Religion & Sexism in “Sweat”

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When considering women in the southern United States during the 1920s, various stereotypes may arise. These women were recognized for their diligent efforts and commitment to their families, frequently prioritizing their husbands’ needs over their own. Nonetheless, it is crucial to acknowledge that this era also presented numerous obstacles for women, particularly African American women who encountered even greater challenges. Sexism played a significant part in shaping their lives, constraining their prospects and subjecting them to mistreatment. They were frequently confined to domestic labor and treated as disposable and unfairly treated individuals.

Religion provided these women with strength and a means of coping with the injustices they endured, enabling them to become the confident and beautiful individuals they are today. The story “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston exemplifies this struggle and triumph, where religion and sexism are intertwined, ultimately shaping the characters and establishing the main points. Additionally, these themes drive the plot by immersing the reader in the story’s time frame, an essential element to the storyline.

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The persecution faced by women, both from white and black communities, creates additional challenges in life. The religion depicted in the story shapes the main character’s traits and illuminates her difficulties, offering a unique perspective for readers. These themes gain significance as the narrative unfolds, with religion and sexism becoming intertwined. Through religion and sexism, various interpretations of “Sweat” emerge, inviting readers to decode its multiple meanings.

Without key components that make it a masterpiece, sweat would be lacking detailed and unique conclusions. The importance of the religious aspect can be attributed to the abundance of biblical references in the story. Hurston connects the life of Delia, the protagonist, to biblical stories. A clear example is the symbolism of the snake, representing Delia’s evil and abusive husband Sykes. “Syke! Syke, mah Gawd! You take dat rattlesnake ‘way from heah! You gottuh. Oh, Jesus, have mussy!” (5).

The text conveys that Sykes is portrayed as the devil and his actions towards his wife are compared to the devil’s wickedness in the bible. Delia, on the other hand, is depicted as the pure and good one in their marriage. The religious symbolism serves to emphasize the stark contrast between Delia and Sykes, highlighting the ongoing theme of good versus evil. Religion plays multiple roles in both the story and Delia’s life.

Religion provides the protagonist with her sole means of escapism from the troubles she faces within her home. Additionally, it empowers her spiritually, allowing her to feel superior to her husband, which aids her in enduring the physical abuse she endures. She believes that while her husband may currently mistreat her, he will ultimately face punishment in the afterlife. The parallels between this narrative and biblical stories are numerous. Delia, much like Christ, is unjustly subjected to beatings. Sykes’s affairs can be seen as the metaphorical nails piercing Delia’s metaphorical cross. Unlike Christ, however, Delia succumbs to temptation through Sykes’s serpent-like character, similar to Eve’s temptation in the Garden of Eden.

Delia’s lack of action in saving her husband from his demise is contrasted with her decision to adopt a passive role, enabling her to exact “revenge”. The comparison between Delia and a Christ-like figure emphasizes the significance of religion in Delia’s existence. Without this religious foundation, she would have lacked the resilience needed to endure Sykes’ abuse over an extended period. This parallel further illustrates how God’s strength can aid us in conquering life’s challenges. Ultimately, it is Sykes’ own abusive behavior that leads to his downfall within the narrative.

The snake that Sykes uses to try and kill Delia ultimately leads to his own downfall. When Delia is paralyzed, Sykes calls out to her but she remains motionless. At the same time, the sun continues to rise. This imagery emphasizes how sunlight represents the victory of light over darkness and the triumph over evil. Throughout her life, Delia faced sexism but always confronted it with courage and resilience. Despite gender being a defining factor in what she could achieve, it never held her back. It’s worth noting that during the early 1900s, women had limited rights regardless of their race.

The story began with Delia washing clothes for white people on Sunday, which led to Sykes verbally abusing her for “dishonoring god” by working on the Sabbath day. During this time, many women worked as washers for wealthy white people. Although Delia Jones was her own woman, being married to Sykes made her vulnerable. Sykes destroyed Delia’s self-esteem, belittling her for working for white people. According to Ms. Jones, “I have been married to you for fifteen years, and I have been taking in washing for fifteen years” (2).

The primary cause of Delia’s mistreatment was her gender, as women were regarded as inferior to men during that era. Men like Sykes viewed women only as childbearers and household servants, leading to their abuse. As portrayed by Hurston, Sykes treats Delia disrespectfully, stating, “Well, you better quit gittin `me riled up, else they’ll be totin’ you out sooner than you expect, Ah’m so tired of you Ah don’t know whut to do” (2). Women were expected to fulfill domestic responsibilities and submit obediently while their husbands enjoyed freedom in their actions.

Delia faces the challenge of lacking support from her community due to her gender. Old Man Anderson suggested “An we oughter kill ‘im,” which received agreement from others on the porch. However, the oppressive heat weakened their sense of civic duty (4). Despite many people in town being aware of Delia’s abuse, they opted for inaction. The prevailing belief was that conflicts between a man and a woman were personal matters. This left Delia to defend herself against a man twice her strength while others simply observed. Ultimately, Skyes met his demise by his own hand as the snake he intended to harm Delia with ended up killing him instead.

The story showcases the idea that the cycle of actions coming back around applies here: religion and racism are both significant factors in how Delia Jones is treated by both her husband and the community. To cope with the injustice she faces, Delia turns to religion, effectively becoming a Christ-like figure in a world filled with corrupt individuals. Delia Jones serves as a reflection of how women, once seen as inferior, can rise to a position of superiority. This transformation is only possible due to the pain she endures from her abusive husband, who ultimately meets his demise. Her journey from staying silent during sexist and abusive encounters to relying on the strength of God proves immensely helpful.

Delia displayed immense strength when confronting Sykes, proclaiming, “I refuse to be forced out of my own dwelling. I will seek assistance from the authorities regarding your actions, young man. If you dare lay a hand on me again, I have reached my limit” (8). In the face of further mistreatment and challenges, she bolstered herself mentally and physically in order to protect her own welfare. Delia Jones is undeniably extraordinary, enduring various acts of unfairness that exemplify how an individual’s character is not influenced by their external circumstances.

The bibliography section includes a list of references.

The book “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston and Cheryl A. Wall was published in 1997 by Rutgers University Press in New Brunswick, N.J. It is accessible in print format.

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Religion & Sexism in “Sweat”. (2016, Nov 12). Retrieved from

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