Symbolism in Zora Neal Hurston’s “Sweat”

Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat” (1926) is based on two primary influences in her life: the town of Eatonville where Hurston grew up and her relationship with her employer, Fannie Hurst.

The short story “Sweat” revolves around the life of Delia Jones, a washerwoman from Eatonville, Florida. The story begins with Delia Jones gathering courage to counter her abusive husband and ends with the death of her husband, tracing the transformation that Delia undergoes as a result. Delia Jones is a common black, hardworking Southern woman with deep religious faith. It is through her faith in God that she finds it possible to overcome her domestic problems caused by her abusive husband. Hurston sets the story against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance in New York City. As the story unfolds, one can find the author using biblical allusion and African American folk culture through symbolism to express her strong views on the life of a black American woman in America. Zora Neale Hurston’s short story “Sweat” was first published in Firell, a legendary literary magazine of the Harlem Renaissance.

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The story was well recognized for its artistry and for its valuable rendering of rural southern black life.Zora Neale Hurston’s short story “Sweat” contains many religious symbols that are used to emphasize the distance between Delia and Sykes Jones despite being bonded together in marriage. Delia is shown as hardworking woman who is deeply devout; she is spiritually strong though physically weak and tired. Her husband, Sykes Jones is a rough man who is physically abusive towards his wife, disloyal and exploiting in nature. He takes the hard-earned money of Delia to spend on his fat girlfriend Betha. Ultimately the spiritual strength of Delia wins over Sykes Jones.

This story can be viewed as an allegory for God and Satan in conflict.  According to Thomas Stafford, who wrote ‘Christian Symbolism in the Evangelical Church’: “A serpent is the symbol of the fall of man through temptation by a serpent–the devil” (180). There is more evidence to support the good versus evil or God versus Satan motif in “Sweat”. Many words are indicative of religion and morality in the story ‘Sweat’. The very name Delia seems to be derived from the Biblical Delilah who emasculated her Samson by having his locks cut off. In this story Delia is shown to be the stronger of the two though physically weaker – and she supports her husband Sykes by doing white people laundry. The “whitest pile of things” referring to the white clothes Delia washes in the story are symbolic of her character. White represents purity.

Delia is a woman who respectfully tolerates the abuses of her husband. Seidel says that the whiteness suggest Delia’s “innate goodness as opposed to the evil darkness of Sykes’s snake.”The religious symbolism of snakes as connected to evil is used at two points in the story.

Initially Sykes is shown rubbing his bull whip over the unaware working Delia. Delia is scared of snakes and screams: “Sykes, why you throw dat whip on me like dat? ….you knows how skeered Ah is of snakes.” Later in the story, Sykes tries to scare Delia intentionally by placing a real snake just outside their house in a soapbox. In these two instances, Zora Hurston uses the snake as a biblical allusion to the story of Adam and Eve when Satan took the form of a snake.

The symbolism of snakes in “Sweat” also indicates in a subtle manner that Sykes is an evil man. The bull whip is shown as the Satanic object associated with a snake and in Sykes case, this could also mean an outward manifestation of his inner insecurity as a dependent of his wife. Hemmenway says that the snake is also representative of the evil that lives within Delia despite her Christian upbringing – a force she is aware of but afraid to overcome (Hemmenway 72).Shouting at Sykes, Delia says: “Sweat, sweat, sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat!” Though she utters these words in a fit of frustration and despair, sweat represents the hard work that Delia is doing in everyday life. Sweat is the first biblical allusion in the story. There is an important correlation between sweat and the fall of man.

God, as Righteous Judge, sentenced fallen man to a lifetime of hard labor: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground;”She later takes the ‘iron skillet’ to a defensive pose. The iron skillet symbolizes a female object that is primarily intended for a good purpose such as cooking but can be used destructively if the need arises. It thematically represents the concept that women can use their creative prowess to defend themselves against male domination should the need arise.It is said that “Delia has created her [own] small world; she has lovingly planted trees and flowers in the garden around her house. . .” In the final scene there is also the presence of the Chinaberry tree in the garden.

Delia’s world is one that is filled with trees and flowers indicated order, beauty and harmony. The chinaberry tree is symbolic of Eden’s Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is also a rigid linear symbol that represents Sykes sexuality (Hemenway 73).Zora Neale  Hurston’s “Sweat” follows a clear moral pattern that has a good versus evil conflict.  It ends with the victory of good over evil.

Sykes meets his downfall through his own abusive actions against Delia.  In the climax scene when the snake brought in by Sykes to scare Delia gets loose and bites him, he slowly dies. In his dying moments, the sun is shown to be rising steadily.

The sunrise symbolizes a new beginning for Delia, freedom from Sykes and all things dark and evil that Sykes stood for. With the death of Sykes, the sun has finally risen and Delia gets the freedom she deserves.