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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Prior to and during World War I, African American demographics underwent a major shift, with over a million black people migrating north. Filled with hope of more jobs and less racial oppression, many black Southerners saw cities such as New York and Chicago as the land of their deliverance, although this was not always true in practice. Instead, blacks largely found it difficult to settle in and, after the war, tended not to benefit economically from the ‘‘Roaring Twenties,’’ finding themselves segregated to poor racial ghettos such as Harlem in New York City. The Ku Klux Klan remained active, actually increasing in membership during these years, and segregation was widespread.
What the newly arrived blacks in New York did find, however, between the end of World War I and the beginning of the Great Depression, was an unprecedented flowering of black art and culture later coined the ‘‘Harlem Renaissance.’’ Institutions like the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) were becoming increasingly influential, and black political thinkers such as W. E. B. Du Bois held more power and were much less conciliatory to the white gentry than were their predecessors. Black culture was suffused with the ideology of the ‘‘New Negro,’’ which emphasized abandoning traditionalist values and becoming a modern American citizen exercising the right to vote—and cultured leaders like Alain Locke were...
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Hurston makes a number of allusions to the Bible in ‘‘Sweat’’ that underscore her authorial intentions. Perhaps the most important is the allusion to the Garden of Eden, with the serpent taking on its role of temptation (common to the Western Christian interpretation of the story of Eden) and giving Delia the opportunity to allow for her husband’s death. Delia’s character may not seem much like Eve’s, but Delia does obtain from the serpent the forbidden knowledge of how to disregard convention and subvert Christian morality.
The implications of this allusion are unclear, however. Hurston might be condemning Delia’s complicity with the serpent, or she might be praising her ability to bend the rules of Christian morality so that Sykes is punished by his own evil device—an idea Delia expresses as ‘‘whatever goes over the Devil’s back, is got to come under his belly.’’ This reference to the Devil is one of the phallic references discussed above and highlights the fact that, like the function of sexual imagery in the story, Hurston’s biblical allusions are highly ambiguous.
Further complicating the meaning of these allusions are Delia’s song about crossing the Jordan, which refers to Joshua leading the nation of Israel across the river, and her crawling ‘‘over the earth in Gethsemane and up the rocks of Calvary,’’ which were journeys of Jesus. They place Delia in the role of...
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Compare and Contrast
1920s: Racism towards African Americans is an extreme problem, in both the southern and northern states. Much of the optimism of blacks moving to the North is turning out to be an illusion. Education is poorly funded, poverty is widespread, and 281 blacks, compared with 34 whites, are lynched during the decade.
Today: Racial discrimination is illegal, but it has not been completely abolished in practice. The Supreme Court has ruled to continue the process of ‘‘affirmative action’’ in public universities, a sign that the legal system desires to remain committed to equalizing the opportunities afforded to all racial groups.
1920s: The American economy is booming. The stock market is rising at unprecedented rates, and many Americans are becoming rich, although money and jobs are not generally trickling down to the poorer black classes.
Today: The United States has a powerful economy, but it has failed to completely recover from the downturn coinciding with the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York. Unemployment is particularly high for black workers—over double the jobless percentage for whites.
1920s: Harlem is a burgeoning urban center, full of black artistic achievement and exciting new ideas, but housing is becoming increasingly cramped, and poverty is widespread.
Today: After a long and severe decline since the 1930s in housing conditions, crime, and...
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Topics for Further Study
Read the rest of the material in Fire!! How do Hurston’s pieces compare with those of her colleagues? Are they operating under the same artistic agenda? Describe the agenda(s) that you observe. Do you find the content radical? If you were a leader of the New Negro movement, how would you evaluate or critique the work of these authors?
Consider some of the reasons for Hurston’s declining popularity and alienation from the literary community. For example, read her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road and review the history of race relations between 1920 and 1960. Discuss why some of her political views might have been unpopular, and explain why you think she came to these conclusions. What led to Hurston’s unpopularity besides her stance on certain political issues? Describe the elements of ‘‘Sweat’’ that might have alienated her readership, and explain how the characteristics that later made her unpopular are noticeable, or missing, in the story.
Listen to some of the music from the Harlem Renaissance, such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and especially the lyrics of singers such as Bessie Smith. What do the rhythms of jazz and blues have in common with the writings of Hurston and her colleagues? Compare the character, style, and sexuality of Bessie Smith’s songs with Delia Jones and ‘‘Sweat,’’ particularly in terms of empowerment and female autonomy. How is Hurston’s treatment of black folk culture...
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What Do I Read Next?
Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is probably the most important of Hurston’s works to read after ‘‘Sweat.’’ Also set in Eatonville, it follows the story of Janie Crawford and her clashes with the moral code of the town.
The Color Purple (1982) is Alice Walker’s novel about the difficult life of a girl named Celie, whose fortunes finally begin to change with the arrival of her husband’s lover in her home. Not only is this highly regarded novel heavily allusive to Hurston’s work, it addresses some of the themes of ‘‘Sweat’’ in a more modern and thorough light.
The New Negro, an anthology of some of the most influential writers of the Harlem Renaissance, was published by Alain Locke in 1925. It includes Hurston’s short story ‘‘Spunk,’’ and it is a superb way to enter the literary world of the time.
In his controversial history, Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987), Houston A. Baker Jr contends that the Harlem Renaissance is unfairly judged by the standards of European modernism and instead should be seen in the light of its own rich discourse.
The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (1994) provides an excellent range of the accessible and sensitive poet who went on from Hurston’s group of friends to become possibly the most celebrated black writer of the century.
The one published issue of the magazine...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Du Bois, W. E. B., ‘‘The Creative Impulse,’’ in The ‘‘Crisis’’ Writings, Fawcett Publications, 1972, pp. 286–88.
Hemenway, Robert E., Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, Camden Press, 1986, pp. 41–50, 70–73, 148; originally published by the University of Illinois Press, 1977.
Hughes, Langston, and Zora Neale Hurston, Mule Bone: A Comedy on Negro Life in Three Acts, Perennial Press, 1991, pp. 1–2.
Hurston, Zora Neale, The Complete Stories, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr., HarperCollins, 1995, pp. 73–85.
———, Dust Tracks on a Road, Harper & Row, 1984, p. 206; originally published by J. B. Lippincott, 1942.
Locke, Alain, ‘‘Negro Youth Speaks,’’ in The New Negro, edited by Alain Locke, Atheneum, 1968, p. 50; originally published by Albert & Charles Boni, 1925.
Lowe, John, Jump at the Sun: Zora Neale Hurston’s Cosmic Comedy, University of Illinois Press, 1994, p. 74.
Croft, Robert W., A Zora Neale Hurston Companion, Greenwood Press, 2002. This indexed overview considers Hurston’s literary career as a whole and provides a useful reference source for examining the author’s short fiction in relation to her other writings.
Gates, Henry L., Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, Amistad...
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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.
Grant, Nathan. Masculinist Impulses: Toomer, Hurston, Black Writing, and Modernity. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004.
Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977. Reprint. London: Camden Press, 1986.
Hill, Lynda Marion. Social Rituals and the Verbal Art of Zora Neale Hurston. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1996.
Hurston, Lucy Anne. Speak, So You Can Speak Again: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Doubleday, 2004.
Jones, Sharon L. Rereading the Harlem Renaissance: Race, Class, and Gender in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, and Dorothy...
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