Hurston describes her features as being worn and sagging. Additionally, Hurston also speaks on how often she works. The narrator observes: “The week was full of work for Delia as all other weeks, and Saturday found her behind her little pony, collecting and delivering clothes” (Hurston 3). Again, someone from the town speaks about how hard Delia works: “… cause Delia works so hard ovah dat washtub she reckon everything on de place taste lak sweat an’ soapsuds” (Hurston 4). Delia works so incredibly hard that people envision her home to smell like her sweat and soapsuds from all of the washing she does.
Sykes is even able to use the money that she earns for his own gain. He constantly pays for things for his lover, Bertha, telling her that she can get “whutsoever [her] heart desires” (Hurston 4) and going as far to pay for the rent for her room (Hurston 5). Sykes does not work for this money, nor does he have some hidden savings; he leeches off his own hardworking wife to do what he pleases for not only himself but Bertha as well. Although it seems like race does not exist in the work, two authors – Chuck Jackson and Tiffany Ruby Patterson – dwell on the ideas of race in Hurston’s works.
Jackson provides the argument that washing clothes for white people has a deeper meaning. He states that the concepts of whiteness and cleanliness are complicated because of their “abstraction into metonymy” (Jackson 640). Jackson is inferring that the white, clean clothes replace the present of any white characters introduced throughout the story. Furthermore, washing clothes for white people in “Sweat” shows a contrast between a black woman washing the dirt off the clothes and white people wearing clean clothes.
Jackson would agree that – although this is not explicitly stated – black people are seen as dirty and the dirt while white people are clean and white. Sykes hates that Delia washes clothes for white folks. He does not explain why he has a problem with her working for them but it could be because of the implied idea that black people are to deal with dirtiness and clean, but white people are the ones who get to wear the clean, whitened clothes until they become dirty again. Patterson adds: “[Hurston limits segregation and structures] the encounters of blacks and whites.
Black people were integral parts of the households of the white gentry and middle classes, working in the shadows of their porches, parlors, kitchens, and even bedrooms. All but the poorest of whites brought black people into their private worlds” (92). Hurston uses real, societal situations in her stories to make the segregation between blacks and whites in her work more apparent. She also excludes white characters from being in the story and makes subtle, yet obvious claims about racial segregation and the contr between how blacks and whites were treated.
Moving along, although the reader does not see much of a change in tone from Delia, she does verbally tell Sykes that she hates him. However, Delia states her feelings calmly instead of yelling and screaming at Sykes which shows how kind Delia is, even towards the people she hates. “Ah hates you, Sykes,” she said calmly. “Ah hates you tuh de same degree dat Ah useter love yuh. … Ah don’t wantuh see yuh ‘roun’ me atall. Lay ‘roun’ wid dat ‘oman all yuh wants tuh, but gwan ‘way fum me an’ mah house. … Don’t think Ah’m gointuh be run ‘way fum mah house neither.
Ah’m goin’ tuh de white folks bout you, mah young man, de very nex’ time you lay yo’ han’s on me. Mah cup is done run ovah. ” (Hurston 6-7) Delia was direct about her hatred towards Sykes and did not hesitate to threaten him and his possible ure. She knows that he has another woman in his life while they are married – she is not foolish or in denial. Delia is clearly tired of all of Sykes’ maltreatment towards her and is ready to stand up for herself. Additionally, even while Delia tells Sykes that she is angry, she says it calmly and without fear.
Her tone towards Sykes is soft even though she is verbally angry with him. Hurston uses a simile to describe Delia’s character as having a “habitual meekness [that] seemed to slip from her shoulders like a blown scarf” (Hurston 2). Instead of going back and forth with her feelings – trying to be kind to him one moment and then being angry with him the next – she finally settles with letting her anger take over. Delia has tried to be kind toward Sykes and not let him get to her. She has tried to keep her mouth shut when he tries to start an argument: “Ah aint for no fuss t’night Sykes.
Ah just come from taking sacrament at the church house” (Hurston 2). She uses her faith to defend her refusal to argue and to keep her from falling into Sykes’ temptation. Though, by the end of the work, Delia is unable to hold back anymore. She supports her hatred for Sykes with a more powerful tone and through action. She allows her husband to die by being attacked by the snake that Sykes let in the house to scare her. Delia does say in the beginning of the story that: “Sometime or ruther, Sykes, like everybody else, is ointer reap his sowing” (Hurston 3) and sooner, rather than later, he has to deal with the Devil himself – in the form of a snake.
Thompson makes a point about how the snake is personified and Hurston uses the snake as a “symbolic tool” (745). He provides another point of view that suggests – instead of the snake being the Devil – the snake “resembles [Delia’s] attitude towards Sykes” and by Delia killing Sykes with the snake, Hurston “[depicts] women who change their lives by seeing their world anew” (745-46). He is arguing that Delia’s hatred and rage against Sykes is personified through the snake.
Just as Sykes brings in the snake to scare Delia, he brings in her fueling rage towards him. Even though she may not have directly killed Sykes, Delia let him die because this was the only way to get rid of him and the pain that he had caused her for so long. Jocelyn A. Chadwick argues that Hurston’s “deft portrayal of [Sykes] allows students to experience his extremes and ultimate self-destruction” (36). Chadwick believes that Hurston wants her audience to understand how horrible Sykes was as a character and, in turn, the audience will also have little to no sympathy for Sykes when he dies.
He had abused Delia, cheated on her, and treated her like she was a pebble in his shoe. Instead of being the submissive wife she had been before, Delia’s character changes as she acts upon her hatred for Sykes. Delia could have saved Sykes from the snake, but she made no effort to. Outside Delia heard a cry that might have come from a maddened chimpanzee, a stricken gorilla. All the terror, all the horror, all the rage that man possibly could express, without a recognizable human sound. … Delia could see and hear from her place beneath the window …
She saw him on his hands and knees as soon as she reached the door. … A surge of pity too strong to support bore her away … Orlando with its doctors was too far. (Hurston 8-9) Delia watched her husband die. She lacked sympathy and pity for Sykes; Delia also brings up the logical excuse that the doctors that could help him are too far away to further rationalize her decision to not save him. Hurston places everything that has happened from the beginning to the end within her work to demonstrate that black women were not only strong physically, but also emotionally.
She shows how Delia had strength while she worked and when she was around Sykes, while being physically and verbally abused, but also Hurston gave Delia enough courage to kill her husband to end the physical and emotional suffering she endured during her marriage. In Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat,” the protagonist, Delia, has to deal with the struggles of working hard to have a comfortable life as well as keep strong during a difficult and broken marriage. Hurston introduces a hardworking, black woman who demolishes the stereotypes of a man being the sole or main provider of the family and women being completely submissive.
Hurston makes Delia the provider, instead of her husband, Sykes, gives her a job that pays well enough to provide for three people, and imbues her with a kind and meek personality paired with a strong heart and soul. Through all of this, Delia is able to climb the descending staircase that many black Americans had to go through. Although some opportunities were being opened to them, they still had to fight to live comfortably – whether it be financially or for personal gain, and the issues within the black community itself.