How does the authors decision to open up the “Bull Whip” scene contribute to the overall meaning of the story "Sweat"?

The author's decision to open with the "Bull Whip" scene contributes to the overall meaning of the story "Sweat" by revealing Delia showing courage and agency for the first time in her marriage. This contributes to the overall meaning of the story by foreshadowing how Delia will refuse to save Sykes from the poisonous snake bite at the story's end.

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Placing the “Bull Whip” scene at the beginning of the story contributes to characterization and setting and provides foreshadowing for subsequent developments. Zora Neale Hurston first introduces Delia, an organized, hard-working woman. An immediate contrast is presented to her husband. The casual masochism of Sykes’s personality is established by his “prank” of using the whip to imitate a snake. Even though he does not actually strike or threaten her with the whip, he laughs at his wife and insults her as “a big fool.” Delia’s reaction and exclamation clearly convey her fear of snakes, thereby foreshadowing her later reaction when Sykes dares to bring a real snake into the house.

Another contrast in their personalities, which come across as incompatible, is offered by his negative attitude toward her work. He not only disapproves, but actually tries to hinder her progress, kicking at the laundry that she must wash and threatening to kick it out of the house. As Delia’s calmness is emphasized, their dialogue also indicates that this pattern of interaction is the norm, not the exception, in their lives. It is stated that he usually hits her.

As the scene progresses, the idea is introduced that Delia has reached a turning point. When he does threaten to strike her in the head with his fist, she objects and defies him. “Delia's habitual meekness seemed to slip from her shoulders,” and the “little” woman defies the “strapping hulk” that is her husband. She even “seized the iron skillet from the stove and struck a defensive pose.” As the scene concludes, Sykes leaves the house. His opinion of his wife has changed. “A little awed by this new Delia” at this point, he will later be not only shocked, but actually killed by her behavior.

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Early in the story, Hurston writes:

Just then something long, round, limp and black fell upon her shoulders and slithered to the floor beside her. A great terror took hold of her. It softened her knees and dried her mouth so that it was a full minute before she could cry out or move. Then she saw that it was the big bull whip her husband liked to carry when he drove.

This shows from the start that Sykes will use the weapons he has at hand to try to control Delia. A snake or a whip are one and the same to him, because they are both agents of terror and mastery.

Sykes oppresses Delia to feel better about himself as an unemployed Black man unable to get ahead in the racist South of his time period. He has little control over his life, so he torments Delia because he can.

However, the bull whip scene is significant because in it, Delia fights back against him for the first time. Scaring her with the whip and then scattering and dirtying her laundry become the final straws after fifteen years of putting up with his abuse:

Delia's habitual meekness seemed to slip from...

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her shoulders like a blown scarf. She was on her feet; her poor little body, her bare knuckly hands bravely defying the strapping hulk before her.

Sykes insults and abuses her work doing laundry for white people seven days a week because it reminds him of their humiliating situation in a racist society. Yet Delia, fighting back, tells him that it is her "sweat," a life of almost endless toil, that keeps him fed and housed. She defends herself from him with an "iron skillet," and he is intimidated, so he does not hit her as he usually would.

Delia's newfound voice and courage after the encounter with the bullwhip foreshadow the same agency she will show when she doesn't save Sykes from the snake bite at the story's end.

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The scene with the bull-whip is important as it tells us a lot about Delia's abusive relationship with Sykes. It also gives us an insight into Delia's tenacity as a woman, and how she's not prepared to let anyone drive her out of her own home.

Sykes wants Delia out of the way so he can install his mistress Bertha in her place. No amount of bullying or cajoling has succeeded so far, so Sykes resorts to outright trickery to be rid of his wife. He knows that Delia's absolutely terrified of snakes, so he lays a bull-whip across her shoulders to make her think there's a snake crawling across her back. Delia almost jumps out of her skin; but she won't back down. She paid for the marital home with the sweat of her labor and she'll be damned if anyone's going to drive her out.

Snakes are traditionally a symbol of evil, and Sykes later brings a real live one—a six-foot rattlesnake, no less—into the home to try and scare off Delia. But his wicked plan backfires spectacularly when the highly venomous creature bites and kills him. So once could see the bull-whip scene as foreshadowing this event.

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