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 others and elevates himself to the role of god. In an ironic assertion of his own powers, he claims, “Ah aint got tuh do nothin’ but die,” disclaiming responsibility to anyone on earth. He brags to Bertha that “this was his town and she could have it if she wanted it.”
The reader knows where his or her sympathies ought to lie. Sykes is clearly wrong throughout the story, and Delia is right in living out the principles of Christian love, tolerance, and humility. In addition, she has those virtues closely associated with Christian principles in America, hard work and “sweat.” She earns her way in life. The ending bears out her prediction of poetic justice. God does not forget the faithful.
Nevertheless, the ending of the story struggles against a strictly Christian reading. The pattern does not go so far as to challenge the Christian order. The man who plays with snakes and defies Christian ethics is not a hero, a conjure man of another cultural order, but a villain. However, Hurston does not allow the Christian scheme to dictate the psychology of her heroine. She has Delia at last defy her husband, call him the same names that he has called her, and in the end disclaim any responsibility for him. When he is dying of poison, she feels compassion but refuses to aid him. In the sense that Sykes is pure evil, one can see this as consistent with Christian eschatology, but in the sense that he is a man, one may read it as human, female vengeance. She not only does nothing to help him but also wills his destruction. She must live with the knowledge, too, that he sees her and knows that she lets him die.
“Sweat” is thus one of many literary accounts of Christianity’s impact on the black psyche and its modifications under the stress of psychological pressures. It is also, perhaps, an indirect comment on the economic consequences of a racially split society. What is more noticeable, however, is the absence of white society. The story pits black against black. Whites are far in the background. They appear only once, in Delia’s threat to complain to them if Sykes ever beats her again. In this respect, Hurston anticipates by forty years the fiction of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison: She affirms black culture by ignoring or subordinating the white; she allows the culture to speak for itself; she subordinates the male to the female consciousness. This last characteristic in itself dictates a modification of the Christian tradition.