The Harlem Renaissance has produced some wonderful works of intersectional literature, but arguably none compares in terms of impact to brevity as Zora Neale Hurston’s short tale “Sweat.” Zora Neale Hurston’s story Sweat is only about 15 pages long yet it addresses the trials and tribulations of modern femininity in ways some sociological treatises don’t even strive to reach. Hurston does this through efficient use of symbolism, linking the world of the “feminine” with the world of the “natural,” which she then efficiently compares and contrasts with the human world as it stands during that time.
African American literature was going through a process by which it was unconsciously self-examining the role of African Americans in society post-slavery. One of those new experiences African Americans were facing was a spiritual change, a coming out of the “slave mindset” and into the “master mindset.” In Hurston’s work we find a grand personification of this in Delia Jones who we watch face her future through new understandings of domination/subordinations, new ideas of labor and work, and new religious concerns/devotions.
Much of this can further be understood by explicating Zora Hurston’s “Sweat” via a symbolic analysis.
Hurston’s most dense exploration in Sweat is of the feminine identity and how women exist in the human realm to be objectified. The protagonist of Sweat is Delia, and throughout the story the other characters see her as nothing more than a “body.” Her husband, Sykes, does not bother to describe Delia in ways other than the physical, rarely acknowledging her as a being of thought and essence rather than just corporeality.
Delia’s skinny shape is often down-talked by Sykes, who uses her as a point of comparison for another woman, his mistress, Bertha, whose “portly shape” he wishes Delia attained. Delia’s status as an object is further reinforced by Sykes physical abuse upon her. In the opening sequence of the story, for example, Sykes whips Delia with a bull-whip, knowing it would confuse her and make her think it’s a snake. This cruel act is interesting not simply because of the sadism but because Sykes treats Delia the way one would treat a Pavlovian dog, expecting her/it to react animalistically and on instinct. This theme of “physicality” is further explored by Hurston through Delia’s household chores. The world itself has made it so that Delia’s body be broken down from the portly and womanly body of Rubenesque paintings to do knotted and knuckly one Delia has now. Though Sykes barely contributes financially to the household, it is Delia who supplies the “labor” that keeps them economically afloat. The ironic toll for that is the break-down of her body.In the short story, Delia has an intense phobia of snakes.
The snake here is a clear symbol of her husband Sykes, whose name even has the sound of a snake’s hiss. The snake is symbolically represented by Sykes in his absence. Delia’s repulsion to snakes matches her ostensibly repulsion to Sykes. Sykes’ manipulation is allegorically tied to the manipulation of the snake in the Garden of Eden. Sykes’ uses a bullwhip on Delia when he sadistically teases her. The way Hurston describes the feeling of the whip on her skin – limp, long, round – connotes the image of a snake. It is no coincidence that this type of feeling is often associated with the presence (or even lack thereof) of Sykes. The bullwhip, of course, represents a greater image in the scope of Delia’s African American experience. Though she is no longer a slave and it is no longer slave times, she has essentially entered a new slave-dom where her husband has taken over the role of master. This is the patriarchy, especially relevant in the time period Hurston portrays, the 1950s. Hurston’s work is intersectional in the sense that it finds a common theme between the plight of the African American soul and the plight of the female soul in America. The image of the snake, which stands as an image for both the whip and Delia’s masculine overlord in Sykes, is the connective symbol between these two separate experiences. The whip, however, can also evoke two other images. The first is Sykes’ “impotence,” his compensation with masculine control over a lack of control of his own body and procreative ability. The second is Sykes desire for control through perversion. The whip in this case represents his phallus not in a sexual way but in a sort of self-affirming way, “throwing it around” as the idiom might go. There is also the literal instance of Sykes actually bringing a rattlesnake into the house in his absence, a literal example of the oppression that Sykes brings onto Delia. It is not without purpose that Sykes died by his own snake, leading to a sort of poetic justice, and an allegory for masculinity eating itself, the patriarchy collapsing.
Another aspect of feminism that Hurston investigates is a woman’s, especially an Africa American woman’s, relationship to her job. In the case of Delia, her job is one of domestic servant. Her days consist of washing other people’s clothes. Delia must labor like men and women have labored for their entire lives, because it is an effort for her to spiritually cleanse herself. Delia organizes her sins as the way she organizes her life. This is a sort of ablution, a purging of the self, setting herself free through her work and concentration. In a sense, Hurston is attempting to show how for Delia, there is nothing else in life. She has no ostensible control over her environment. Delia is thematically connected to nature in several ways throughout the story. For one, she does not consider her role in the domestic sphere to be servitude but rather to be necessary for survival. In that respect, Delia sees no shame in being in the kitchen or doing the laundry. Several other characters refer to her as the type of woman who will continue to work and do labor “rain or shine.” Delia takes her objectified nature, as something less than a person, and allows it to be connected to nature and the natural. Sykes, on the other hand, who is unruly and unstable, is more chaotic and less organic. For that reason, Hurston paints Delia as a more profound figure, one that is not disconnected from the natural realm but disconnected from the “dirtiness” of the human realm. In fact, Delia, always making sure her environment is good and tidy, embodies the exact opposite of “dirtiness.” She is clean and absolved of the sins of the people around her.
Hurston’s presentation of femininity in “Sweat” is perhaps most saliently exhibited in the title itself. The sweat that Delia pours is not for her man but for herself and for all women subjugated during this time. The idea that “work will set you free” which was very much a common theme during slave times is also quite strongly illustrated in this story. By allowing herself to make the most of her corporeality, Delia has “freed” herself from having to exist in the human world, and instead allows herself to become something more “natural,” and therefore more beautiful and pure.