Discuss how gender relations are constructed between washerwoman, Delia Jones and her abusive, wayward husband, Sykes. How does Delia Jones learn the act of self-defense in her marriage?
Unlike the other African American writers of the period, Zora Neale Hurston focuses on gender more than race. As the woman, Delia is the center of the home, ultimately responsible for stereotypical female jobs: cooking and cleaning. The first image of her is her bend over clothes as she "sorted and put the white things to soak" on Sunday night. Sykes then moves into a stereotypical "male" postion as he tries to enforce the rules of the household, telling her about her habit of working ont he Sabbath, "Ah done promised Gawd and a coule of other men, Ah ain't gointer have it in mah house." He tries to control her, and when the author says "Delia's habitual meekness seemed to slip from her shoulders like a blown scarf," she makes it clear that Delia usually allows Sykes to take that role as head of household.
The men in town also see the world in terms of men's work and women's work. Walkter Thomas points out that, "He useter be so skeered uh losi' huh, she could make him do some parts of a husband's duty." This clearly demonstrates that they believe that men and women both have particular roles to fulfill.
Delia, however, has to learn to defend herself when her husband fails to meet his obligations as her husband. Even the men in town consider taking Sykes and the woman with whom he's cheating and laying "on de rawhide till they cain't say Lawd a'mussy." However, Delia only turns to self-protection when Sykes breaks the most basic "masculine" rule to protect the family. When she comes home to find the snake out of the box, she felt "a new hope" that he had changed. Only after she found the snake in her basket in a clear attempt to murder her did she decide to allow Sykes to step into the trap.