Connecting two worlds Essay

Hurston’s “Sweat” deals with the age-old battles between black and white, good and evil, and male and female - Connecting two worlds Essay introduction. Through Delia and Sykes is told a remarkable story of one man’s depravity and his wife’s purity. Delia, a washerwoman of the whites in the neighboring town of Winter Park, is brutally treated by her husband Sykes, an unemployed alcoholic and womanizer. It is a story that takes on an almost Edenic and folkloric quality, two chief characteristics of Black American literature.  

On the other hand, Bambara’s “The Lesson” appears to be a less traditional short story, breaking through different genres and literary styles to narrate the realizations and transformation of an adolescent named Sylvia one afternoon in FAO Schwartz. Living in the inner city of New York, Sylvia encounters Miss Moore, a college-educated lady who takes it upon herself to educate the underprivileged black children of the neighborhood. Arrogant and derisive throughout the story, Sylvia nevertheless hides behind this façade the lesson on reality she has learned.

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            Both Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat” and Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson” deal with the politics of race, along with the attendant issue of poverty that has become synonymous with discrimination. However, their similarities go beyond the surface, digging deeper underneath in order to uncover the complex human interactions that define and establish the individual characters that populate the two stories. For these two stories, albeit different in narrative style and structure, poverty is no longer treated as a depressing entity, the harbinger of oppression and cruelty. Instead, these two selections focus on the inherent value of poverty as a force in the definition of one’s character and self. And though both Hurston and Bambara agree on this theme, the way they illustrate and bring it forth diverge widely in their stories. Both authors use a profusion of symbols and imagery in order to develop and depict the theme linking their two works. The way these two stories develop the theme they want to bring across is, however, diverging.

The poor and underprivileged in both stories, the authors concur, are strict in maintaining their outward appearances. Though they have little, and what they have maybe old and worn, they take great pride in being clean and presentable.

Take the case of “The Lesson.” Whenever Mrs. Moore would come around for lessons, the children’s parents “would yank [their] heads into some kinda shape and crisp up our clothes so [they’d] be presentable for travel with Miss Moore (Bambara).” The parents take pride in making sure their children are clean. Hence, through this action, they betray the notion that poverty is equated with dirtiness.

On the other hand, for Delia, the maintenance of appearances is not limited to her self. Rather, her pride in cultivating appearances extends beyond herself and into her house and garden. Her house, which she had built “for her old days (Hurston),” was also planted with “trees and flowers.” There is, again, in the way the narrator depicts Hurston’s act, pride in keeping an upright appearance. Rather than living in a rundown house as is commonly depicted of people living in desperate conditions, Delia becomes an anti-thesis, living in a lush paradise filled with plants.

Another point in which the two authors agree is on the depiction of the white people. Instead of being shown as brutal oppressors, they have also become agents in helping the blacks attain a sense of being.

For “The Lesson,” the anger that Sylvia exhibits upon the stark realization of her underprivileged position is an important part of the process of growing up and fighting the system. “What kinda work they do and how they live and how come we ain’t on it?” Sylvia asks Miss Moore as their “lesson” was about to end. It was the burgeoning realization that something was not quite right, putting Sylvia in such an awkward position that she was already starting to feel uncomfortable with her own poverty. This is especially seen Sylvia and her friend Sugar, both daredevils, suddenly shied away from entering the toy store. “Not that I’m scared,” Sylvia intones, “but I feel funny, shame,” which makes her more puzzled, as she does not even know what there was to be ashamed of, since she has “never been shy about doing nothing or going nowhere.”

For “Sweat,” even if Delia’s job involves simply washing and laundering the clothes of the white people, she believes that it becomes an art form with her being the artist. There was a rhythm and a pattern to the way she sorted, cleaned, and returned the washed laundry items to her clients: Delia

collected the soiled clothes on Saturday when she returned the clean things. Sunday night after church, she sorted them and put the white things to soak…A great hamper in the bedroom held the clothes that she brought home. It was so much neater than a number of bundles lying around.

There was pride in her work; calm seems to accompany her whenever she was at work, as she was always humming a tune or two. Hence, instead of merely seeing her work as nothing but a backbreaking job to keep body and soul together, she sees her self-fulfillment in the weekly role of cleansing soiled laundry and transforming them into wearable clothes again. Yet, it is not exactly a positive thing. For, in her job, her self worth was always tied up with the satisfaction of the white people with her work. However, it still gives her a creative and artistic release that elevates her from the humdrum routine of everyday life.

An example of a point of dissension between Hurston and Bambara is on the role of the people surrounding both the main characters and how they serve to define the characters more thoroughly.

In “The Lesson,” the people surrounding Sylvia served as positive reinforces. Miss Moore serves as the catalyst for Sylvia’s awareness. Through her exhortations and questions directed to Sylvia, she is striving to let the girl come to terms with reality. Based on textual evidence, it has been shown that Sylvia is sometimes caught in a world of her own. In the taxi cab ride going to Manhattan, Sylvia is caught daydreaming, wanting to “jump out at the next light and run off to the first bar-b-que [they] can find,” instead of carrying through with the intended plan. As a result, when it came to fulfilling her “grown-up” duty of paying the driver and giving him the tip, Sylvia is at a lost. Reading between the lines of this incident illustrates just how Sylvia is unwilling to accept the reality of the world, choosing to run and hide in her own make-believe world.

In “Sweat,” however, the role of the people around Delia is much more ambiguous. For Delia, the role of her husband Sykes does two things: it serves as a stark opposition to Delia’s kindness and it serves to help redefine poverty in Delia’s case, which was not only economic but also poverty of the emotional kind:

Anything like flowers had long ago been drowned in the salty stream that had been pressed from [her] heart. Her tears, her sweat, her blood. She had brought love to the union and [Sykes] had brought a longing after the flesh. Two months after the wedding, he had given her the first brutal beating…

In the manner of presentation of the narrative, Hurston and Bambara also disagree. “The Lesson” is told in the first-person point of view, with Sylvia being both the protagonist and narrator. By choosing to present the narrative in this manner, and through her choice of language, words, actions, and symbols, Bambara adds depth and force to the character of Sylvia, the narrator of the story. For the lesson of poverty, social class consciousness, as well as racism is more potent when told through the eyes of the person who is just about to come to terms with heir existence. Sylvia’s wit and intelligence, as well as her acidic tongue and demeanor contrast sharply with her shame of being poor. It becomes effective because it is poignant and emotional, offering a look into the mind and soul of a young girl as she is thrust into reality.

“Sweat,” on the other hand, is narrated from the third-person. This choice to of use an omniscient narrator lends a credibility and roundedness to the story than if Delia herself were the one narrating her ordeal. Furthermore, by including the commentary of the townspeople in the story, a higher degree of truth and believability is achieved. Such a sensitive matter as spousal abuse can easily become a biased commentary if written through the eyes of the abused. By using a narrator separate from Delia, it adds credibility and makes her plight more painful and bitingly honest.

As both “Sweat” and “The Lesson” end, there is the realization of poverty. Yet, for both, there is also the feeling not of defeat but of victory, the rising over their situation. For Sylvia, though she does not want to admit of her situation, she ends her narrative by exclaiming that “ain’t nobody gonna beat [her] at nuthin.” She believes that though her situation seems bad, she is not going to let it defeat her. For Delia, on the other hand, it was her act upon Sykes death, an act that saw her stretched “on the cool earth to recover…never [moving]…” while the sun rose above her. And though this victory might symbolize her release from Sykes, it was also symbolic of a start of new day for Delia, a day where she could find true peace despite her position.

Works Cited

Hurston, Zora N. “Sweat.” The Story and Its Writer. Ed. Ann Charters. Place of publication: publishing house, year. 355 – 363.

Bambara, Toni C. “The Lesson.” The Story and Its Writer. Ed. Ann Charters. Place of publication: publishing house, year. 61-66.


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