Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Though written in a southern folk idiom, “Sweat” has none of the humor of Hurston’s predecessor in the genre, Charles Waddell Chesnutt. Her message is somber from beginning to end. What the story offers is a naturalistic slice of life combined with some heavy Christian symbolism. The most potent symbol is the rattlesnake, known for its ubiquitous (“ventriloquist”) death rattle. Having already introduced evil into their house, Sykes next brings the snake itself. Delia’s known fear of worms and snakes and Sykes’s vain belief that he possesses a magic power over them are both symbolic attitudes toward evil. When he releases the snake from the box, giving it free rein in the house in order to drive out Delia (goodness), he only prepares the scene for his own destruction. Worked into this major symbol is that of the matches, Sykes’s practice of using up all the matches (light) without ever replacing them. When Delia returns home there is only one left, but it is enough. When he returns there is no light for him to see the rattlesnake. In total darkness “Satan” kills him.
Other symbols complete the Christian scenario. The experience of the Passion—suffering and triumph over it—is central. Delia’s whole life is the Passion experience, yet Hurston does not use the symbolism explicitly until Delia goes through the agonizing months of Sykes’s affair with Bertha: It is then that “Delia’s work-worn knees crawled over the earth in...
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Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Awkward, Michael, ed. New Essays on “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribner, 2003.
Campbell, Josie P. Student Companion to Zora Neale Hurston. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001.
Croft, Robert W. A Zora Neale Hurston Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.
Cronin, Gloria L., ed. Critical Essays on Zora Neale Hurston. New York: G. K. Hall, 1998.
(The entire section is 247 words.)