In 1926, a group of writers from the younger generation of the "New Negro" movement in New York City, including Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, decided to organize the quarterly magazine Fire!! Frustrated by the responsibilities thrust on them by Alain Locke and other leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, these writers wanted to express their own ideas without the artistic constraints of a political agenda. And, although they only managed to publish one issue because of a host of complications, the magazine left behind one of the most lasting legacies of the radical younger generation of black writers, still considered Hurston's best fiction of the period: a short story titled "Sweat."
Now available in the complete collection of Hurston's stories published by HarperCollins (1995), "Sweat" focuses on the turning point in the life of Delia Jones, a washerwoman from Hurston's hometown of Eatonville, Florida. Beginning with an outburst against her abusive husband and finishing with her involvement in his death, the story follows Delia through a transformation, an upheaval of values that Hurston is interested in setting in the context of the Harlem Renaissance in New York City. The author makes use of biblical allusion and African American folk culture to attack issues of gender and oppression that were taboo topics at the time and continue to have a wide significance today.
Born in 1901, Hurston grew up in Eatonville, Florida, a town with an entirely African American population that was a lasting inspiration for her writings. Hurston's mother was perhaps the most important part of this cultural heritage, since she encouraged her daughter's "large spirit" and protected her from the bad influence of her father. Unfortunately, Hurston's mother died when Hurston was a teenager. Soon after her mother's death, Hurston was sent away to school in Jacksonville. She went on to work as a maid for a white family, eventually joined a theatrical troupe, and then attended preparatory school at Morgan Academy in Baltimore.
Hurston continued to work her way through Howard University, the most famous institution for black scholars in the country, from which she graduated in 1924. By this time, Hurston had begun to write short fiction, and the eminent black writers Alain Locke and Charles Johnson had noticed her. Johnson encouraged Hurston to move to New York, where the black artistic and cultural movement later known as the Harlem Renaissance was thriving. Hurston did so and successfully continued to build contacts with key figures of the movement, working as a secretary to the writer Fannie Hurst, until the novelist Annie Meyer offered her a scholarship at Columbia University to study anthropology.
The only black woman at Columbia, Hurston became a leading figure of the New Negro movement, publishing plays and short stories. In 1926, Hurston wrote "Sweat" for Fire!!, a magazine that was intended to express the artistic goals of the younger generation of black writers, as opposed to the seasoned and carefully political generation of Alain Locke. Hurston then began to travel to the South and collect folklore that she would use in a book of anthropology titled Mules and Men (1935). Hurston's most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was published in 1937, followed by another anthropological work, her autobiography, two additional novels, and a play.
Hurston failed to support herself by her writings and suffered a decline in popularity during her later years spent in Florida. This was due, in part, to her politics; Hurston's autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), was severely criticized by leaders of the New York black community because it vocalized the author's opposition to desegregation, as well as other views that were considered outdated. Hurston continued to publish but became increasingly obscure until her death in 1960 in a Florida welfare home.
Set in a small all-black Florida town near Orlando, "Sweat" opens with Delia Jones soaking some clothes on a Sunday night. She is wondering where her husband has gone with her horse and buckboard (a simple carriage), when suddenly a bullwhip drops over her shoulder and terrifies her. Her husband, Sykes, then bursts out laughing at this joke he has played, since he is well aware of Delia's fear of snakes, and proceeds to taunt her and kick around the clothes she had put into piles.
Delia tries to ignore him, but Sykes continues to threaten her, saying that she should not be working on Sunday. Although Delia goes to church each week, she cannot manage to deliver clean clothes in time to the white people she works for if, as is considered correct practice, she does no work on Sunday. And so, in contrast to her usual meekness, Delia shouts that she will not lose the house she has worked so hard for and threatens Sykes with a frying pan. Sykes is too surprised to beat her, so he just says he hates skinny women and goes to his portly mistress for the night. Remembering all of the times Sykes wasted her money, slept with other women, and beat her, and realizing that the only thing left to care about is her "lovely" home, Delia goes to sleep. When Sykes finally comes home and kicks her feet out of the way, she resolves to remain indifferent to him.
The next very hot Saturday, Delia passes Joe Clarke's store on her way to deliver the clean clothes and pick up the dirty piles. The porch of the store is the gathering place for the joking, gossiping men of the town, and today they are talking about how Sykes is a scoundrel who beats Delia and runs around on her. But they ask for a melon, instead of following an intention to teach him a lesson, and leave when Sykes shows up with his current mistress, Bertha. Sykes buys her expensive things at the store with Delia watching, indicating how much of Delia's money he regularly spends on his cheating.
A month goes by, with the heat rising and Delia continuing to sweat at her washerwoman work. One day she comes home to find Sykes laughing next to a large wooden box covered with wire and telling her he has brought her something. Delia nearly faints when she sees that it contains a rattlesnake. Despite her pleading, he refuses to kill it and even shows it off to other townspeople. Delia is driven to fury, and at dinner she tells Sykes that she's put up with his beating and stealing, but she isn't going to put up with the snake. He tells her he'll beat her again if she stays around him, and she tells him she hates him like a "suck-egg dog," or a dog that steals eggs and sucks them dry, and threatens to tell the white people about him.
Sykes leaves, and by the time she goes to church the next day, Delia still hasn't seen him. She feels better and comes home singing a spiritual song, but she quiets down when, at the kitchen door, she cannot hear the snake in its box. After using the last match behind the stove and noticing with anger that Sykes had brought his mistress into her house, Delia brings the dirty clothes into the small bedroom to sort them and starts to sing again. But when she goes to take the clothes out of the basket, she suddenly springs back to the door because the viper is lying inside.
Terrified, Delia manages to run out of the house and lie in the barn for an hour before going to sleep. She wakes up to the sound of Sykes demolishing the wooden box, and she crouches beneath the bedroom window. She can hear the rattlesnake whirring inside. Sykes, whose head is clearing from gin, hears nothing until he reaches behind the stove to look for a match. But they are all gone, and Sykes hears the rattling right beneath him, so he leaps up on the bed. Delia can hear a horrible scream as Sykes is being attacked, and she becomes ill. While lying down to recover, she hears Sykes moan her name and gets up to walk towards the door. He crawls towards her and realizes that she had been there the whole time.
Bertha is Sykes's plump mistress, with whom he is openly cheating on Delia. Elijah Moseley calls her a "big black greasy Mogul" (this last word referring to the Muslim rulers of India between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries), a description that connotes some of the white stereotypes and
racist caricatures of the time as to what kind of women were attractive to black men. Bertha has picked up a bad reputation in her previous town and carried it to Eatonville; she is bold enough, unlike Sykes's previous mistresses, to call for him at Delia's gate. For three months, she has been living in Della Lewis's disreputable inn, and Delia can tell that Sykes has brought her into their house.
One of the men on the porch of Joe Clarke's store, Dave mentions that Bertha looks like an alligator when she opens her mouth to laugh. The character of the same name in Hurston's play Mule Bone (coauthored with Langston Hughes) is described as a "Dancer, Baptist, soft, happy-go-lucky character, slightly dumb."
Joe runs the general store on the main street. His character is based on the real man of the same name who ran the general store during Hurston's childhood, and the gathering of people on this porch is an important and omnipresent element in much of her fiction. Eatonville residents gathered there to joke and gossip, but there was also philosophy, politics, and storytelling in their conversations, as Joe demonstrates in his commentary about men who abuse their wives like "a joint uh sugar-cane," throwing them away when they're finished with them.
The protagonist of the story, Delia is a washerwoman fighting to keep her house and her sanity. She is a thin woman with sagging, overworked shoulders, and she is deathly afraid of snakes, a fear that her husband cruelly exploits. "Sweat" marks a turning point in her life, when she has finally had enough, and the reader can notice an entirely "new Delia" emerging between the first time she confronts Sykes and his death.
As the men on the porch of Joe Clarke's store remember, Delia used to be a very pretty young woman until her husband began to abuse her. It is clear from lines such as "Delia's habitual meekness seemed to slip from her shoulders like a blown scarf" that she had taken his beatings, unfaithfulness, and squandering of her money without a fight for a very long time. But Delia also says to Sykes, "Ah hates you tuh de same degree dat Ah useter love yuh," and the reader can infer from the vehemence of this outburst that she used to love him quite a lot before they were married fifteen years ago and his cruelty began.
The story does not describe how their marriage came to be so miserable, but Sykes is the main source of Delia's problems. She does not complain about working so hard for white people to pay for her "lovely" home, and Joe Lindsay notes how she delivers the clean clothes every week without fail. Imagery like "Delia's work-worn knees crawled over the earth in Gethsemane and up the rocks of Cavalry many, many times during these months" paints her as a victim, a martyr even, of intersecting oppressions, from the white community and from her husband. She has tried meekness, friendliness, and hard work to get along with Sykes and finally only wants to be left in peace to do her work, to live in the house she has worked for, and to worship on Sundays. It is only when she cannot possibly take the abuse from her husband anymore that she begins to be aggressive towards him and, as a sort of last measure, to refuse to help while he is dying.
Nevertheless, the reader is left contemplating Delia's actions during her husband's death. Hurston seems to emphasize that Delia is driven to this end with no alternative, but she also suggests an element of emancipation and a refusal to bow to conventional ethics in her character. This "new Delia" has changed quite radically, and along with her newfound freedom has come a loss of innocence.
The wife beater who is duly punished by the end of "Sweat," Sykes is Delia's husband of fifteen years. Since two months after their marriage, he has physically and verbally abused his wife, as well as frequently cheating on her and wasting her money. He is no longer attracted to skinny women and prefers his mistresses to be portly and, if his current lady is an indication, disreputable. Sykes is a prankster whose fascination with snakes leads to his death by the same creature he caught to exasperate his wife.
The men on Joe Clarke's porch point out that there are plenty of men like Sykes who wring "every drop uh pleasure" out of their wives, cheat on them, and are overbearing and self-important profligates. It is possible that Sykes was not always this way, since Jim Merchant mentions that he used to be very "skeered uh losin" Delia when they first married. But he has become more brazen and open in his abuse even since the beginning of the story, although Delia's finally standing up for herself seems to halt his beatings.
Some of Sykes's characteristics, particularly his attraction to big women and his money-wasting, were common stereotypes that white people held about black men, reinforced in various racist publications during the time in which Hurston wrote the story. In fact, he embodies a great many bad traits that leaders of the Harlem Renaissance discouraged black authors from portraying, such as heavy drinking, sexual deviance, and irresponsibility. And, at moments such as Delia's threatening to go "tuh de white folks bout you," Sykes seems less demonic and more victimized himself as a result of his ignoring white value systems. Indeed, Hurston allows the reader some room to pity him in the closing moment of the story, when his neck is swollen and he has "one open eye shining with hope" despite the fact that his wife has left him to die.
Jim comments on Sykes's habit of cheating and relates the time that Sykes tried to seduce his wife. Like the other men gossiping on Joe Clarke's porch, he jokes in heavy Eatonville slang and provides some important insight into the general attitude of the town towards Delia, Sykes, and Bertha.
Elijah is the man from Joe's porch who jeers at Sykes's treatment of women and pesters Joe for a watermelon.
Old Man Anderson
Suggesting that the men whip and kill Sykes, Old Man Anderson does not follow through on his advice to the rest of the men on the porch.
Walter remembers that Delia used to be a pretty young woman before she married Sykes.
One of Hurston's central preoccupations in "Sweat" is the problem of oppression within the black community. Sykes's ceaseless cruelty towards his wife is by far the most difficult part of Delia's situation, and she must seek emancipation from her tyrannical husband before she tries to address the wider system of racial inequality.
This is not to say that Hurston oversimplifies Delia's problems; her poverty and hard work are inextricably connected with whites, for whom she must work. A major irony in the story is that Delia must work so hard to clean white people's clothes while her own clothes are dirtied with sweat and blood. It is precisely the combination of white racism and spousal abuse that leads Delia to a level of desperation not at all uncommon amongst black women attempting to carry the burden of two forces of oppression at once. Given the reality of her social and economic situation, Delia can no longer remain indifferent to her increasingly abusive husband, as she has attempted to do for fifteen years.
The story does not provide any neat solutions; indeed, Delia's options are quite limited. Hurston is careful to emphasize that a black washerwoman is not able to clean away the abuse of a philandering and merciless husband while following a strict and meek Christian moral code. As she must work on Sundays (against convention) in order to fulfill the heavy obligations to her white oppressors, Delia eventually finds that she must resort to a conventionally immoral way of dealing with Sykes. Whether she is justified in standing by while he dies, and whether Hurston is advocating a transgression of a widely accepted moral standard, is not entirely clear, but Hurston certainly illustrates the stark desperation of Delia's situation in vivid detail.
The editors of Fire!! may have felt that they needed to publish their own magazine in order to bring up these issues at all; the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance did not approve of topics like immorality and oppression within the black community. Wishing to portray blacks as civilized, modern, and virtuous people, Alain Locke and W. E. B. Du Bois were hesitant to highlight conditions that would be detrimental to their agenda. They were interested in trying to decrease the large numbers of black men lynched each year more than they were interested in allowing black writers free rein in their work. But Hurston and her peers professed that they were unwilling to accept any artistic compromise, which is why "Sweat" does not compromise in portraying all sides of a black woman's oppressive reality.
Sex and Love
The prominence of phallic snake imagery, as well as the infidelity and the sexual power struggle in the story, makes sex a key theme in "Sweat." When Hurston writes in the opening of the story that "something long, round, limp and black" fell on Delia's shoulders, she is playing a prank on the reader in somewhat the same way that Sykes is playing a trick on Delia. This phallic reference is purposefully shocking so it can begin to ask questions about sex and love in the context of the Jones's marriage.
The first thing the reader wonders is why Delia is so terrified of this "bull whip," which falls on her shoulders, emphasizing that it represents the burden of oppression. It soon becomes clear that her fear derives from the beatings to which she has been subjected for fifteen years. Sykes seems to be painted, through the description of his fixation with snakes, as an aggressive rapist figure. Hurston does not, however, treat this theme as a simple complaint about male phallic tyranny. Indeed, the fact that this bull whip is "limp," combined with Delia's insults, such as calling her husband a "suck-egg dog" whose "black hide" is like "uh passle uh wrinkled up rubber," questions what the author is really saying about Sykes's sexuality.
In his book Jump at the Sun, the critic John Lowe highlights these instances of Delia's "verbally emasculating" her husband (a concept related to castration, or taking away "manhood") and argues that Hurston must be thinking about "the emasculation of the black man by a racist, capitalist society." This suggests a more complex power dynamic between Delia and Sykes than at first seems to be the case; for example, Hurston seems conscious of the impotence Sykes faces as a black man, exhibiting some of the stereotypical traits that leaders of the Harlem Renaissance attempted to shun.
Topics for Further Study
- Read the rest of the material in Fire!! How do Hurston's pieces compare with those of her colleagues? Are they operating under the same artistic agenda? Describe the agenda(s) that you observe. Do you find the content radical? If you were a leader of the New Negro movement, how would you evaluate or critique the work of these authors?
- Consider some of the reasons for Hurston's declining popularity and alienation from the literary community. For example, read her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road and review the history of race relations between 1920 and 1960. Discuss why some of her political views might have been unpopular, and explain why you think she came to these conclusions. What led to Hurston's unpopularity besides her stance on certain political issues? Describe the elements of "Sweat" that might have alienated her readership, and explain how the characteristics that later made her unpopular are noticeable, or missing, in the story.
- Listen to some of the music from the Harlem Renaissance, such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and especially the lyrics of singers such as Bessie Smith. What do the rhythms of jazz and blues have in common with the writings of Hurston and her colleagues? Compare the character, style, and sexuality of Bessie Smith's songs with Delia Jones and "Sweat," particularly in terms of empowerment and female autonomy. How is Hurston's treatment of black folk culture different from the cultural style preserved in the music? How do they employ similar techniques?
- Hurston underwent a major revival in the 1970s, particularly by the writer Alice Walker. How, and on what grounds, did writers of this period identify with Hurston? Discuss why one might consider Hurston a feminist. Read Walker's The Color Purple and compare its themes to those of "Sweat." How have understandings and theories of race and gender changed since Hurston's lifetime? Do you think Hurston's works will continue to be popular in the future? Why or why not?
- Read several historical accounts of the Harlem Renaissance, both from the primary sources and from contemporary analysts. How does "Sweat" fit in with the politics and artistic theories of Hurston's contemporaries? How do her writings reflect the sentiment of the time? Make a case for why she can, or cannot, be fairly called a "New Negro." How does she think of and refer to herself in relation to this term? What impact do you think her writings had on the Renaissance community, and how do you think her career might have differed had she lived during a different moment in black history, such as after the Civil Rights movement?
Although she does not seem to be vindicating Sykes, the author is certainly playing with the idea of a reversal of sexual power into the hands of a thin woman who toils ceaselessly for white people. In fact, Sykes's sexuality (associated with black folk values) is his undoing. As Lowe points out, it is when he jumps on the bed, the sexual space in the home, that he is finally poisoned by the representation of his violent sexuality. The manner in which this violent sexuality plays into the conflict of the forces of racial and domestic oppression in the story adds a complex and ambiguous dimension to the couple's sexual power struggle.
Hurston makes a number of allusions to the Bible in "Sweat" that underscore her authorial intentions. Perhaps the most important is the allusion to the Garden of Eden, with the serpent taking on its role of temptation (common to the Western Christian interpretation of the story of Eden) and giving Delia the opportunity to allow for her husband's death. Delia's character may not seem much like Eve's, but Delia does obtain from the serpent the forbidden knowledge of how to disregard convention and subvert Christian morality.
The implications of this allusion are unclear, however. Hurston might be condemning Delia's complicity with the serpent, or she might be praising her ability to bend the rules of Christian morality so that Sykes is punished by his own evil device—an idea Delia expresses as "whatever goes over the Devil's back, is got to come under his belly." This reference to the Devil is one of the phallic references discussed above and highlights the fact that, like the function of sexual imagery in the story, Hurston's biblical allusions are highly ambiguous.
Further complicating the meaning of these allusions are Delia's song about crossing the Jordan, which refers to Joshua leading the nation of Israel across the river, and her crawling "over the earth in Gethsemane and up the rocks of Calvary," which were journeys of Jesus. They place Delia in the role of leading her people to a new destiny, either as a warrior or a martyr, although this becomes much less clear when seen together with her more subversive role as the enabler of the serpent. Perhaps the best way to regard Hurston's biblical allusions is as a method of emphasizing Delia's ability to draw power from all sources available to her and to manifest it in the manner most pertinent to her struggle.
Black Southern Dialect
Hurston is famous for her thorough knowledge of black slang and folk culture, and her use of black southern dialect is an important stylistic device in "Sweat." The dialect itself, aside from portraying the authentic speech patterns of Eatonville, allows Hurston to take ownership of the language. Like Delia, who assumes power through the story by shouting back at Sykes and insulting him, the author gains her own autonomy over the meaning of the text by putting it into the rhythm of her community's speech pattern.
Hurston's ability to switch between Eatonville dialect and technically grammatical English allows her to act as a sort of intermediary and interpreter, bringing southern folk wisdom to New York. The philosophy expounded, for example by Joe Clarke, about using one's wife like sugar cane, is a kind of wisdom very specific to the metaphors, rhythm, and imagery available in Eatonville slang. Relating this, as well as phrases such as "suck-egg dog" (a seemingly contradictory phrase perfect for relating Sykes's violently sexual emasculation) in authentic phonetics gives Hurston authority in her radical politics and themes; she manages to pose as an ambassador of her culture's wisdom. Nonbourgeois black readers might be more willing to accept ideas in this form than in the language of a doctoral student at Columbia, since folk wisdom seems much more tried and true than the whims of an individual, ambitious writer, especially when it is presented in authentic dialect.
Prior to and during World War I, African American demographics underwent a major shift, with over a million black people migrating north. Filled with hope of more jobs and less racial oppression, many black Southerners saw cities such as New York and Chicago as the land of their deliverance, although this was not always true in practice. Instead, blacks largely found it difficult to settle in and, after the war, tended not to benefit economically from the "Roaring Twenties," finding themselves segregated to poor racial ghettos such as Harlem in New York City. The Ku Klux Klan remained active, actually increasing in membership during these years, and segregation was widespread.
What the newly arrived blacks in New York did find, however, between the end of World War I and the beginning of the Great Depression, was an unprecedented flowering of black art and culture later coined the "Harlem Renaissance." Institutions like the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) were becoming increasingly influential, and black political thinkers such as W. E. B. Du Bois held more power and were much less conciliatory to the white gentry than were their predecessors. Black culture was suffused with the ideology of the "New Negro," which emphasized abandoning traditionalist values and becoming a modern American citizen exercising the right to vote—and cultured leaders like Alain Locke were actively supporting this ideology in their magazines.
But Hurston's reaction to the values of this movement demonstrates that they were not entirely pervasive, especially within the younger generation of writers living in Harlem. When she moved to New York towards the end of the "Great Migration" northwards, Hurston was more idealistic about the unity and agenda of the New Negro movement than she later became. She was invited to New York by Locke himself and proceeded to ingratiate herself with a number of key political and artistic figures in Harlem, writing against Marcus Garvey and in favor of Du Bois and his efforts to lower mortality rates and work for the benefit of his people.
Compare & Contrast
- 1920s: Racism towards African Americans is an extreme problem, in both the southern and northern states. Much of the optimism of blacks moving to the North is turning out to be an illusion. Education is poorly funded, poverty is widespread, and 281 blacks, compared with 34 whites, are lynched during the decade.
Today: Racial discrimination is illegal, but it has not been completely abolished in practice. The Supreme Court has ruled to continue the process of "affirmative action" in public universities, a sign that the legal system desires to remain committed to equalizing the opportunities afforded to all racial groups.
- 1920s: The American economy is booming. The stock market is rising at unprecedented rates, and many Americans are becoming rich, although money and jobs are not generally trickling down to the poorer black classes.
Today: The United States has a powerful economy, but it has failed to completely recover from the downturn coinciding with the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York. Unemployment is particularly high for black workers—over double the jobless percentage for whites.
- 1920s: Harlem is a burgeoning urban center, full of black artistic achievement and exciting new ideas, but housing is becoming increasingly cramped, and poverty is widespread.
Today: After a long and severe decline since the 1930s in housing conditions, crime, and poverty, conditions have now drastically improved. Harlem property value is among the fastest rising in New York City, although some people are afraid this has created an unaffordable housing crisis and a negative impact on the local culture.
- 1920s: Spousal abuse goes largely unpunished, as police and courts rarely have the right to intervene.
Today: The Violence Against Women Bill of 1991 and other measures introduced to protect women within the home are likely to have decreased levels of spousal abuse, but it remains a major problem.
After publishing a short story in Locke's New Negro magazine, however, she and some of her peers began to be skeptical about elements of the magazine's artistic agenda, such as its tendency to avoid commonly caricatured folk traits such as black superstition. As Robert Hemenway writes in his literary biography of Hurston, "The established bourgeois position was that black art should avoid reinforcing racist stereotypes by refusing to portray the lowest elements of the race." The magazine Fire!! was created to refute these black bourgeois values when they clashed with "pure" artistic goals.
Spearheaded by Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Wallace Thurman, Fire!! had major difficulties getting published at all, including a lack of money and a fire in an apartment that destroyed several hundred copies, and the editors managed to publish only one issue before the magazine collapsed. But "Sweat," along with the other pieces published in 1926, was a major achievement for Hurston and her subsection of Harlem Renaissance writers, earning them a little-acknowledged uniqueness within a movement whose leaders wanted to portray a unified front to the country.
Fire!! received a critical review of mild disinterest. Hurston's biographer Robert Hemenway explains that the editors planned, even hoped, for Du Bois to dislike it because he had previously condemned the notion of apolitical writing and his disfavor would confirm that the magazine was indeed "pure." But Du Bois's NAACP journal simply ignored Fire!!, aside from a bland endorsement, leaving the editors actually brainstorming for ways of making the magazine more offensive. Hemenway writes that Benjamin Brawley, "a pillar of the black literary establishment," disliked it intensely. Alain Locke only bothered to censure the magazine's "effete echoes of contemporary decadence" but later praised its "anti-Puritanism." This critical response was the final factor, after all of the difficulties in publication, that led to the magazine's collapse: It was not received as controversial enough to procure any heated condemnation or acclaim.
"Sweat" itself received no major critical attention until Hurston's revival by black feminist writers over fifteen years after her death. All of her writing was very highly regarded during the Harlem Renaissance, and she was thought to be one of the most prodigious writers in her generation, but Hurston rapidly lost her fame and even the ability to publish her works. By the end of her life, she was almost completely ignored by the literary community, in part because of her old-fashioned politics on issues such as segregation. Black feminist writer Alice Walker was one of the first to champion Hurston's talent, placing a gravestone on the field where Hurston was buried in an unmarked plot and writing about her rediscovery, in essays such as the forward to Hemenway's literary biography of Hurston.
The black feminist criticism that dominated Hurston's revival largely focused on her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, but critics have also discussed the intersection of race and gender in "Sweat" since the late 1970s. Hemenway discusses "Sweat" as a "remarkable work, her best fiction of the period," portending the "unlimited potential in Hurston's folk material when an organic form grew from the subject matter." John Lowe discusses the sexual and racial politics, as well as the folk roots, of the story in his book Jump at the Sun, and other critics tend to discuss it in these terms as well, always setting it in the context of the political climate of the Harlem Renaissance.
Trudell is a freelance writer with a bachelor's degree in English literature. In the following essay, Trudell examines the place of "Sweat" within the political climate of the Harlem Renaissance.
"Sweat" is an intriguing story in terms of what it is "supposed" to be about, especially in its treatment of racial issues. The key piece of a magazine eager to defy the Harlem Renaissance artistic agenda, the story would have been expected to exercise its artistic freedom and break the taboos of leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois. Hurston had certainly grown irritated with the pressure from Du Bois and Alain Locke, her former mentor, to write with politics in mind. As she later wrote in Dust Tracks on a Road, "from what I had read and heard, Negroes were supposed to write about the Race Problem. I was and am thoroughly sick of the subject." Given this sentiment, one might even expect her to have made a particular effort to spite Du Bois's politicized view of art and write something that would be offensive to the Harlem Renaissance leadership.
And there is evidence that "Sweat" does defy Du Bois's agenda, since it is the story of a conflict between an abusive black man and his wife, one that results in the wife's standing by while her husband
dies. As far as the black literary elite in Harlem was concerned, authors were supposed to play down interracial problems and instead help to achieve a unity of purpose and direction for the ideal of the New Negro. In 1925, Locke wrote in the New Negro that Hurston and her peers "have no thought of their racy folk types as typical of anything but themselves or of their being taken or mistaken as racially representative." This comment actually comes out of an essay that considers this ignorance a positive sign for the newly developing black consciousness and their unprecedented freedom to write what they wish, but Locke remains condescending towards authors who choose to place the race in this light. One would expect him to find a story like "Sweat" inappropriate and counterproductive to the goals of his movement.
Du Bois, who, unlike Locke, never claimed to be exclusively interested in "art for art's sake," was even more condemnatory of stories with plots he considered unflattering to African Americans. Describing the obligations of black writers to the New Negro movement, Du Bois describes the important political influence of black artists in his article "The Creative Impulse," proclaiming, "Thus all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists." Locke was irritated when literature displayed poor, uneducated blacks, which (he felt) reinforced stereotypes and impeded progress, but Du Bois was irate, especially if they reflected some of the common white stereotypes against blacks. Du Bois was also more specific about the stereotypes to avoid, writing that whites want to see "Uncle Toms, Topsies, good 'darkies' and clowns" and that black writers should refuse to give them anything that could be construed as such.
So it is difficult to see how these black leaders could fail to condemn "Sweat." Sykes in particular has many of the "folk" characteristics of which Locke disapproved, such as a preference for larger women and a problem with wasting money, which many whites placed on blacks as a race. And Du Bois might even have seen Delia as an "Uncle Tom," which refers to the servile title character in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel and came to be used as a label for blacks who tried to emulate or gain favor with whites. Indeed, Delia says she does not mind dirtying her black skin with sweat and blood in order to clean the clothes of white people, and she actually tells Sykes "Ah'm goin' tuh de white folks bout you, mah young man, de very nex' time you lay yo' han's on me." One would expect Du Bois to be particularly angry that Delia, in a way, carries out this warning, leaving Sykes to his death so she can be left to earn her living as a diligent servant of whites.
In reality, however, Locke and Du Bois ignored the story. Locke made only two short and conflicting references to the entire Fire!! magazine, and Du Bois did not even mention it. There was some very negative criticism from Benjamin Brawley, a prominent academic and black leader, but the major players in Harlem Renaissance leadership did not appear to be offended enough to comment.
They could have been purposefully ignoring "Sweat" and the rest of the magazine because they were worried about attracting attention to it, but this does not explain why the Crisis, the NAACP journal edited by Du Bois, made a brief and positive announcement of the magazine's publication. It is more likely that Hurston's short story did not offend Du Bois or Locke because it had more in common with the spirit of the movement than she and her fellow editors of Fire!! would have liked to admit. Indeed, a closer look at the thematic implications of "Sweat" reveals, ironically, that it can be read as an allegory for the birth of the New Negro that is distinctly in line with the conception of Locke and Du Bois. To illustrate this point, it is necessary to examine Delia's moral journey, concentrating on the values she denies and gains, and revealing how she comes to be what the black leaders actually meant by a "New Negro."
What Do I Read Next?
- Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is probably the most important of Hurston's works to read after "Sweat." Also set in Eatonville, it follows the story of Janie Crawford and her clashes with the moral code of the town.
- The Color Purple (1982) is Alice Walker's novel about the difficult life of a girl named Celie, whose fortunes finally begin to change with the arrival of her husband's lover in her home. Not only is this highly regarded novel heavily allusive to Hurston's work, it addresses some of the themes of "Sweat" in a more modern and thorough light.
- The New Negro, an anthology of some of the most influential writers of the Harlem Renaissance, was published by Alain Locke in 1925. It includes Hurston's short story "Spunk," and it is a superb way to enter the literary world of the time.
- In his controversial history, Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987), Houston A. Baker Jr contends that the Harlem Renaissance is unfairly judged by the standards of European modernism and instead should be seen in the light of its own rich discourse.
- The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (1994) provides an excellent range of the accessible and sensitive poet who went on from Hurston's group of friends to become possibly the most celebrated black writer of the century.
- The one published issue of the magazine Fire!! was reprinted by the Negro Universities Press in 1970 and again by Fire!! Press in 1982. Its collection of writings by Hurston and her peers reveals the context and medium of "Sweat" as well as a broad sense of their artistic goals.
It is clear that "Sweat" is about some kind of birth. The story is heavily allusive to the Garden of Eden in the Bible, complete with the snake of temptation, and Delia is, in a sense, reborn at the end of the story with a radically different life view. This birth is not a straightforward representation of the Bible, however; it is complicated by other biblical references to the life of Jesus ("over the earth in Gethsemane and up the rocks of Calvary") and to the journey of the nation of Israel under Joshua ("Ah wantah cross Jurden in uh calm time"), by which Hurston begins to develop an allegory of the birth and emancipation of a people that mixes and matches biblical stories suitable for her goals.
In fact, in the role of the prophet or deliverer, Delia undergoes a process of reinterpreting biblical authority, just as she reinterprets the religious custom of not working on the Sabbath, in order to provide herself a realistic and original solution to her difficult life. For example, she reinterprets the "awful calm" she finds after nearly being killed by the snake into the "calm time" for crossing the Jordan, and she reassigns the meaning of her sweaty hard work for white people, in a way, in order to baptize her followers, because a prophet always has followers, in the "salty stream that had been pressed from her heart," the baptismal font of her sweat. But perhaps the clearest example is her reversal of the story of the Garden of Eden by refusing to act in the passive role of Eve and turning the symbol of abusive male power, the snake, against itself.
The allegorical lesson of "Sweat," then, must consist of the value system that Delia gains from this process of reinterpretation and rebirth. And, this is where the story's biblical imagery and allegory connect specifically to the prevailing concept of the New Negro.
The principle value system Delia denies and from which she leads her people away is that of Sykes and his abusive, phallic sexuality associated with the snake. By the end of the story, Delia has not simply retained her "triumphant indifference to all that he was or did"; she has actively and violently allowed what "goes over the Devil's back" to "come under his belly." And her vehement rejection is not just of Sykes's abuse; it is of all "he was or did"—his laziness, his preference for large women, his money-wasting, and his prankster pleasure-seeking—all of which are symbols of the discriminatory white stereotypes of blacks and the "folk type" that so irritated Locke. Under this allegorical interpretation, the whole point of "Sweat" is to reject the value system of the "old" Negro and start anew. Perhaps this accounts for Locke's indifference to Fire!! Its feature piece seems superficially offensive but actually reinforces basic New Negro ideology, such as the importance of entering a new cosmopolitan moral system and denying the folk values that Harlem Renaissance leadership considered detrimental to the image of the race.
It is important to note, however, that "Sweat" also considers the negative consequences of this New Negro rebirth. From the story's treatment of white oppression, for example, it is clear that Hurston is worried about the predominance of Du Bois and Locke's artistic agenda. In rejecting Sykes, Delia is also rejecting a philosophy that, albeit violent and abusive, refuses white oppression as her own does not. When Sykes says, "Ah done tole you time and again to keep them white folks' clothes outa dis house," he is demonstrating independence from white capitalist (and exploitative) values, unlike his wife, and Hurston is sympathetic to this. The critic John Lowe even suggests in his book Jump at the Sun that the story laments and condemns Sykes's indirect murder. By this logic, Hurston's allegory of the rise of New Negro philosophy is somewhat ironic or at least ambivalent.
Nevertheless, Hurston's ambivalence about the process she is allegorizing does not prevent her, like Delia, from allowing Sykes's ideology to destroy itself. The reader, and the author, ultimately side with Delia, and the allegory of "Sweat" overturns sympathy with the "old" Negro. Hurston's political statement is subtle about what it affirms, but it does ultimately reinforce the New Negro politics of Locke and Du Bois.
Source: Scott Trudell, Critical Essay on "Sweat," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2004.
In the following essay excerpt, Champion discusses gender oppression in "Sweat," and its symbolically negative outcome.
Even more than "The Gilded Six-Bits," "Sweat" exposes gender oppression by revealing the plight of women in a sexist society. The protagonist, Delia, works long hours washing laundry for white customers, whose economic privilege is contrasted with Delia's economic status: not only can she not afford to hire someone to wash her laundry, but she must also wash wealthy people's laundry to provide for herself. While the story demonstrates the disparity of wealth between the wealthy Winter Park whites and the poor Eatonville blacks, the main plot of the story does not center on this form of economic exploitation, but rather upon how Delia's husband, Sykes, exploits her. Ironically, throughout the course of the story, sweat signifies Delia's exploited labor and Sykes's poisoned mental state that ultimately leads to the physical poisoning that kills him. Additionally, "Sweat" exposes gender oppression and economic exploitation by suggesting that "what goes around comes around."
The story opens with a technical description of Delia's labor that reveals that she works long hours every day of the week. Early on, the narrative establishes that Sykes both physically and mentally torments Delia. Scolding him for scaring her by sliding across her knee a bullwhip that she thinks is a snake, Delia says she may die from his foolishness. More interestingly, she asks him, "where you been wid mah rig? Ah feeds dat pony," informing him that the pony belongs to her and that she pays for its upkeep. He responds by reminding her that he has told her repeatedly "to keep them white folks' clothes outa dis house" and by claiming that she should not "wash white folks clothes on the Sabbath." Although the argument begins with a physical scare, it soon turns to a quarrel about economics. After scolding him for scaring her, Delia reminds him that she owns the pony, the means by which Sykes leaves the house. His rebuke reveals his resentment that Delia owns the material goods he wishes to use to entice Bertha to remain his girlfriend. He promises to give Bertha the house as soon as he "kin git dat 'oman outa dere." Sykes pays Bertha's rent and spends money to take her to Winter Park for dates. He promises her that he will give her whatever she wants: "Dis is mah town an' you sho' kin have it." Significantly, when Delia sees Sykes with Bertha, he is at the store purchasing groceries for her and telling her to "git, whutsoever yo' heart desires." Not only does Sykes spend Delia's money on Bertha, he wants to give Delia's other possessions to her.
Delia develops from a meek woman who acquiesces to Sykes's abuse to one who defends herself both verbally and physically. Although Delia has suffered abuse from Sykes for fifteen years, she has yet to refute him. However, during this particular argument that has turned to economics, her "habitual meekness slips," and she responds to Sykes's verbal abuse with the assertion that she has been washing clothes and sweating for fifteen years to feed him and to pay for her house. Later, when he refuses to remove the snake from the house, she says, "Ah hates you, Sykes…. Ah hates you tuh de same degree dat Ah useter love yuh. Ah done took an' took till mah belly is full up tuh mah neck." Significantly, she ends her argument by saying, "Lay 'roun' wid dat 'oman al yuh wants tuh, but gwan 'way fum me an' mah house" (emphasis added). Although the story involves a love triangle, the more important conflict is the battle between Sykes and Delia for possession of the house. Delia is much more concerned with protecting her property than she is with redeeming her marriage.
Hoping that Sykes will receive retribution for abusing her, a week before he dies, she says, "Whatever goes over the Devil's back, is got to come under his belly. Sometime or ruther. Sykes, like everybody else, is gointer reap his sowing." Also, announcing that she refuses to leave her house, Delia threatens to report Sykes to the white people. Apparently, this threat scares him, for the next day he puts the snake in Delia's laundry basket. However, Delia does not depend on the "law" for justice. She seems to agree with the Eatonville community, which acknowledges both that there "oughter be a law about" Sykes and that "taint no law on earth dat kin make a man be decent if it aint in 'im." Depending on forces above the law, Delia allows Sykes's retribution to come to him "naturally." Unlike the conjure that renders poetic justice in many of Hurston's works, Sykes's own action renders justice in "Sweat": the very snake he intends to bite Delia bites him instead.
Sykes's self-inflicted poisoning brings about poetic justice, as he is the victim of his attempt to kill Delia and thus gain possession of the house; but the sweat that comes from Delia's exploited labor is not self-inflicted: it is inflicted upon her by a vile social system that privileges wealthy whites. This vile social system also, to be sure, victimizes Sykes. As Lillie P. Howard points out, Sykes clearly is Delia's antagonist, but part of the reason he resents her is "because her work makes him feel like less than a man. He resents her working for the white folks, washing their dirty laundry, but he does not resent it enough to remove the need for her to do so." Similarly, Lowe argues that although readers empathize with Delia, "the emasculation of the black man by a racist, capitalist society is on Hurston's mind too…."
Critics argue whether or not Delia's refusal to help Sykes after the snake has bitten him exemplifies her spiritual downfall. Lowe says, "Delia's Christian righteousness, evident in the scene when she returns from a 'Love Feast' at church, also seems challenged by her failure to seek help for Sykes after he has been bitten by the snake at the end of the story and by her deliberate showing herself to him so he will know she knows what he attempted and that there is no hope for him." Cheryl A. Wall says, "Delia makes no effort to warn, rescue, or even comfort Sykes. She exacts her revenge but at a terrible spiritual cost…. The narrator does not pass judgment. Yet, how will Delia, good Christian though she has tried to be, ever cross Jordan in a calm time?" Contrary to Wall and Lowe, Myles Hurd argues, "Because Hurston exerts quite a bit of creative energy in outlining Sykes's outrageous behavior and in subsequently punishing him for his misdeeds, Delia's virtue is too often easily overshadowed by his villainy." Hurd suggests that because Sykes is a "more dramatically compelling" character than Delia, some "readers overeagerly expect Delia to counter his evil, rather than allow herself to be repeatedly buffeted by it." When readers consider that the sweat, or poison, eventually seeps out of Delia's body, the title of the story suggests that she is not spiritually corrupt. Similar to the poison that kills Sykes, Delia's sweat represents both literal bodily toxins and symbolic poisons that represent the social system that has caused her to sweat. Sykes is possessed by an evil that consumes his soul and eventually kills him; however, Delia remains pure because the sweat, the toxin or poison that represents the social system that exploits her, is released from her body and does not corrupt her physically or spiritually.
In an interesting twist that parallels the snake that bites Sykes instead of Delia, at the end of the story, "the man who has loomed above her through the years now crawls toward her, his fallen state emphasized by the frame of the door and Delia's standing figure; the man who has treated her with continuous contempt and cruelty now hopes for help from her." At the end of the story, Delia notices Sykes looking to her with hope; however, she also realizes that the same eye that looks to her for help cannot "fail to see the tubs" as well. As he lies dying, he is forced to look at the tubs, the tools of Delia's exploited labor. It is significant that while he is in the process of dying from self-inflicted poison, Sykes is forced to observe the tubs, the source of Delia's sweat, symbolizing the poisoned social system. Perhaps the tubs represent for Sykes the very property he had hoped to acquire by killing her because he is reminded of the labor Delia has exchanged for the property. Earlier, in his attempt to kill her and thus gain possession of the house, Sykes places the snake in the laundry basket, another emblem of Delia's exploited labor. Sykes's use of a tool of Delia's labor as a tool for his effort to acquire her property reminds readers that only through intense sweat, exploited labor, has Delia been able to buy a house for herself. However, Delia is determined not to allow Sykes to take possession of the house. In addition to releasing her from his emotional and physical abuse, Sykes's death releases the threat that Delia's house will be taken away from her.
The title "Sweat" refers both to Delia's hard work necessary to survive economically in a society that offers limited employment opportunities to African American women and to the emotional and physical agony Sykes's abuse causes her. As David Headon acknowledges, the story "forcefully establishes an integral part of the political agenda of black literature of this century…. Hurston places at the foreground feminist questions concerning the exploitation, intimidation, and oppression inherent in so many relations." Breaking from literature that so often perpetuates stereotypical roles for women, "'Sweat is in fact, protest literature." Hurston simultaneously discourages those who try to reinforce sexist modes of oppression and encourages women to defy sexism by illustrating how those who abuse women are doomed.
Source: Laurie Champion, "Socioeconomics in Selected Short Stories of Zora Neale Hurston," in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 13, Fall 2001, pp. 79–92.
In the following essay excerpt, Lowe discusses the framework of comic expressions present in "Sweat."
Hurston's comic gifts, simmering in "Muttsy," came to a boil with Fire!! the magazine issued by the "New Negro" group in 1926. "Sweat," the more gripping of her two contributions, details the grim story of hardworking Delia Jones and her no-good, philandering husband, also a devotee of practical jokes. Hurston cleverly turns this aspect of her villain into a structural device, for the entire story turns on the idea of jokes and joking. She begins with one of Sykes's cruel jokes: he throws his "long, round, limp and black" bullwhip around Delia's shoulders as she sorts the wash she must do for white folk in order to support herself. Sykes's prank, motivated by Delia's abnormal fear of snakes, begins the sexual imagery that makes the story more complex. Is Delia's fear of the explicitly phallic nature of the snakes a sign of her innate fear of sex or, more likely, a fear that has been beaten into her? What has caused Sykes to seek the beds of other women? The story raises but never really answers these questions, yet suggests Sykes cannot stand his wife's supporting them by washing the soiled sheets, towels, and undergarments of white folks. Lillie Howard thinks that "whether [Delia] needs Sykes at all is questionable and perhaps he senses this and looks elsewhere for someone who does need him." On the other hand, Delia reflects that she "had brought love to the union and he had brought a longing after the flesh." Only two months into the marriage he beats her. Why?
In any case, Sykes's laughter at his wife and her fears fill the story; he continually slaps his leg and doubles over with merriment at the expense of the "big fool" he married fifteen years ago. Clearly, his insults deflect attention away from the "big fool" he knows he appears to be in the community, as he has never held a steady job himself and depends on Delia for his livelihood. Hurston in this story seems to be developing gender-specific forms of humor, which will be extremely important in Jonah, Their Eyes, and Seraph.
We may thus notice a difference in the rhetoric employed here. Delia too, although grimly serious in her defiance of Sykes, uses the deadly comic signifying language of female rivalry; referring to her husband's mistress, she states, "'That ole snaggletoothed black woman you runnin' with aint comin' heah to pile up on mah sweat and blood. You aint paid for nothin' on this place, and Ah'm gointer stay right heah till Ah'm toted out foot foremost."' Later, alone, Delia takes comfort in folk wisdom: "'Oh well, whatever goes over the Devil's back, is got to come under his belly. Sometime or ruther, Sykes, like everybody else, is gointer reap his sowing."'
The appearance of the communal comic chorus in the personages of the loiterers on Joe Clarke's porch constitutes another significant development in Hurston's craft. When Delia passes by with her pony cart delivering clothes, they render the community's sense of pity for her and contempt toward Sykes, especially regarding his new mistress: "'How Syke kin stommuck dat big black greasy Mogul he's layin' roun' wid, gits me. Ah swear dat eight-rock couldn't kiss a sardine can Ah done throwed out de back do' 'way las' yeah."' The men's humor rises a notch as they wryly observe that Sykes has always preferred heavy lovers over the thin Delia. Hurston signifies here on jokes in the black community about some men's preference for hefty women. A classic blues expression goes: "Big fat momma wid de meat shakin' on huh bones / Evah time she wiggles, skinny woman los' huh home." The last line should particularly intrigue readers of "Sweat," for Sykes's plot is designed not so much to kill Delia but to secure her property.
Significantly, all of the men on the porch continually chew cane, but they do not throw the knots as usual, which creates a foundation for the extended natural metaphor that Clarke, their leader, uses to summarize the inversion of the story they are actually helping us to read.
"Taint no law on earth dat kin make a man behave decent if it aint in 'im. There's plenty men dat takes a wife lak dey do a joint uh sugar-cane. It's round, juicy an' sweet when dey gits it. Buts dey squeeze an' grind, squeeze an' grind an' wring tell dey wring every drop uh pleasure dat's in 'em out. When dey's satisfied dat dey is wrung dry, dey treats 'em jes lak dey do a cane-chew. Dey throws 'em away. Dey knows whut dey is doin' while dey is at it, an' hates theirselves fuh it but they keeps on hangin' after huh tell she's empty. Den dey hates huh fuh bein' a cane-chew an' in de way."
This casually brilliant rendering of a tragic truth provides a double irony for readers who know all of Hurston's work, for this same Joe Clarke emerges as a wife-beater himself in "The Eatonville Anthology" and becomes the model for Jody Starks in Their Eyes, who treats Janie like a mule he owns. Furthermore, the liquid squeezed out, the receptacle discarded, mirrors the title figuration of a woman's sweat and her weary body.
Normally comic expressions can be used to deadly effect as well. In the heat of August's "Dog Days!," the "maddog" Sykes plays his ultimate and cruelest joke to drive Delia from the house that he has promised to Bertha. He keeps a caged rattlesnake on the porch, knowing Delia fears even earthworms. When she asks him to kill the rattler, he replies with a comically coined word and devastating irony: "'Doan ast me tuh do nothin' fuh yuh. Goin' roun' tryin' tuh be so damn aster-perious. Naw, Ah aint gonna kill it. Ah think uh damn sight mo' uh him dan you! Dat's a nice snake an' anybody doan lak 'im kin jes' hit de grit."' When Delia's fury overflows into courage, she tells Sykes, "'Ah hates yuh lak uh suck-egg dog,"' and, of course, the imagery seems right, for Sykes's gender is usually associated with dogs, and a "suck-egg" dog would be a predator of women, egg bearers. Hurston would later use the egg and snake symbolism to characterize the couple in Jonah.
When Sykes replies with insults about her looks, she replies in kind, joining a verbal duel that finally silences him: "'Yo' ole black hide don't look lak nothin' tuh me, but uh passle uh wrinkled up rubber, wid yo' big ole yeahs flappin' on each side lak uh paih uh buzzard wings. 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."' Delia here effectively "caps" Joe by verbally emasculating him, in a doubled way. The "wrinkled rubber" seems obvious enough, but the buzzard reference varies her refrain that he is not man enough to support her; he just preys on her. This speech has much in common with Janie's silencing of Joe in the great scene in Their Eyes, but our pleasure in "Sweat" at Sykes's punishment is compromised by the ambiguity of our response throughout the story. Certainly, we feel for Delia, but the emasculation of the black man by a racist, capitalist society is on Hurston's mind here too, and Delia's threat to bring the white folks, whose laundry she washes, down on Joe, partially mitigates our natural inclinations to champion Delia; so does her tendency to taunt Joe about the fact that she brings home the bacon. Delia's Christian righteousness, evident in the scene when she returns from a "Love Feast" at church, also seems challenged by her failure to seek help for Sykes after he has been bitten by the snake at the end of the story and by her deliberate showing herself to him so he will know she knows what he attempted and that there is no hope for him.
This climax occurs when Joe, trapped in the dark bedroom with the snake he left in Delia's basket, jumps in terror onto the bed, where he thinks he'll be safe; the snake, of course, lies coiled there. In Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Big Mama, advising her daughter-in-law, Maggie, pats the bed she is sitting on and tells her that all the big problems in marriages can ultimately be traced here; Hurston, at least in this story, would seem to agree. The final joke on Sykes is that his obsession with male, phallic power, and the way he misuses it in his marriage, finally kills him, in a doubly figurative and dreadfully comic way.
What made this story special? For one thing, it was written after Hurston had been collecting black folklore for several years in the South and returned to live in Eatonville. When writing this story, she seemed to have learned how intertwined comedy and tragedy were in folk culture and also how the comic was embedded in the cosmic. These relationships are always manifest in her best work, like "The Gilded Six-Bits."
Source: John Lowe, "'Cast in Yo' Nets Right Here': Finding a Comic Voice," in Jump at the Sun: Zora Neale Hurston's Cosmic Comedy, University of Illinois Press, 1994, pp. 71–79.
Du Bois, W. E. B., "The Creative Impulse," in The "Crisis" Writings, Fawcett Publications, 1972, pp. 286–88.
Hemenway, Robert E., Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, Camden Press, 1986, pp. 41–50, 70–73, 148; originally published by the University of Illinois Press, 1977.
Hughes, Langston, and Zora Neale Hurston, Mule Bone: A Comedy on Negro Life in Three Acts, Perennial Press, 1991, pp. 1–2.
Hurston, Zora Neale, The Complete Stories, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr., HarperCollins, 1995, pp. 73–85.
——, Dust Tracks on a Road, Harper & Row, 1984, p. 206; originally published by J. B. Lippincott, 1942.
Locke, Alain, "Negro Youth Speaks," in The New Negro, edited by Alain Locke, Atheneum, 1968, p. 50; originally published by Albert & Charles Boni, 1925.
Lowe, John, Jump at the Sun: Zora Neale Hurston's Cosmic Comedy, University of Illinois Press, 1994, p. 74.
Croft, Robert W., A Zora Neale Hurston Companion, Greenwood Press, 2002.
This indexed overview considers Hurston's literary career as a whole and provides a useful reference source for examining the author's short fiction in relation to her other writings.
Gates, Henry L., Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, Amistad Press, 1999.
This collection of analysis of Hurston's entire body of work provides a series of essays from diverse critical lenses and time periods.
Hurston, Zora Neale, Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, edited by Carla Kaplan, Doubleday, 2002.
A comprehensive collection of Hurston's letters, this volume is vividly suggestive about her life, writings, and decline in popularity.
Miles, Diana, Women, Violence, & Testimony in the Works of Zora Neale Hurston, Peter Lang Publishing, 2003.
Miles's book focuses on some of the most important themes in "Sweat," as evidenced in several of Hurston's other works. It is an excellent resource for readers interested in the most recent theories on the author.
Watson, Steven, The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of American Culture, 1920–1930, Pantheon Books, 1995.
Outlining the key elements of the historical movement in Harlem, Watson provides photographs and poetry to illustrate his presentation of the cultural climate at the time.
sweat / swet/ • n. 1. moisture exuded through the pores of the skin, typically in profuse quantities as a reaction to heat, physical exertion, fever, or fear. ∎ an instance of exuding moisture in this way over a period of time: even thinking about him made me break out in a sweat. we'd all worked up a sweat in spite of the cold. ∎ inf. a state of flustered anxiety or distress: I don't believe he'd get into such a sweat about a girl. ∎ inf. hard work; effort: computer graphics take a lot of the sweat out of animation. 2. (sweats) informal term for sweatsuit or sweatpants. ∎ [as adj.] denoting loose casual garments made of thick, fleecy cotton: sweat tops and bottoms. • v. (past sweat·ed or sweat ) 1. [intr.] exude sweat: he was sweating profusely. ∎ [tr.] (sweat something out/off) get rid of (something) from the body by exuding sweat: a well-hydrated body sweats out waste products more efficiently. ∎ [tr.] cause (a person or animal) to exude sweat by exercise or exertion: cold as it was, the climb had sweated him. ∎ (of food or an object) ooze or exude beads of moisture onto its surface: cheese stored at room temperature will quickly begin to sweat. ∎ (of a person) exert a great deal of strenuous effort: I've sweated over this for six months. ∎ (of a person) be or remain in a state of extreme anxiety, typically for a prolonged period: I let her sweat for a while, then I asked her out again. ∎ [tr.] inf. worry about (something): he's not going to have a lot of time to sweat the details. 2. [tr.] heat (chopped vegetables) slowly in a pan with a small amount of fat, so that they cook in their own juices: sweat the celery and onions with olive oil and seasoning. ∎ [intr.] (of chopped vegetables) be cooked in this way: let the chopped onion sweat gently for five minutes. 3. [tr.] subject (metal) to surface melting, esp. to fasten or join by solder without a soldering iron: the tire is sweated on to the wooden parts. PHRASES: break a sweat inf. exert oneself physically. by the sweat of one's brow by one's own hard work, typically manual labor. don't sweat it used to urge someone not to worry. no sweat inf. used to convey that one perceives no difficulty or problem with something: “We haven't any decaf, I'm afraid.” “No sweat.” sweat blood inf. make an extraordinarily strenuous effort to do something: she's sweated blood to support her family. ∎ be extremely anxious: we've been sweating blood over the question of what is right. sweat buckets inf. sweat profusely. sweat bullets inf. be extremely anxious or nervous. sweat it out inf. endure an unpleasant experience, typically one involving physical exertion in great heat: about 1,500 runners are expected to sweat it out in this year's run. ∎ wait in a state of extreme anxiety for something to happen or be resolved: he sweated it out until the lab report was back. sweat the small stuff worry about trivial things. ORIGIN: Old English swāt (noun), swǣtan (verb), of Germanic origin; related to Dutch zweet and German Schweiss, from an Indo-European root shared by Latin sudor.