Zora Neale Hurston’s
“Sweat, Sweat, Sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat!”
Zora Neale Hurston is an author of an era that is the most crucial time period in the in evolution of current modern society. 1920s was observing the marvelous technological and scientific advent and the society was about to take the turns. Reading of “Sweat” by zora Neal Hurston provides the reader with an image of the happenings in the lives of the black women during 1920s and their struggle for identity and success. The most important aspect of the story is its revelation of discrimination that black subculture women were facing in pre-modernism era. Their struggle and problems were manifold, they had to face color discrimination outside and gender discrimination inside their homes.
The era is known as Harlem Renaissance period by the historians because of the famous historic racial movement “New Negro Movement” that was centered in New York’ s area Harlem, thus called Harlem renaissance. Though the movement was based in New York it spread its effects through the states of America. Zora was an African-American black anthropologist and author who wrote a number of famous novels, short stories and folklores. Her works are recognized for the themes of discrimination against blacks in American society and women issues. Sweat is a story written by Zora in 1926 when the use of alcohol was just outlawed and black and white segregation prevailed in the society. The works by Zora played an inspirational and influential role on the readers and other creative writers. 1920s and 1930s saw the significant changes in the racial cultural and social spheres significantly, the blacks and other minorities then, were initially able to develop their norms, morals, customs and ideals of their own through creative arts.
Many of the social issues were unspoken in the literature at the time when Zora wrote “Sweat.” Even the white did not write on the social issues of violence, mental torture and adultery in the short stories much. Hurston belonged to a completely black town Eatonville in Florida. The town people used to walk across a railroad to go to their jobs in the houses of the white as maids, chauffeurs and similar domestic works. In “Sweat” Zora has represented her own town and being a black woman her own story. Sweat reveals the story of a woman struggling for her family and herself through the course of her life, the woman has a dream of having a house where she could spend her last days in peace.
The women in that period were conventionally expected to do the domestic work and take care of their husbands, and kids. Social movements and unions for the rights of women were emerging and such factors, being a black female author really affected the works of Zora Neale Hurston. The changes in the position and status of women in the family institution was also taking place in the society and it is demonstrated in “Sweat” to an extent as the Delia the lead character of the story was the bread maker of the family solely. She works in the houses of the white people washing their clothes on regular basis.
However, she still has to face the yelling and beating of her husband Syke. Syke hates her for washing clothes of white people and belittles her despite her efforts for the family. Men at that time felt to be appreciated and regarded high in the family. The story portrayes Syke as a violent man who frequently gets upset and annoyed with his wife Delia, the main character of the story. Delia faces discrimination and violence of the husband yet she goes to wash clothes of people to earn bread for her family including husband. The husband cheats on her, abuse her physically and verbally and frightens her with snakes deliberately as he knows that Delia’ biggest fright is snake.
The behavior of the husband is quite illustrated but no reasons behind the development of such attitude have been told by Zora in the story. That is perhaps because the author wanted to highlight the aspect of discrimination and violence that black women of that era had to face from male members of the family. The reader is set free to think about the reasons of such behavior of Sykes, the general perception might occur in the mind of the readers that Delia was earning bread for the family and the male ego of Sykes could’ nt simply accept it wanted to affirm his “manly” power by not only abusing his wife physically but also by not recognizing her efforts to feed the family.
Similarly might be he did not wanted to let his wife remind him that he failed provide for the family and take care of it. In his analysis of “Sweat” Betty Nosam writes that Sykes that husband of Delia in the story faced repetitive failures in providing for his family and for this he is angry and takes his anger out on his wife by taunting on her physical appearance such as pony, carriage, and other items (Nosam). The reason behind development of such evil behavior of a black husband to his wife may be caused by the maltreatment that they faced by white men out there. Black men frustrated for respect and power would adopt such behavior in their families especially for their wives.
The author also beats the general perception about the effects of husband’ s abuse and torture on wife that the wife will back down as most of the women of 1920s used to do. Delia not only keeps on struggling with eaerning money rather she retaliates him by saying that” 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).
Delia is portrayed to be a hard worker who never misses her work and wouldn’t listen to the taunts of her husband abusing her for washing the clothes of white people “You sho is one aggravatin’ nigger woman!” he declared and stepped into the room.” She resumed her work and did not answer him at once.”. She has got strong work ethics; “But she was a wash-woman, and Monday morning meant a great deal to her” it symbolizes the black women of 1920s who built their strong professional characters and achieved eventually enormous successes in various fields.
Sykes after the retaliation from Delia leaves her alone to make her live an unhappy life and cheats on her with another woman Bertha, he would shower Bertha with gifts and everything on the money earned by Delia. Delia bears all of this but carries on struggling, what gives her strength is going to the church and her small well-maintained house. She knows that the troubled life married life of her with her husband will ask for a resolution ultimately. She thinks about it and figures out, “Oh well, whatever goes over the Devil’s back, is got to come under his belly.”
Delia receives sympathies from the townsfolk, they dislike Skys for his bad behavior to Delia “There oughter be a law about him… He ain’t fit tuh carry guts tuh a bear.” On Delia’ s return from work, Skys talks to Bertha telling her that he will get her whatever she wants to buy, he does it deliberately to show Delia and annoy her. Bertha remains in the town for upto three months and leaves. Sykes finds another way to tease Delia by bringing a snake in the house, Delia terribly is frightened but the husband wouldn’t listen. One day she finds a chance to set the snake loose and wait quietly for the husband to come home. A lot of noise comes from the kitchen and Sykes gets bitten by the snake, instead of helping him Deluia stands watching him die. The author has tried to portray the mental tiredness of a woman caused by her husband that she ultimately decides to get him killed. Suppression results into retaliation.
The main character of the story is a representation of a true black woman during the time of Harlem renaissance. She is beaten, scolded, frightened, discriminated but she does not lose heart. She is loving towards her family and husband but when the husband tortures her to death she loses all the feelings for him and watches him die in front of her eyes.
Although “Sweat” is considered to be a piece of typical feminist literature yet it has a great deal of importance because of the time period in which it was written and the personal experiences of the author and her affiliation with the character of a black woman in the society. The woman is shown possessing tolerance, forbearance, love, strength and professional ethics. Delia is portrayed as a strong woman who knows to be patient and decide when it is unbearable, Delia gave a lot many chances to her husband even after his extra-marital relationship she attempted for friendliness that was brutally refused. The ultimate “let go” by a woman is shown in the climax scene when the husband is bitten by the snake and Delia does not approach to help, the text clearly demonstrates the reason behind this. She had had enough and that was the moment to get rid of the biggest problem of her life. Besides it shows that she was independent enough to decide living without husband easily.
Interestingly, Zora, in her works on female issues has expressed certain sense of humor and a similar way of expression from an African-American female author was necessary in an era that followed reconstruction. Most of the creative art produced during this era of social instability and change spoke to the issues of female identity. The domestic dynamic of African-American sub culture were changing as well in 1920s and 1930s. During the slavery period African American family institution was matriarchal as female members used to lead them. Emancipation from slavery and reconstruction period observed changes in family system of African American culture, men went to paid jobs and women left home to take care of domestic affairs. The discrimination faced by African American women was twofold, they were discriminated on the basis of race differences, especially for color of their skin and on the other hand they were facing domestic discrimination by males in the family.
“Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”
—Zora Neale Hurston