Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Hurston’s story derives from the black folk tradition that she first came to know in her hometown, the black community of Eatonville, Florida. Christianity was a part of that tradition; her father was a Baptist preacher. Even after her years of study under anthropologist Franz Boas, her fieldwork as an anthropologist collecting folklore among her own people and in the Caribbean, and the consequent influence of Voodoo on her thinking, Christianity remained a living part of Hurston’s work. She continued to prefer biblical settings and stories; a character in Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) calls the Bible a “hoodoo” book. “Sweat,” one of her earliest stories, records her thinking before the Voodoo period. It assumes a Christian cosmology, as yet unmodified by Voodoo traditions, but adapted to the perceptions of a folk culture—that of poor blacks in the American South.
Hurston’s theme of extreme love and extreme hate within the black family acquires, in the story “Sweat,” the magnitude of a cosmic struggle between good and evil, God and Satan. The central principle, which almost has the force of a moral, Hurston pronounces through the voice of Delia: “Whatever goes over the Devil’s back, is got to come under his belly. Sometime or ruther, Sykes, like everybody else, is gointer reap his sowing.” Faith in a Providence that will reward good and punish evil is a refuge of people who on earth know nothing but suffering.
Within the religious scheme of this fictional world, Sykes is the representative of those who defy the Christian God. He rebels against the principles of love and compassion, and, hence, his soul becomes hardened. A proud, vengeful creature, he is already damned. He cannot see goodness in...
(The entire section is 715 words.)
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