What is the significance of the men on the porch in the short story "Sweat" and what do they offer?

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The men on Jim Clarke's porch are relatively dispassionate observers of Delia's life and marriage. They fulfill a function similar to that of the chorus in Greek drama, commenting on the action and guiding and informing the views of the audience. As idle men of a similar background, one might...

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expect them to have some sympathy with Sykes, but his brutal conduct to Delia puts him beyond their sympathy and their poor opinion of him reinforces the reader's disgust at his sadism. Almost as soon as they are introduced, one of them says:

Syke Jones aint wuth de shot an’ powder hit would tek tuh kill ’em. Not to huh he aint.

This meets with general approval and another adds that Sykes has beaten Delia enough to kill three women. One even suggests that they should kill Sykes themselves but the weather is too hot and they are too lazy. It is clear that Delia will have to take her fate into her own hands and defend herself if she is to enjoy any peace or security in the future.

The comments of the men form an important part in the long sequence of events that make the eventual death of Sykes a welcome release for everyone, quite possibly including him. Their words also make it clear that Sykes's abuse of Delia is common knowledge in the community and that no one who knows anything of their life together would seek to excuse him or regret his death.

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In Zora Neale Hurston's short story "Sweat", we meet Delia Jones, the wife of a cruel man named Skyes, to whom she has been married for 15 years. Sykes does not work, so Delia is the breadwinner; she makes her living by washing clothes for white people in town. Sykes resents Delia doing this work, so he physically and emotionally abuses her daily. The men on the porch represent the voice of the observer in the story; they know that Delia is being mistreated and they are witnesses to her suffering. Sykes is also openly cheating on Delia with a woman who has recently arrived in town. In a way, they are speaking for the entire town. They reminisce about how beautiful Delia was when she and Sykes first got married, so much so that Sykes was afraid he might lose her. They continue to discuss the countless ways in which Delia has been mistreated in her marriage and how the many beatings she has suffered at Sykes' hands have changed her appearance. The men agree that Delia is being horribly mistreated and that something should be done to help her. One of the men on the porch, Lindsay, says:

“There oughter be a law about him. He aint fit tuh carry guts tuh a bear.”

Another man on the porch, Clark, has this to say:

“Taint no law on earth dat kin make a man be decent if it aint in ‘im....We oughter take Syke an’ dat stray ‘oman uh his’n down in Lake Howell swamp an’ lay on de rawhide till they cain’t say Lawd a’ mussy."

Although the men clearly respect Delia and understand her predicament, they are merely observers; they are only here to comment on the situation, not to act. It is clear that Delia must be the one to take action and to be responsible for her own fate.

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The men on the porch function as background information for the reader and also serve to show the feelings of the town about the relationship between Delia and Sykes.

The men let the reader know that Sykes beat Delia. He beat her physically, and he changed her entire look and attitude during their marriage; one of the men says he beat her enough to kill three women. They talk about the negative character of Sykes and the positive views they have of Delia.

By showing the men discussing Sykes and Delia, Zora Neal Hurston shows that his behavior in the first scene is akin to his normal behavior and not an aberration. When the reader knows the conclusions they've drawn about Sykes and Delia are valid, they can be comfortable with Sykes' fate and the decisions Delia makes. The reader can see that even the people in town think that Sykes doesn't necessarily deserve to live.

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The men on the porch in "Sweat" function the same way that a Greek chorus does; they express the point of view of the people of the town and express the conscience of the town. They state how worthy Delia is and how cruelly Sykes has treated her. They also voice the opinion that Sykes is unworthy of his wife and is horribly arrogant. They believe that Sykes has mistreated Delia and is even worthy of being killed for his cruelty to his wife. The chorus functions as a kind of omniscient narrator. Even though the reader knows that Delia dislikes Sykes, the men on the porch convey the point of view that everyone in the town dislikes Sykes and that he deserves punishment. The author puts these men into the story so that Sykes's murder at the hands of the snake that Delia finds in her laundry basket seems justified.

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