Bertha is Sykes’s plump mistress, with whom he is openly cheating on Delia. Elijah Moseley calls her a ‘‘big black greasy Mogul’’ (this last word referring to the Muslim rulers of India between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries), a description that connotes some of the white stereotypes and
Zora Neale Hurston
racist caricatures of the time as to what kind of women were attractive to black men. Bertha has picked up a bad reputation in her previous town and carried it to Eatonville; she is bold enough, unlike Sykes’s previous mistresses, to call for him at Delia’s gate. For three months, she has been living in Della Lewis’s disreputable inn, and Delia can tell that Sykes has brought her into their house.
One of the men on the porch of Joe Clarke’s store, Dave mentions that Bertha looks like an alligator when she opens her mouth to laugh. The character of the same name in Hurston’s play Mule Bone (coauthored with Langston Hughes) is described as a ‘‘Dancer, Baptist, soft, happy-go-lucky character, slightly dumb.’’
Joe runs the general store on the main street. His character is based on the real man of the same name who ran the general store during Hurston’s childhood, and the gathering of people on this porch is an important and omnipresent element in much of her fiction. Eatonville residents gathered there to joke and gossip, but there was also philosophy, politics, and storytelling in their conversations, as Joe demonstrates in his commentary about men who abuse their wives like ‘‘a joint uh sugar-cane,’’ throwing them away when they’re finished with them.
The protagonist of the story, Delia is a washerwoman fighting to keep her house and her sanity. She is a thin woman with sagging, overworked shoulders, and she is deathly afraid of snakes, a fear that her husband cruelly exploits. ‘‘Sweat’’ marks a turning point in her life, when she has finally had enough, and the reader can notice an entirely ‘‘new Delia’’ emerging between the first time she confronts Sykes and his death.
As the men on the porch of Joe Clarke’s store remember, Delia used to be a very pretty young woman until her husband began to abuse her. It is clear from lines such as ‘‘Delia’s habitual meekness seemed to slip from her shoulders like a blown scarf’’ that she had taken his beatings, unfaithfulness, and squandering of her money without a fight for a very long time. But Delia also says to Sykes, ‘‘Ah hates you tuh de same degree dat Ah useter love yuh,’’ and the reader can infer from the vehemence of this outburst that she used to love him quite a lot before they were married fifteen years ago and his cruelty began.
The story does not...
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