Religion & Sexism in “Sweat”

When you think about women in the south in the 1920’s what comes to your mind first? Is it the hard work they did? Is it the fact that they were good family oriented women? Was it the way that they were self-sacrificing and took care of their husbands before themselves? Remembering the good can also come with some bad. Women in this time period had to go through many travesties, especially African American women who went through more than anyone else. The role that sexism played in their lives made it hard for them to be anything more than domestic workers, being easily disposable and wrongly treated.

By virtue of religion, these women gained strength and a way to cope with all the injustices they went through. Through the sexism and the religion women became stronger and were able to become the confident beautiful beings we know them to be today. There is no better example of this struggle and triumph than in the story “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston. Religion and sexism go hand and hand in the story, these themes developed the characters, elaborate and establish the main points. Also it creates the plot by allowing the reader to be in the stories time frame, which is key to the plot.

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The treatment of women by not only whites but by blacks as well made life harder having two forms of persecution. Making an interesting point of view, the religion helps establish the main character and allows the reader to understand her struggles. As we read these themes, they become important to the reader. The religion and sexism intertwine with each other as the story progresses. “Sweat” through religion and sexism has several meanings that can be interpreted by the reader. These meanings are there for the reader to decipher.

And allow for detailed and unique conclusions. Without these themes, sweat would be lacking key components that make it a masterpiece. The first key to the religious aspect being so important is that the story contains many biblical references. Hurston uses biblical stories to correlate the life of Delia who is the protagonist. For example, the snake in this story represents her evil and abusive husband Sykes. “Syke! Syke, mah Gawd! You take dat rattlesnake ‘way from heah! You gottuh. Oh, Jesus, have mussy! “(5).

It also religiously represents the devil and his wickedness in the bible, correlating Sykes to the devil for the way he treats his wife. “Syke, Ah wants you tuh take dat snake ‘way fum heah” (7). This religious symbolism characterizes Delia and Sykes as two people on opposite ends of the religious spectrum being bound by their marriage. Delia being the pure and good, while Sykes being evil and wicked played on the on going good vs. evil plot line. Religion performs several functions in the story and in Delia’s life.

It provides her with her only escape from the domestic problems in her life. Religion also allows her to feel stronger than her in husband in a spiritual sense, which helps her through the beatings she is subjected too. She feels that her husband can abuse her now but he will be punished in the afterlife. This story can be compared to the bible in so many ways. Delia is the Christ-like figure that is wrongly beaten. Comparing her to Jesus, the nails in her cross are Sykes’s affairs. Unlike Christ Delia is tempted by Sykes’ snake like Eve was in the Garden of Eden.

Rather than saving her husband from his demise she plays a passive role allowing her to have her “revenge” This parallelism between Delia and a Christ like entity allows the reader to understand how crucial it was for Delia to have religion in her life. Without that religious backbone she wouldn’t have had the strength to endure Sykes for all those years. It also shows us how the power of god can helps us overcome many obstacles that life may throw at us. Sykes own abusive actions in the story winding up being his downfall in the end.

The snake that he uses to try and kill Delia becomes the weapon of his own destruction. “The sun crept on up, and he called. Delia could not move–her legs were gone flabby. She never moved, he called, and the sun kept rising”(10). The sunlight that rises when Sykes dies is symbolic of the light that overcomes the darkness and is triumphant in defeating evil. Delia dealt with sexism in a courageous and encouraging way, she dealt with gender defining what she could do her whole life, yet it never stopped her. Living in the early 1900’s women no matter what color had no rights.

The story began with Delia washing clothes for white people on Sunday. This caused Sykes to verbally abuse her for “dishonoring god” because she was washing clothes on the Sabbath day. Many women during this time had worked as washers for wealthier white people. Delia Jones was her own woman but being married, Sykes was her weakness. Sykes demolished Delia’s self esteem, making her seem like she was no good for working for white people. Ms. Jones said “Ah been married to you fur fifteen yeas, and Ah been takin’ in washin’ for fifteen years” (2).

The reasons Delia was abused was mainly because she was a woman who is seen as “weaker” to men in that time period. To Sykes and other men in this time period women were just baby makers, and maids; consequently they were treated as such. For example, Hurston shows the reader vividly how Sykes treats Delia. “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 do domestic work and be obedient, while their husbands were free to do whatever.

Delia also deals with her community not supporting her because she is a woman. “An we oughter kill ‘im” Old Man Anderson advised. A grunt of approval went around the porch. But the heat was melting their civic virtue” (4). Though many people in her town know she is being abused they do nothing. It was believed that what was happening between a man and woman was personal. Leaving her to fend off a man twice her strength by herself while others just watched. Skyes’ however met demise at his own hand. The very snake Sykes tried to kill Delia with ended up killing him.

It goes with the saying, “what goes around comes around”. Religion and racism play key roles in this story the treatment by Delia jones not only by her husband but also by the community. She turned to religion to help her cope with her injustices; she became a Christ like entity in a world full of corrupt demons. Delia jones is a mirror image of how women who were once inferior can become superior. This was only done through the pain that she had it endure from her husband who met his end. Her transition from remaining silent through her sexist and abusive encounters to relying on the power of god truly proved helpful.

Delia mustered up the strength to defy Sykes “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”(8). The more abuse and struggles she was thrown with the more she built up physical and spiritual defenses to protect herself and well being. Delia Jones is an amazing woman; she endured many travesties and her story proves that the world around you doesn’t define you as a person.


Hurston, Zora Neale, and Cheryl A. Wall. Sweat. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997. Print.

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