Zora Neale Hurstons Short Story – Sweat Character Analysis

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In Zora Neale Hurstons short story, Sweat, Delia finds herself stuck in an unbearable marriage. Her husband, Sykes, mistreats her, leaves all work to her, and is unfaithful. After being married to Sykes for 15 years, Delia has lost all hope in the marriage. The countless beatings and painful acts of Sykes have brought her over the edge.

She is forced to go against her strict religious beliefs because of the life in which she has been leading since her matrimony to her husband. One passage that sums up many factions of Delia and Sykess relationship is as follows:She lay awake, gazing upon the debris that cluttered their matrimonial trail. Not an image left standing along the way. Anything like flowers had long ago been drowned in the salty stream that had been pressed from her heart.

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Her tears, her sweat, her blood. She had brought love to the union and he had brought a longing after the flesh. Two months after the wedding, he had given her the first brutal beating. She had the memory of his numerous trips to Orlando with all of his wages when he had returned to her penniless, even before the first year had passed.

She was young and soft then, but now she thought of her knotty, muscles limbs, her harsh knuckly hands, and drew herself up into an unhappy little ball in the middle of the big feather bed. Too late now to hope for love, even if it were not Bertha it would be someone else. This case differed from the others only in that she was bolder than the others. Too late for everything except her little home. She had built it for her old days, and planted one by one the trees and flowers there. It was lovely to her, lovely.

(Hurston 680). This scene occurs when Delia is lying on her bed, thinking of what had just previously happened. Sykes had gotten home, and as usual, a fight erupted between the two former lovers. The difference about this confrontation though, was that Sykes did not strike Delia, as what usually happens.

Delia picked up a metal skillet and threatened to defend herself from her husband as he cowed in fear of being hit. This new approach from Delia, involving a new intimidation, shows how her unnecessary sweat and hard work had gotten to be too much. The act of seizing a skillet from the stove to protect herself symbolizes how in essence, Delia is trying to defend her home. The skillet is a fragment of the house, and as she stands in her shielding stance, she is using her home to protect her home. Delia is aware of Sykess plans to take the house from her and use it for himself and his mistress Bertha, and she refuses to let that happen.

With rage and anger towards her husband, Delia states, That ole snaggle-tooth black woman you runnin with aint comin heah to pile up on mah sweat and blood. You aint paid for nothin on this place, and Ahm gointer stay right heah till Ahm toted out foot foremost. (Hurston 680). Her home is all Delia has. She worked hard for years and years to build and maintain the house she loves, and the last thing she will ever allow to happen is for someone to take that away from her.

As she lies on her bed, Delia gains a moment of comfort, and a getaway from her great disdain. She is able to create a spiritual barrier from the mistreatments she receives from her unscrupulous husband. The bed is her Eden, her only resource for relaxation and a content being. Even the hamper in the bedroom is the only group of clothing that is considered neat and tidy, representing the cleanliness of the room. Everywhere else in the house, Sykes would step on and trample over the clothing Delia had to clean.

He had no respect for his wife and her work. The bedroom used to be the only place that hadnt been defiled by Sykes, until he slept with Bertha in it. Knowing of this travesty brings Delia over the edge. Sykess physical cruelty and unfaithfulness go together, and are apparent not only to the ones involved, but outsiders as well. A group of village men sitting on a porch view Delia riding by and begin talking about her and her marital situation. One man talks of Delias hard work ethics and ability to carry and receive clothing every Saturday.

Her hard work is evident and because of it others admire her. After talking about the good qualities of Delia, the men begin a conversation about the countless bad qualities of Sykes. Speaking of Delias necessary work, one man says, She better if she wanter eatSyke Jones aint wuth de shot an powder hit would tek tuh kill em. Not to huh he aint (Hurston 681).

The speakers tone can be taken as suggesting that Sykes deserves to die. Later in the conversation, the old man of the group says, he done got too beggety to live an we oughter kill im (Hurston 682). Coming from an elder, the statement seems to have more credibility. The mentioning of killing Sykes foreshadows the conclusion of the book when his death is imminent. The men would believe Sykes would be getting what he deserves, as perhaps Delia tends to believe more and more as the story progresses.

Delia changes from being constantly frightened of Sykes to being indifferent to his actions. She stops caring about Sykess physical abuse and affairs with other women. What had once been love was now drowned in the salty stream that had been pressed from her heart. Her tears, her sweat, her blood.

(Hurston 680). This river of torment that has overrun this devastated woman has caused her to explode to the surface and take a stand. No longer will she allow herself to be at the butt of the severe poor mistreatment her husband has been giving forth to her for 15 years. She will not let him invade whatever will and life she has left in her. Delias Eden is sacred to her, but that does not stop Sykes from penetrating her bubble.

In the beginning of the story when Sykes throws his bull whip at Delia, Hurston describes the whip as a long, round, limp, and black object. (Hurston 678). The whip can easily be initially mistaken for a snake, which foreshadows the arrival of the snake later in the story. Knowing of Delias phobia of snakes, Sykes deliberately brings one into the house. This is one way in which Sykes has infiltrated Delias concord with her home. If Delia represents good, then Sykes represents evil, and could be seen as the Devil.

Delia refers to both Sykes and the snake alike as devilish figures. Speaking about her husband, she states, Whatever goes over the Devils back, is got to come under his belly. Sometime or ruther. (Hurston 680). This statement goes along with the end of the story when Sykess plan to murder his wife backfires.

He gets what is coming to him. When Delia wakes up the first morning of the story, she is woken up by Sykes who has momentarily ruined her Eden by kicking her feet. In many instances throughout Sweat, Sykes represents the Devil breaking into and trying to destroy Delias Eden. When delving deep into this story, one is able to discover several examples of biblical imagery.

Another example of a force of entry into Delias Eden can be seen when the snake is loose in the house. Of all the places the snake could have gone, Delia finds it in her basket; the one place in which her work is involved. This is the final stand for the distraught, run-down woman. Although the snake can be seen as the opposite of Delia, one instance can give the reader a notion that the two are alike.

When Sykes caught the rattlesnake it was filled with frogs it had eaten and could hardly move, but two or three days later it had digested its meal of frogs and literally came to life. (Hurston 684). Similarly, Delia is so filled up to the top with anguish with her husband, but in a way she has digested all of it by the end of the story. While arguing with Sykes the day before the attempted murder, she yells, Mah cup is done run ovah.

(Hurston 684). Delia, like the snake, has come to life after the digestion of a time of clear cooperation. A new Delia comes into the mix as an insurrection occurs, and both the lives of Delia and her husband will change because of it. The snake, being seen as Satan and as having the same qualities as the opposite, can also be seen as a major phallic symbol. The snake enters Delias clothing basket (her place of work) as well as her bed.

Also, as previously mentioned, it is seen as long, round, limp, and black (Hurston 678). When it enters her bed, it is in essence penetrating her existence and well-being. Having come from Berthas home and having sexual relations with her as well, Sykes power was left at her house. This is represented when he reaches for a match to be able to see in the dark, but is unable to find one because he had emptied his pockets at Berthas (Hurston 686).

With no sexual thought towards Delia, he does not think the snake (being a phallic symbol) will be found in her bed, but as he soon finds out, the contrary is an ironic fact. It is from his wifes bed that the snake attacks Sykes. Although Sykes physical and emotional cruelty towards Delia brought her down further each day, his infidelity brought her through the floor. Even though their relationship had become non-existent, Delia still had to live each day knowing that her husband was with another woman. Going along with other religious imagery is another case found in the reading: Delias work-worn knees crawled over the earth in Gethsemane and up the rocks of Calvary many, many times during these months. (Hurston 683).

Referring to the betrayal, trial, and the execution of Jesus in the bible, this passage is another example of how religion plays a major role in many aspects of Sweat. Being a devout Christian, Delia tries to abide by all the teachings and lessons of the faith, but is forced to decide whether or not to go against her religion when she finds her husband dying. Coming home from the love feast at the church, Delia was filled with warm feelings that gave her spirit a sense of goodness. She was singing a religious song as she entered her house to find that the snake was loose in the house. The devil had interrupted her moment of decency, and she found herself in serious danger. She did not yet know that Sykes had let the snake loose in the house intentionally to attempt to take her life, but Delia soon figured out the truth about why the snake was in the house.

When one can no longer think Delias opinion of Sykes can be lowered, her opinion of her husband must have descended to a point beyond proper comprehension. She soon finds that Sykes is the victim of a snakebite and is dying. She has to make the decision of whether or not to save him. If she abides by the rules her church has laid out for her, she would undoubtedly make the attempt to avoid Sykes death, but she decides not to.

Sykes inevitable death will occur that night. The circumstances of any persons life will eventually decide the outcome. Negative conditions can be bearable enough that there will not be a thorough change in ones life, but worse situations can have different effects. Sometimes a person is forced to make a change in the way they live their life in order to make it tolerable. In Sweat, by Zora Neale Hurston, Delias attitude toward her bad marriage changes because of her lack of endurance for her life. The fire behind her eyes could no longer be restricted by Sykes mistreatments and unfaithfulness.

Delias water had boiled over and what resulted was a flame of another kind. She confronted all that Sykes was with a newly found indifference, and would take a stand against his wrongdoings. The question in which the conclusion of the story asks has to deal with Delias devotion to God and her religion. Is it OK to let him die? One may answer the question either way, but essentially, the response will be found in the eye of the beholder.

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Zora Neale Hurstons Short Story – Sweat Character Analysis. (2018, Nov 24). Retrieved from


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