“Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston: An Ecofeminist Master Class in Dialect and Symbolism

Zora Neale Hurston

Though “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston is a short story of only 4743 words long (about 15 pages), the scope of the work reaches farther than most novels. Within this small space, Hurston addresses a number of themes, such as the trials of femininity, which she explores with compelling and efficient symbolism.

Originally published in 1926, it is nuanced and eloquently compact, with Hurston maximizing each word, object, character, and plot point to create an impassioned and enlightening narrative.

This is woven together with an ecocritical/ecofeminist perspective that links the feminine realm with the natural realm, which is then contrasted with the human realm. 

Hurston also proves herself every bit as capable as Mark Twain with regards to representing regional dialects and individual speech patterns, challenging the elitism of prescribed language and grammatical rules by representing an authentic dialect. 

In her introduction to the 1997 anthology devoted to the story (“Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston), editor Cheryl A Wall writes:

“The many levels on which ‘Sweat’ can be read make it one of Zora Neale Hurston’s most enduring works. It was published in 1926, early in Hurston’s career, indeed, long before she had dedicated herself to the profession of writing.”

And Robert Hemenway, one of Zora’s principle biographers, observes in Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (1977):

“‘Sweat’ is a story remarkably complex at both narrative and symbolic levels, yet so subtly done that one at first senses only the fairly simple narrative line. The account of a Christian woman learning how to hate in spite of herself, a story of marital cruelty and the oppression of marital relationships, an allegory of good and evil, it concentrates on folk character rather than on folk environment.”

 

Gender and physicality in “Sweat”

It is Hurston’s exploration of the feminine experience that is the most overt component of the story, particularly the way in which women are objectified.  Delia, the narrative’s protagonist, is seen as a strictly corporeal being.

This is demonstrated when her husband, Sykes, defines her in strictly physical terms.  He states, for instance, that he “hates skinny wimmen”, defining her not in terms of her personal characteristics, but rather in physical terms.

This tendency is reinforced when he tells Delia that the snake he brought into their home “wouldn’t risk breakin’ out his fangs ‘gin [her] skinny laigs”, further suggesting that she is undesirable based on her corporeal being. 

When speaking to his mistress, Bertha, Sykes tells her that he “sho’ ‘bominates uh skinny ‘oman” and compliments her “portly shape”, while those who gossip about Sykes and Delia note that he has “allus been crazy ’bout fat women.” 

In this way, both Sykes and even those who sympathize with Delia, frame women in terms of their physicality. Sykes devalues Delia for being skinny, and praises Bertha for her full figure, while the gaggle of gossipers use demeaning phrases like ‘fat’ to describe Bertha.

This is reinforced in more subtle ways as well. When, for instance, Delia sheds her “habitual meekness”, it is compared to a scarf blowing off her shoulders, framing this personality trait as an object, not as characteristic that defines her humanity.

Through both overt and subtle means, Hurston demonstrates the ways in which women are objectified through the narrative.

The suppressive nature of Delia’s experience as a woman is exacerbated by the physical toll of both abuse and labour. Syke abuses Delia physically, psychologically, and economically. It was “Two months after the wedding [that] he had given her the first brutal beating,” which would become a pattern, but he would likewise abuse her psychologically. 

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Zora Neale Hurston 1937

Zora Neale Hurston: Books, Publishing, and Publishers
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Sykes’ cruel behavior

In the narrative’s opening sequence, for instance, he drops his bull whip on an unsuspecting Delia’s shoulder, knowing that the she would confuse it with a snake. 

When confronted, Sykes concedes that he knows Delia suffers from ophidiophobia (a fear of snakes), and that is why he pulled the prank, underscoring his cruelty. He takes this a step further when he brings a rattle snake into their home to terrorize Delia.

This cruelty is intensified by Sykes’ economic abuse.  Early in their marriage, he gambles their money and refuses to contribute to the household finances, and when he does have money, it is Bertha he spends it on.

Not only does he spend Delia’s money and fail to contribute his own, but he impedes her work as well, kicking the laundry she is paid to clean, despite the fact that Delia’s “tub of suds [has] filled [his] belly with vittles more times than [his own] hands [have] filled it”, and that it is her sweat that “paid for [their] house.”

This passage demonstrates the extent of the economic abuse Sykes is guilty of.  Sykes, though, is not the only force taking a toll on Delia, as her work transformed her once soft body into “knotty muscled limbs” and “hard knuckly hands.” 

It is not simply a single antagonist that suppresses Delia, then, but the contextual forces that make her subordinate. In each of these instances, Hurston articulates the impact of the pervasive and exhausting forms of oppression endured by women like Delia.

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Refusing to be defined as a victim

Though Delia initially seems as though she is manacled to certain gender stereotypes, she finds liberation through them and refuses to be defined as a victim. She is, for instance, confined to the domestic sphere.

Hurston makes this suggestion overt as she places Delia in the kitchen in the opening scene, and moreover, has Delia doing laundry. 

Both the kitchen and this chore are signifiers of the domestic sphere. However, it is by embracing her domestic duties that Delia is able to secure a degree of autonomy.  Rather than allowing her skill set to be wasted on unpaid work, she hires her service out to others and makes a profit. T

his allows her to buy both a horse and a home, both of which she, and not her husband, owns.  These domestic signifiers are empowering in others ways. When, for instance, Sykes takes an antagonistic stance against Delia in the opening sequence, “She seize[s] the iron skillet from the stove and [strikes] a defensive pose.”

Though the skillet would typically be a symbol linked with the domestic sphere, and in turn the subjugation of women, Delia transforms it into a weapon that signifies her refusal to be a victim, thus empowering her. 

Thus, Delia demonstrates a fortitude akin to Job and in the process manages to transform signifiers of oppression into the means of her liberation.

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zora neale hurston

See also: 5 Quotes from “How it Feels to Be Colored Me”
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A Master Storyteller in full command

To read Hurston is to read a master storyteller who has full command of all the tools around her. 

Though the length of the story does not allow the characters to each be a roundly developed as the characters in her longer works, and though the brevity of the work may not allow for much more than binary gender archetypes, there remains a depth to the work that is uncommon in short stories. 

Hurston describes the domestic condemnation that Delia endured, underscoring the pervasive nature her oppression, but does not allow her protagonist to be defined as a victim. Instead, she overcomes her trials, and by linking together a series of effective symbols, Hurston is able to frame this story as one of empowerment, not victimhood.

In addition, her use of dialect adds a depth to the story that brings in the cultural context the characters were living in without allowing it to highjack the narrative. “Sweat” is a template of subtle story telling that demonstrates the skill with which Hurston wrote.

Edited from the original essay by Jason Horn. Read the rest of this insightful essay at Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat”: An Ecofeminist Master’s Class in Symbolism and Dialect. Jason blogs at Literary Ramblings.

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An introduction to Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat” by Cheryl A. Wall

There is an entire anthology of essays an analyses of “Sweat” in the Women Writers Text and Contexts series published by Rutgers University Press (© 1997). In the Introduction, Cheryl A. Wall, the volume’s editor, writes:

“‘Sweat’ might be read as a story of a marriage in crisis in which an abused wife learns to act in self-defense. Or, it might be read as a fictional brief on behalf of southern Black women in the early twentieth century, whose lot it was to ‘sweat’ for everybody — their employers and families alike — and whose opportunities for self-fulfillment were limited to the church.

Many readers consider ‘Sweat’ a carefully rendered depiction of southern Black life and note that the dialogue is a faithful representation of the speech of the region and the period.

Others value the story’s psychological insights above the social and cultural knowledge it conveys. Still other readers perceive in ‘Sweat’ a spiritual allegory in which the protagonist confronts a temptation that jeopardized her soul’s salvation.

Placing these perspectives alongside each other raises provocative questions. Perhaps the most provocative is whether the story ends in the protagonist’s triumph or defeat.”

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Zora Neale Hurston page on Amazon
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Quotes from “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston

“Delia’s habitual meekness seemed to slip from her shoulders like a blown scarf. She was on her feet; her poor little body, her bare knuckly hands bravely defying the strapping hulk before her.”

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“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. Her tears, her sweat, her blood. She had brought love to the union and he had brought a longing after the flesh.”

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“Somehow, before sleep came, she found herself saying aloud: ‘Oh well, whatever goes over the Devil’s back, is got to come under his belly. Sometime or ruther, Sykes, like everybody else, is gointer reap his sowing.'”

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“Delia pushed back her plate and got up from the table. ‘Ah hates you, Sykes,’ she said calmly. ‘Ah hates you tuh de same degree dat Ah usteter love yuh. Ah done an’ took mah belly full up tuh mah neck. Dat’s de reason Ah got mah letter fum de church an’ moved mah membership tuh Woodbridge — so Ah don’t haftuh take no sacrament wid yuh! Ah don’t wantuh see yuh ’round me atall. Lay ’round wid dat ‘omen all yuh wants tuh, but gwan ‘way fum me an’ mah house. Ah hates yuh lak uh suck-egg dog.”

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