Delia Jones has been abused by her husband since the beginning of her marriage. In “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston, a woman strikes back against her oppressively harsh husband. Finally, he pushes her one step too far.
Delia is a sensitive, hardworking woman who washes clothes for the white people in a nearby town. She takes great pride in her work. Delia lives in an all-black town called Eatonville, Florida. She goes to church and comes home and works. Her work week begins after church on Sunday. On the other hand, her husband Sykes does not work.
Often, he degrades her job which provides the money for the house that they live in. Suddenly, tired of his verbal abuse, Delia screams at Sykes reminding him about how hard she works. To emphasize her point, she picks up an iron skillet from the stove with the intention of striking him. This shocks Sykes because his wife is normally non-aggressive.
Sykes squires his mistress around town and humiliates Delia. He wants Delia out of the house, so he can move his lover into the home. Sykes knows Delia’s greatest fear is snakes. He will use this as the ploy to try to get rid of his wife any way that he can.
Sykes begins by wrapping a bullwhip around the neck of Delia. This scares her because it looks like a snake. Later, he comes in telling Delia that he has gotten something for her. It is a rattlesnake in a wire cage. Sykes has fed it, so it is not moving. Delia tells him to get it out of the house; however, he refuses saying that it is his pet.
The snake stays for three days. Finally, Delia gives Sykes a warning. When she gets back from church, the snake needs to be gone, or she will tell the white folks about it. When Delia comes home, the snake is gone. Delia is relieved until she goes in to sort the clothes to wash. There she finds the snake placed in one of her wash tubs by Sykes.
Delia runs from the house and waits in the yard. Late in the night, Sykes comes home. He gets rid of the snake’s cage. He goes into the house making a lot of noise. The snake bites him several times. Delia does not help Sykes. There is really nothing that she can or will do to help him.
Through the incidences concerning the snake, Delia attains an empowerment. Delia represents all women who face the hardship of living with an abusive spouse. It took her many years to stand up against him. When she threatens Sykes, surprisingly he had to use an outside force to hurt her. He wanted her dead but with impunity. The table is turned on Sykes:
She saw him on his hands and knees as soon as she reached the door. He crept an inch or two toward her—all that he was able, and she saw his horribly swollen neck and his one open eye shining with hope. ...she waited in the growing heat while inside she knew the cold river was creeping up and up to extinguish the eye…
Now the reader knows that she will survive. Sykes will not survive, and it is because of the choices that he made. After all the years of emotional and physical abuse, Delia will go on and prosper through her spirituality and determination. Nothing will hold her back now.