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“Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston Literature Analysis Research Paper

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Updated: Apr 13th, 2020


Zora Neale Hurston wrote “Sweat,” in 1926 and the book was aimed at depicting the influential factors in her life. From 1924-1926, there was substantial empowerment of the Civil Rights organizations such as the National Urban League (NUL) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). As a result, Zora Neale Hurston wrote “Sweat” during a period of interracial association between American whites who were sympathetic of African Americans and the African American Talented Tenth.

The prevailing concept of this period was the progression of African-American civil rights through the establishment of an interest group that was basically created by the artistic and literary movement. During this period, there was pressure from a group of American whites who were of the opinion that African Americans were predisposed to complaining that they lacked recognition for their work.

The pressure group suggested that African Americans start presenting and exhibiting their work which led African American writers to start publishing their work together with exhibiting their artistic work.

Is Delia Jones representative of black women at the time?

Delia Jones is the central character of the Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat”. Delia is a washerwoman who has been married to an abusive husband, Sykes Jones for fifteen years. Delia comes across as a thin woman who has been extremely overworked due to her sagging shoulders (Lowe 74). She is extremely afraid of snakes, a phobia that her husband Sykes maliciously takes advantage of.

“Sweat” takes a record of the events in her life, and her transition to a “new Delia” when she stands up to her husband after she finally has had enough of his abuse and consequently his death. Delia is greatly representative of an African American woman in the 1920s due to several reasons (Jones 85). The first reason is that most working-class African American women during this period were mainly employed as housemaids and washerwomen in white people homes (Croft 21).

Due to the prevailing conditions at the time, African American women were overworked and received a meager income just like Delia (Miles 52). In addition, Delia’s husband Sykes exploits her and squanders her income which was also a common practice at the time. African American women were required to be submissive to their husbands and in most cases; the husbands took advantage of their wives especially when the wives earned more than the husband (Croft 21).

Some of Sykes’s bad behaviors, for instance, his appeal for big women and also excessive money spending were widespread typecasts held by white people about black men who were often expressed in a variety of racist publications during the time (Jones 84). However, some elements of Delia do not confer to other black women of the time, for instance, the fact that she was the sole provider (Lowe 75).

This is unlike the African American women of the early twentieth century since the husbands were entirely responsible for Providence, and the wives were dedicated to staying at home and looking after the children (Miles 56). Another unique aspect of Delia is the fact that she is the one who owns and paid for the house they live in. Men during this period were the main income earners hence had a higher predisposition to own houses as compared to women.

Why did she stay with such an abusive husband?

The main reason why Delia stayed with Sykes is that Delia had low self-esteem, which was caused by Sykes verbal and physical abuse toward her. That being the case, Delia feels that she has limited options as far as getting another husband is concerned. Her low self-esteem consequently leads her to cling on to the marriage through the abuse finally gets to her and she stands up to Sykes eventually quelling the violence (Lowe 76).

Furthermore, Delia is a Christian and believes that the sanctity of marriage should be preserved regardless of Sykes’ behavior towards her. Delia draws power from the Bible and gospel songs such as crossing the Jordan and her crawling “over the earth in Gethsemane and up the rocks of Calvary” (Lowe 77). Delia, therefore, perseveres through the abuse with an internal hope that the abuse and infidelity will one day end and she will be rewarded for her patience (Croft 23).

In a Biblical context, it seems that Delia embraces suffering as a way of life on earth hence sees no use for parting ways with her husband. It is also clear that the first dew moths of their marriage were quite pleasant, and thus, Delia may still have hope that their love and marriage would once again be strong (Jones 84).

For instance, Jim Merchant, one of the men on Joe Clarke’s porch mentions that Sykes used to be very “skeered uh losing” to Delia when they first married. This kind of love or attraction seems to be part of what Delia one day hopes for hence, she continues to stay with her abusive husband.

Delia points out to Sykes that, “Ah hates you tuh de same degree dat Ah useter love yuh,” (Croft 29) and the intensity of this outburst is a strong indicator of the fact that she used to love him very much in the early stages of their marriage fifteen years ago before his abuse towards her began(Croft 29).

After she fails to get along with her husband, Delia’s only desire is live in the house she has worked for and to worship on Sundays. Therefore, it is also possible that she has no aspiration for other men and desires to be alone if she cannot be at peace with Sykes (Lowe 77).

How do you account for the townspeople’s opinions/observations of her?

The townspeople who are basically represented by the men outside Joe Clarke’s store pity the way Delia is treated by her husband and despise Sykes for his ineptness to sustain his wife. Some of their observations such as “Delia’s habitual meekness seemed to slip from her shoulders like a blown scarf” suggest that the townspeople are remorseful of the abuse, infidelity, and promiscuity Delia has to bear together with the shame that she endures through her husband’s actions(Lowe 74).

The men on Joe Clarke’s porch represent African American bourgeoisie who draw attention to the fact that there are several men who can be compared to Sykes. Joe Clarke portrays women as sugarcane and abusive husbands like Sykes as men who squeeze “every drop uh pleasure” out of their wives by being overbearing and committing adultery regardless of their wives mind-set (Miles 55). It is possible that Sykes was not always abusive to his wife but he has become bolder in his abuse as the story progresses.

The men on Joe Clarke’s porch recall that Delia used to be a very beautiful young woman before the abuse from her husband began. Dave Carter One of the men on the porch of Joe Clarke’s store talks about the way Bertha looks like when she opens her mouth to laugh, comparing her to an alligator (Lowe 78). Old Man Anderson, on the other hand, recommends that the men whip and kill Sykes which goes to show the extent to which the townspeople feel the need to liberate Delia from her abusive husband (Jones 87).

The author uses the townspeople to give a third person remark of Delia, Sykes and their marriage. The townspeople recognize Sykes as the main source of Delia’s tribulations. They admire the way she is able to withstand working so hard for white people in order to pay for her “lovely” home and Joe Lindsay remarks on the way she delivers the clean clothes every week without fail (Miles 59).

An allegory such as “Delia’s work-worn knees crawled over the earth in Gethsemane and up the rocks of Cavalry many, many times during these months” depicts her as a victim of traverse oppression from the white community and also from her husband (Croft 33).

The men on Joe Clarke’s porch note that Delia has tried to be timid, kind and has worked hard in order to get along with Sykes until she has finally given up and only wants to be left in peace so that she can do her work (Lowe 74). It is only when she has had enough of her husband’s abuse that she starts to become belligerent towards him which consequently boils down to her refusal to help while he is dying after a snake bite.


Hurston uses her childhood town of Eatonville and its economic state of affairs as a great inspiration for the book “Sweat”. The book discloses much of Hurston’s reflective recollections. One of the author’s fundamental concerns in the book was the predicament regarding subjugation within the black population. Delia’s poverty and hard work are strongly connected with whites, for whom she must work for.

White racism and domestic abuse create a powerful permutation that leads Delia to live a life of desperation common among African American women facing the troubles bestowed upon them by two poles of oppression at the same time. Sykes’s continual verbal and physical abuse towards his wife is the steepest hurdle in Delia’s life even as she is surrounded by racism. Delia has to resolve the troubles nearest to her home and her heart before she can be in a position to fight the racial oppression surrounding her.

Sykes bears a number of bad characteristics that the Harlem Renaissance discouraged black authors from rendering for instance alcoholism, promiscuity, and capriciousness. The author portrays a different person through her actions when Delia lets her husband die in front of her.

It is possible that she is petrified by the snake but it is also possible that she willingly lets her husband die. This is very unchristian of Delia, and the author seems to emphasize the revelation that Delia lacks an alternative to her predicament, consequently allowing her husband to die. The author, therefore, puts forward an element of liberation and a repudiation to obey conventional principles in Delia’s demeanor.

Works cited

Croft, Robert. A Zora Neale Hurston Companion. New York: Greenwood Press, 2002. Print.

Jones, Sharon. : Race, Class, and Gender. New York: Greenwood press, 2002. Web.

Lowe, John. Jump at the Sun: Zora Neale Hurston’s Cosmic Comedy. Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Print.

Miles, Diana. Women, Violence, & Testimony in the Works of Zora Neale Hurston. California: Peter Lang Publishing, 2003. Print.

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