Sweat by Zora Neale Hurston, 1926

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by Zora Neale Hurston, 1926

Written during Zora Neale Hurston's years of active participation in the Harlem Renaissance, "Sweat" typifies her work at its best. A clear focus on well-defined characters combined with poignant and accurate dialogue and touches of macabre humor make a Hurston story both readable and informative. Trained as she was in anthropology at Barnard College under Franz Boas, Hurston used accurate cultural information in all of her fiction. Her incorporation of local color and detail was exceptional, for she understood that the detail of life provided its substance.

Focused on black characters, Hurston's fiction is unusual because it stays within the black community for its action. A decade later fiction by Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and other black male writers often set up a white-black antagonism, so that the actions of black characters were seen as reflecting racial struggle. Hurston seldom wrote fiction that depended on this plotline. Rather, her stories deal with the positive and negative poles of characters in an enclosed black culture that is complex and self-sustaining in its own right. Similarly, in Hurston's best-known novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, the black community provides ample setting for Janie Starks's bildungsroman.

What Hurston achieves in this simple but dramatic story of Delia Jones, a Florida washerwoman, is remarkable. Her emphasis on the value of work for the woman is never maudlin or sentimental, but the narrative makes clear that Delia's only value to her husband Sykes is financial. He does not work regularly and is known for his laziness. She works hard to make money, and with her money she has bought the house that Sykes wants to give to his current lover. With her money Delia also has bought her independence to go to church and to take comfort in its community, particularly since her husband has long since abandoned any pretense of loving her. The value of Delia's work, which is suggested by the forceful title, is emphasized both through the movement of the story and through the focus of key scenes on the piles of dirty clothes, which she sorts and separates by color, and the activity of washing them. Delia plans her week so that her Monday washings receive priority Connected through archetypal images, the parts of Hurston's fiction cohere to reinforce thematic integrity. The opening scene is that of Delia sorting clothes only to be frightened by a "long, round, limp and black" object—Sykes's bullwhip. Trying to frighten her into thinking that the whip is a snake, which Delia is deadly afraid of, Sykes plots to run his wife out of her house. Because Delia stands up to her abusive husband for one of the first times in their marriage, he realizes that she will fight for her house and that stronger measures than fear may be called for. Sykes later brings a snake to the house, still trying to frighten her away from the property, but the resolution of the narrative lies in the way the snake works justice on Delia's husband.

Hurston involves the community regularly so that the reader understands that Delia's point of view can be trusted. A separate section of the story is devoted to a long description of Joe Clarke's porch, where the village men gossip. When Delia approaches, the men lament the loss of her looks, which they attribute to Sykes's mistreatment. They criticize him for his behavior: "'Taint no law on earth dat kin make a man be decent if it aint in 'im. There's plenty men dat takes a wife lak dey do a joint uh sugar cane…. dey squeeze an' grind, squeeze an' grind an' wring tell dey wring every drop uh pleasure dat's in 'em out." Then, says Clarke, such men just throw the chew away, as Sykes has done with Delia. Nodding agreement, Old Man Anderson advises the group that they should kill Sykes. The men who have spoken are those with power—the storekeeper and the sage.

Hurston's undisguised criticism of macho behavior on the part of black men was unusual for 1926. Sykes's behavior would not necessarily have met with the kind of disapproval Hurston metes out for him, telling the story as she does from Delia's perspective and buttressing her views with voices from the male community. This scene clearly anticipates and erases the guilt Delia may feel at the end of the narrative.

Another section describes Sykes's relationship with the ample Bertha and makes even clearer his intention to run Delia out of the coveted house. His first vengeful act is to put a six-foot rattlesnake in a soap box that he places beside the steps to the house. His second is to place the snake in Delia's clothes hamper so that, as she sorts her washing, she will be bitten by the reptile. When Delia finds the snake, however, and sees it "pouring his awful beauty from the basket upon the bed," she runs away, and the snake remains free in the dark room.

Returning to the house during the night, Sykes hopes to find his problems resolved. But instead of a dead wife he finds only the snake. The tragic climax of the story is that Delia, who has slept in the haymow, hears Sykes's calls after he has been bitten by the rattler and must decide whether or not to save her betraying husband. Hurston finesses the moral dilemma by having Delia approach the house, look through the door, and, when she sees Sykes's "horribly swollen neck and his one open eye shining with hope," feel tempted to help him. But she is tempted only briefly. Common sense comes to her rescue, for she knows that his appearance means death. Help is too far away, and her husband is too far gone. Reality solves her moral dilemma, and Sykes dies.

By allowing the story to end with Delia's waiting outside until the process ends, Hurston avoids all need to justify her action or lack of it and any chance to dwell on abstract meanings. By implication Hurston tells the reader that Delia, a dried-out, canelike woman who has found happiness through her work and living in her house and going to her church, will resume her sweating life as a washerwoman. Hurston's picture in "Sweat" is close to idyllic. It is a realistic yet positive picture of the stubbornness of a character who should have been defeated by her poor life but instead found strength and energy in it.

—Linda Wagner-Martin