“Sweat” And Symbolism”Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston is filled with symbolism ranging from images that are easily captured to things that require a little bit more insight. Religion has apparently played a major role in Hurston’s life, readily seen in “Sweat” with the references to a snake and Gethsemane. Symbolism plays a big part of this story and after analyzing these, they give the story a deeper meaning and can enlighten the reader as to the full meaning of “Sweat”.
The most apparent symbol in the story is the title, “Sweat”. It is also mentioned in the story, “Looka heah, Sykes, you done gone too fur. Ah been married to you fur fifteen years, and Ah been takin’ in washin’ fur fifteen years. Sweat, sweat, sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat” (Hurston 679). The “Sweat” is the product of Delia’s hard work supporting them. It stands for her work ethic and how she has tried to make her work as best as she can, it is a big part of her life.
Another easily recognized symbol in this story is that of the snake. “Sykes, what you throw dat whip on me like dat? You know it would skeer me – looks just like a snake, an’ you knows how skeered Ah is of snakes” (Hurston 678). The snake is the main symbol in this story, it ties it together because it is
mentioned at the beginning of the story and at the end. Sykes decides to bring a snake into their home, “Look in de box dere Delia, Ah done brung yuh somethin’.Syke! Syke, mah Gawd! You take dat rattlesnake ‘way fron heah! You gottuh” (Hurston 683). The snake is an object of destruction, a satanic object which is what the devil turned into to lure Eve to eat the apple in the garden of Eden as written in the Bible (Genesis 2-3). The snake represents the evil Sykes, which is in direct opposition of Delia’s Christianity. The bull whip in the passage is another symbol related to the snake. Both of these objects are phallic in nature, representing Syke’s emasculated position. He is supported by Delia who takes in white people’s laundry.
The laundry also encompasses two symbols. “He stepped roughly upon the whitest pile of things.” (Hurston 679). The ‘whitest pile of things’ refers to Delia’s pureness and innocence and the image conjured up is one of Syke’s stomping on her pureness making it dirty. The laundry is also the thing that Delia protects and looks after, like it is her own, like it is a child. But the laundry is not hers, it is the white folks laundry and shows how repressed Delia and Syke’s as African Americans in a white man’s world.
Delia has taken her world and made it the best she can. She took her modest home and made it beautiful by planting flowers and trees (Hurston 680). They depict her Eden, her garden. She has made something beautiful in and orderly in her chaotic and evil life with Sykes.
Another reference to religion can be found in “Sweat.” “Delia’s work-worn knees crawled over the earth in Gethsemane and up the rocks of Calvary many, many times during these months” (Hurston 683). The garden of Gethsemane is where Jesus took his disciples to pray. He told some of them to watch and some of them to pray, but they fell asleep. Judas betrayed Jesus and led the Romans to him at Gethsemane before he was crucified (Matthew 28-29). Delia feels betrayed, she bears a cross too. She married Sykes because she loved him, but he beats and cheats on her.
During one attempt to beat her she stands up to him. “She seized the iron skillet from the stove and struck a defensive pose, which act surprised him greatly, coming from her” (Hurston 680). The skillet is something from which food is created, a ‘womanly’ thing. Delia uses this tool which is used for creation in an attempt to destroy Sykes.
There is another passage where Delia thinks about defense against the snake. “She mused at the tremendous whirr inside, which every woodsman knows, is one of the sound illusions. The rattler is a ventriloquist. His whirr sounds to the right, to the left, straight ahead, behind, close under foot -everywhere but where it is. Woe to him who guesses wrong unless he is prepared to hold up his end of the argument! Sometimes he strikes without rattling at all” (Hurston 686). This passage represents Delia’s relationship with Syke. He strikes her from all angles. Sykes is cruel to her for no reason at all,
just like the snake striking its victim, unexpectedly, from all sides and for no apparent reason.
Lastly, the chinaberry tree which Delia clings to at the end of story also represents a symbol. The tree has deep roots and will live for a long time after Sykes dies, so will Delia. She gains knowledge at the tree, “She could scarcely reach the chinaberry tree, where she waited in the growing heat while inside she knew the cold river was creeping up and up to extinguish that eye which must know by now that she knew” (Hurston 687).
“Sweat” is filled with symbolism which reiterates and clarifies the authors intention in writing this story. Syke is killed at the end by his own evilness, by a snake intended for Delia. Her Christianity and goodness keeps her alive, keeps her sweating and working for what she believes in. The symbols in this story are highly religious and encompass a woman’s strength and the repression she experiences due to her color and gender.
The Holy Bible. Genesis and Saint Matthew. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1972.
Hurston, Zora Neale. “Sweat.” The Story and Its Writer An Introduction to Short Fiction. Ed. Ann Charters. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. 678-687.