In the story "Sweat" by Zora Neale Hurston, what is the theme?

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The story “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston uses the character of Delia Jones and the sweat from her hard work  for the title of the story.   Delia is a good, hardworking, religious woman who mistakenly married Sykes Jones, an abusive man fifteen years ago.

Three months after her marriage, Sykes began beating Delia.  She works as a wash woman for whites to buy her house and make a good life.  Her religion helps her through the terrible times with Sykes. 

Sykes now has a mistress that he flaunts around time.  He wants to have Delia leave their home so that he can move in his lover.  

The theme of the story comes from the conflict in the story: good versus evil.  Sykes is represented by the serpent.  Delia has a phobia about snakes so Sykes uses this fear to try to kill or minimally send her out of the house.

Sykes taunts Delia with a bull whip which looks like a snake.  She asks him to stop it.  Sykes brings home a rattlesnake in a cage.  Enraged, Delia asks him to take it away.  Sykes leaves it there. When Delia comes home from Church, she finds the snake gone. 

She begins to work on her laundry.  She discovers the snake in one of her laundry basket obviously placed there by her husband. Delia runs from the house and hides.  Later in the night, she hears Sykes come into their yard.  Then, he peers into the window to try to see if the snake has gotten to Delia. Finally, he goes into the house. 

After some noise, Delia hears Sykes scream.  He continues for a few minutes.  She looks in the door and sees Sykes whose face is unrecognizable from the many snake bites he has received.  She backs away knowing that it would do no good to try to help him. 

The snake becomes the central element in Sykes’ plot to eliminate Delia.  She is a lonely figure of moral correctness who faces the evil brought by Sykes to her doorstep. Delia exemplifies the goodness that is needed to do battle with her devil.  Delia's ability to tackle her husband's sinful nature is exemplified in her character, for there is no one more fit to do battle with evil than she.

Delia’s character demonstrates qualities necessary to defeat evil:

  • Pride in her work
  • Pleasure in her work
  • Neat and clean
  • Morally strong
  • Religiously  devout

Throughout the story, there are many religious references to suggest that Delia is fighting a moral battle.  When Sykes flaunts his mistress in the town, the author compares Jesus in the Garden of Gethesmane and Delia down on her knees working and crawling to make a living.  The allusion represents the suffering of Delia as Sykes parades his woman. 

As Delia hides, she comments on the fact that she has done the best that she could and God knows it as well.  Later, Delia speaks of her cup running over with suffering.  In the Bible, the gospels speak of Jesus and his cup of suffering.  Jesus took the cup and did not let it pass.  He bore the sins of the world and paid the price on the cross.  Her faith in God is used as a means of justice.

 “Oh, well, 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.”

Hurston places Delia’s marriage problems within the same context as Christ’s, thus she reveals that a black woman’s sacrifices and sufferings are just as striking. Her ability to endure despite her tormentors shapes the theme of morality and good defeats evil.

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