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.
(The entire section is 715 words.)
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One of Hurston’s central preoccupations in ‘‘Sweat’’ is the problem of oppression within the black community. Sykes’s ceaseless cruelty towards his wife is by far the most difficult part of Delia’s situation, and she must seek emancipation from her tyrannical husband before she tries to address the wider system of racial inequality.
This is not to say that Hurston oversimplifies Delia’s problems; her poverty and hard work are inextricably connected with whites, for whom she must work. A major irony in the story is that Delia must work so hard to clean white people’s clothes while her own clothes are dirtied with sweat and blood. It is precisely the combination of white racism and spousal abuse that leads Delia to a level of desperation not at all uncommon amongst black women attempting to carry the burden of two forces of oppression at once. Given the reality of her social and economic situation, Delia can no longer remain indifferent to her increasingly abusive husband, as she has attempted to do for fifteen years.
The story does not provide any neat solutions; indeed, Delia’s options are quite limited. Hurston is careful to emphasize that a black washerwoman is not able to clean away the abuse of a philandering and merciless husband while following a strict and meek Christian moral code. As she must work on Sundays (against convention) in order to fulfill the heavy obligations to her white...
(The entire section is 870 words.)