How does Zora Neale Hurston handle women's problems in "Sweat"?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Zora Neale Hurston’s story “Sweat” takes place in Eatonville, Florida, an all-black town. Hurston knew this town well since it is where she spent the first twelve years of her life.  This story addresses several problems that women may have to face: abuse [both physical and emotional]; working to support the family; phobias; menial jobs; and adultery.

Delia Jones had been married to Sykes for fifteen years.  After three months of marriage, Sykes began to beat Delia. From the beginning, he was verbally abusive. It was 1926, and Delia had few options but to keep on working and hope that Sykes would leave her alone.

As a washerwoman, Delia worked for the white people who lived across the railroad tracks. She had a system.  She picked up the clothes on Friday; she sorted and spot cleaned the laundry after church on Sunday night which gave her a  head start when she began washing on Monday morning. She worked hard because she was buying the house where she lived.  It would be hers.  This was her goal in life: to own her own home. It was hard work and her body showed the wear for it.

Sykes made fun of her job.  He did not work, so he essentially lived off Delia’s work.  Sykes also had a goal: to get rid of Delia and move his latest mistress in the house for which Delia was paying. He did not hide his affair from Delia nor anyone else.  Sykes was not a nice man.

Delia pushed back her plate and got up from the table. 'Ah hates you, Sykes,' she said calmly. 'Ah hates you tuh de same degree dat Ah useter love yuh. Ah done took an' took till mah belly is full up tuh mah neck.  Ah don't wantuh see yuh 'roun' me atall. Lay 'roun' wid dat 'oman all yuh wants tuh, but gwan 'way fum me an' mah house. Ah hates yuh lak uh suck-egg dog.'"

Delia had a phobia.  She hated snakes.  Lately, Sykes carried a bull whip which looked like a snake; he threw it on Delia, and she screamed thinking that it was a snake. The next day, Sykes brought home a rattlesnake in a cage. The snake was fed so it did not move or make noises.  Delia told him to get rid of it, but Sykes kept it.

Eventually, Sykes went too far.  He put the snake in the laundry baskets. Luckily, Delia saw the snake before it saw her. She ran out of the house and hid in the darkness. Soon, Sykes sneaked up to the house.  He destroyed the cage to keep from having any evidence of the snake.

Sykes entered the house.  Delia heard some sounds and then some screams.  She knew what had happened. Sykes and the rattlesnake met and Sykes lost the battle.  Peering in through the screen door, Delia saw Sykes: eye swollen, face swollen, arm swollen, and breathing difficult.  He looked up and saw Delia and asked her to help him.

There was nothing that she could do for Sykes.  It was too late for him.  But Delia’s life had just started.

Facing problems that many women face, Delia stayed with her dream. She suffered at the hands of her husband; on the other hand, Delia won the battle of the genders.