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Zora Neale Hurston: Strength in “Drenched in Light” and “Sweat” Essay (Review)

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Updated: Jun 21st, 2022


Zora Neale Hurston is among the renowned American folklorists, novelists and short-story writers. She is amongst the foremost American writers of “the Harlem Renaissance, a literary and artistic movement centered in Harlem, New York, which redefined African-American expression during the 1920s and 1930s” (Muraskin 76).

A careful scrutiny of her works, specifically Drenched in Light and Sweat, reveals the black Americans’ quest for power especially the women. This is clear following the women’s evident incredible concerns about mistreatments.

The society depicted by the two works suffers enormously from social problems affiliated to women. It also experiences additional problems portrayed through the existing relationships between male and female sexes. Consequently, Drenched in Light and Sweat serve as tools for addressing the “The economic, social and political subjection of women, the violence brought against them, and their confinement around the world” (Tate 28).

This perhaps makes these two works to be significant as part of American literature following the concerns of today’s feminists in matters of according women their due strength. The two works address the 1930s unjustified and uncivilized acts of mistreatment of women particularly in the institution of marriage.

The problem worsens following the existence of inflexible cultures and beliefs concerning the obligation of women in the community. Sadly, women had no capacity or rather ‘strength’ to rise against acts of mistreatment to advocate for a change of the oppressive cultures. Therefore, the paper introspects how Zora brings out the theme of strength in the two books, taking a step further to compare how she approaches the theme in the two masterpieces.

Theme of strength in “Sweat”

Sweat is a must-read fascinating chef-d’oeuvre that presents the encounters of a woman who clearly has no strength in the society to make her own decision on how to control her destiny. Delia’s husband exposes her to acts of badger. Since she has no capacity to help herself get out of this marriage, she has no option other than enduring the miserable life she encounters.

In fact, her husband comments perhaps exemplify her deterioration of strength. He tells her, “Well, you better quit getting me riled up, else they’ll be totin’ you out sooner than you expect, Ah’m so tired of Ah don’t know whut to do” (Hurston “Sweat” 75). Arguably, women were more of a liability than an asset to men.

They had to depend solely on men for survival. Otherwise, they had no strength to get along with life alone. In fact, people expected them to remain at home doing domestic chores when their husbands went out to look for the daily bread. Delia’s husband tells her, “You quit grindin dirt into these clothes! How can Ah git through by Satday if Ah don’t start on Sunday” (Hurston “Sweat” 74).

Undervaluing them economically was not enough before the eyes of their male counterparts as they additionally required them to remain loyal to them while they(the husbands) went out to do what pleased themselves regardless of whether it was against their women or not. This reveals the lack of strength by women that Hurston devoted her life to address.

The men of then had powers to do away with the strength of any woman especially if she happened to be a black. Right from the onset of the story, the reader encounters a woman working tirelessly to execute her domestic work roles. This work was not just for her gain, but also for the entire community. Muraskin reckons, “Because she is a black woman, her line of work entails doing the laundry for the white people” (92).

Even if this job is not satisfactory, Delia and other classes of women whom she represented had to do it in an effort to put food on the table and manage to provide shelter. Davis posits, “Sykes who is unsympathetic to her needs refuses to work, leaving Delia with the financial responsibilities” (37). This perhaps depicts the men’s negligence during those times of carrying out their societal roles because women, who served them, had no strength to reiterate.

They only had to obey their men acting according to their will. As if not appreciative of the fact that his wife has done all that to him, he even goes to the level of instigating a fight with her. This makes Delia reciprocate claiming, “Ah been married to you for fifteen years and Ah been takin in washin for fifteen years. Sweat, sweat, sweat! Work and sweat, pray and sweat” (Hurston “Sweat” 75). This portrays Delia’s acceptance of the socially discriminative divisions of the house home chores as the status quo.

Evidently, through the description of the marriage life of Delia, the author brings out the theme of dwindled strength amongst women in the 1930’s. Indeed, Delia had an unending work experience that was abusive on her part. She gathered the strength deprived of her by her husband, thus, managing to talk about the abusive marriage and the awful acts of her husband.

Theme of strength in Drenched in Light

Zora’s stories in Drenched in Light recounts the events that unfolded in the life of blacks in 1920’s, the time of Harlem renaissance. The story reflects the life of Isis watt. Zora presents a conflict entangling a young girl attempting to rise against her cultural norms. Unfortunately, she has no strength to do as she wishes.

Anata et al. reckons, “Isis is a child…filled with the joy of life and yearns for the horizon, while her grandmother urges her to stop dreaming and instead work around the house” (53). Her grandmother attempts to rise against the girl’s exuberance while her neighbors nickname her “Isis the blissful”.

Arguably, the two main characters of the short story, Isis and the grandmother, present two people with different ideologies about culture. The grandmother presents that strong tradition which gives no room to accommodate for flexibility. For instance, she says, “You’se too ‘oomanish jumpin’ up in everybody’s face that passes” (Hurston “Drenched in light” 173).

This expresses a strong statement against the likes of Isis. Isis likes dancing, singing and whistling as signified by the phrase “up, up went her spirits, her brown little feet doing all sorts of intricate things and her body in rhythm” (Hurston “Drenched in light” 171).

Isis has no room to do what she likes best. Culture prohibits her likes as the grandmother implies. Isis believes that, although she values her culture, some change is essential. These changes aim at coming up with art and literatures concerns that allow for sharing of dreams. “She tells them…about the trailing gowns, the gold shoes with blue bottoms, the white charger, and the time her Hercules and had slain numerous dragons and sundry giants” (Hurston “Drenched in light” 167).

Unfortunately, all these changes are no more than theoretical as compared to the practical ones since she has no capacity to accomplish them. The tradition symbolically represented by the grandmother is too rigid to give her the permit and the strength that she deserves to attain such an endeavor.

Comparing the theme of strength in the two works

While Sweat addresses the theme of strength of a woman in the society from the perspective of their work and roles in the society, Drenched in light, on the other hand, approaches it from the cultural dimension.

The author creates an overall effect of bringing the problem of black Americans, especially women, into the attention of the society in all dimensions. While Delia has no strength to make individual decisions, and hence, not only abused by her husband Sykes, but also by the whites in terms of paying her poorly, Isis has no freedom to portray and build on her talents.

The two protagonists in the two different works perhaps symbolically represent the artist herself. Isis is creative and innovative. She utilizes lemon to serve the purpose of a perfume (Hurston “Drenched in light” 172).

In fact, during the time of writing of these short stories, the blacks were fighting for equal recognition of their abilities, just like the whites. One of such ways would perhaps entail proving their innovative abilities, whether in theatre or any other sector. However, this was largely impossible without “shaving a grandma because she is too old and can’t do it herself” (Hurston “Drenched in light” 167).

She cannot change certain cultural beliefs. On the other hand, Delia’s attempts to fight for her strength, not only to endure the experiences of a unsatisfactory marriage where a husband dictates what his wife needs to do, but also endeavors to talk about such experiences. This is perhaps depictive of the rebirth of Harlem Renaissance in 1920’s and 1930’s to incorporate black women artists.

In fact, the rebirth of the Harlem Renaissance had gigantic significance in terms of providing women with the strength they deserved in an attempt to address, and where possible, correct certain wrongly perceived conceptions about their roles in the society (Stetson 45). This was perhaps accomplished through the talents tantamount to the ones possessed by Isis.

However, successful exploitation of such talents encountered impediments such as vague culturally constructed beliefs about the need of women to remain dormant with their talents. “You’se too ‘oomanish jumpin’ up in everybody’s face that passes” (Hurston “Drenched in light” 173). The strength sort in the two short stories is perhaps the capacity for women to get the opportunity to explore and adopt strategies subtle for the achievement of their dreams. This strength was evidently missing in the early eightieth century America.


Zora Neale Hurston is a remembered figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Her contributions through literal works belonging to different genres in shaping the African American strength of freedom of expression are incredible. Through introspection and scrutiny of the theme of strength in the two short stories: Drenched in Light and Sweat, she profiles a society that she deems subtle for fostering and reshaping the women’s roles in the renewed American.

To her, this is perhaps possible through changing certain unnecessary traditions and focusing on according women more strength to thrive in the society competitively without gender or cultural prejudices. Drawing from this line of thought, the paper has substantially concentrated on the manner in which the theme of strength stands out in the two novels Drenched in light and Sweat. Otherwise, Hurston’s theme of strength in the two books is such an informative approach of addressing the rights of women in society.

Works Cited

Anata, Esther, Carol Myers, and Theresa, Rush. Black Americans Writers Past and Present: A Bibliographical and Bibliographical Dictionary. New Jersey, NJ: Scarecrow, 1975.

Davis, Arthur. From the Dark Tower: Afro American Writers 1900 to 1960. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974.

Hurston, Zora, Sweat. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978.

Hurston, Zora. Drenched in light. New York: The Feminist Press, 1979.

Muraskin, William. Alienated Elite: Short Stories In The Crises, 1910-1950. Journal of Black Studies 23.4(1970): 67-145. Print.

Stetson, Erlene. Black Sisters. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981.

Tate, Claudia. Black Women at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983.

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