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Analysis: 'Sweat' By Zora Neale Hurston

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1110 words Published: 2nd May 2017

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In the short story “Sweat,” written by Zora Neale Hurston, Sykes, one of the main characters in the story, seems as though he gets easily upset with his wife Delia. Sykes takes his anger out on Delia by cheating on her, beating her, and making fun of her biggest fear, which is snakes. Even though Sykes’ behavior should not be condoned, he may have a psychological problem that is not addressed in the story. He probably feels threatened because Delia is the breadwinner of the household. Sykes needs to feel as if he is still in control so he tries to drag Delia down and make her feel inferior to him.

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Many women in this time period may have backed down after being threatened by their husbands. Delia did not back down however. She stood up to Sykes by telling him, “Mah tub of suds is filled yo’ belly with vittles more than yo’ hands is filled it. Mah sweat is done paid for this house and Ah reckon Ah kin keep on sweatin’ in it” (Hurston 408). Sykes does not like to be reminded of the fact that he has failed to take care of his family. Julie Mason says in, “Sykes’ Struggle for Manhood,” “In the story Sykes is constantly reminded of his failure to support his wife by her repeated references to ‘her’ carriage, ‘her’ pony, and so forth” (Mason 66).

When yelling and arguing fails, Sykes feels the need to resort to violence. He is always threatening Delia and telling her that he will hurt her physically in some way. Author of Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick, Susan Meisenhelder, believes that, “Zora Neale Hurston uses phallic imagery of the whip to suggest a nation of masculinity expressed in soul crushing force and rooted in racial oppression” (44). This seems to imply that Sykes beats Delia because Sykes only knows of the kind of manliness that white men seem to portray. When the white males at the time beat the blacks, the white males were in total domination and were superior. Black men wanted this same feeling of domination and superiority so they demanded silence and respect in their homes. In the outside world they were denied respect so they demanded it at home to convince themselves of their manhood.

When the wives begin to talk back to their husbands, like Delia did to Sykes, the husbands had a surprised reaction. The husbands felt that because they were threatening violence against their wives, the wives should cower and be obedient to them. Cheryl A.

Wall says in her book Changing Our Own Words, “It is that act of speech of ‘talking back,’ that is no mere gesture of empty words that is the expression of our movement from object to subject-the liberated voice” (11). Delia wanted to let Sykes know how much he really needed her, so she raised her voice right back in response to him and threatened violence against him too.

Sykes also has a mistress named Bertha who he spoils instead of Delia. Having a mistress makes Sykes feel manlier because he figures with two women he will seem like he is more desirable. Sykes takes Bertha out to “stomps” and buys her anything she wants. He says, “Everything b’longs tuh me an’ you sho kin have it. You kin git anything you wants. Dis is mah town an’ you sho’ kin have it” (Hurston 411). By doing all of these things for Bertha and making her feel like a queen, Sykes regains his confidence and feels useful again. Someone is once again dependent upon him.

Sykes especially feels powerful when he uses Delia’s biggest fear against her. Delia is deathly afraid of snakes. Sykes uses Delia’s phobia against her tenfold. Towards the end of the story, Sykes lets a snake loose in their home. When Sykes first brings the snake into the house, Delia says, “Syke, Ah wants you tuh take dat snake ‘way fum heah. Ah put up widcher, you done beat me an Ah took dat, but you done kilt all mah insides bringin’ dat varmint heah” (Hurston 413). Delia feels that Sykes has committed the ultimate crime against her by bringing the snake in the house. This has hurt Delia more than the beatings and verbal abuse Sykes has placed on her. Delia cannot believe Sykes has stooped this low. Sykes keeps his nonchalant attitude, and says, “A whole lot Ad keer ’bout how you feels inside uh out. Dat snake aint goin no damn wheah till Ah gits

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ready fuh ‘im tuh go. So fur as beatin’ is concerned, yuh aint took near all dat you gointer take ef yuh stay ‘roun me” (413). This implies that Sykes wants Delia out of the house and he will go to any lengths to get this accomplished. Bertha will come and live with Sykes and in turn he will regain his feelings of adequacy.

Sykes definitely accomplishes his goal to scare Delia to death after Delia finds the snake in the laundry basket. Meisenhelder points out that although, “Sykes successfully scares Delia, …his conception of masculinity is ultimately destructive for him” (106). Sykes finally believes that he has the upper hand on Delia. This plan backfires on Sykes and he is bitten by the snake and dies. Even though Sykes treated Delia horribly, she felt a surge of pity for him. At this point in the story most people feel as if Sykes got what he deserved. However, Julie Mason suggests “one should have compassion when a man, whose entire being is dictated by the way in which he is able to provide for his family, is unable to meet the demands of his family, his society, and most importantly what he demands of himself” (68).

“Sweat” proved not only to be a short story about a man harming his wife to seem stronger and more in control, but a story about a struggle of a man to gain his rightful place in society. According to a literary criticism written by S. Jay Walker, “Zora Neale Hurston had the opinion that the struggle with racism is enough for blacks energies to the belief that the last thing needed by black men at this time is being put down by the black women” (241). So it seems that Hurston wanted readers of this story to see the struggles that Sykes was going through. He was denied by society and then he comes home only to be denied by his wife. Sykes, along with many other black men, was trapped by the expectations of the world, and were forced to come to terms with them.


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