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 Gethsemane and up the rocks of Calvary.” On returning home from church on the fatal Sunday evening, Delia sings of the River Jordan that “Chills de body, not de soul.” The sacramental experience has begun her resurrection. (Another “cold river,” the poison of the snake, destroys both Sykes’s body and his soul.) Delia’s actual resurrection, however, comes in another symbolic place, the barn behind the house, clearly a reminder of the stable. There she ends her suffering and momentarily achieves peace.
Even the structure of the story at first seems to insist on a Christian salvation. It begins on a Sunday and the final act begins on another Sunday. Delia’s symbolic rebirth in the barn comes before Sykes’s death on Sunday evening. In fact, however, consistent with the psychological turn already noted, Hurston adds a twist to the symbolism in the final paragraph, for the real ending to the story comes not on Sunday, but on Monday morning. Life is not over for Delia. She must bear up under the knowledge that Sykes still had hope. The sun has revealed to Sykes signs that Delia had returned home and that she was close by watching. Though it seems clear that Delia is helpless—the doctors are too far away, and her fear of snakes keeps her from entering the house—the torment of imagining Sykes’s plaintive and accusing eye in the final moment of life gives the closing statement of the story the psychological horror of the macabre rather than the peace of resurrection. On that symbolic Monday morning, the agony of the Passion continues. The Passion is not simply a biblical story; it is human experience.