In "Sweat" by Zora Neale Hurston, what is Sykes’s objection to “white folks’ clothes” being in the house?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In “Sweat ,” Sykes takes any opportunity to abuse and argue with Delia, and it is often difficult to tell whether his constant complaints are based on genuine anger or a desire to cause trouble. They often seem to be a mixture of the two. Hurston describes him early...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

In “Sweat,” Sykes takes any opportunity to abuse and argue with Delia, and it is often difficult to tell whether his constant complaints are based on genuine anger or a desire to cause trouble. They often seem to be a mixture of the two. Hurston describes him early in the story as “hoping, praying for an argument.” This is immediately after he tells Delia:

Ah done tole you time and again to keep them white folks’ clothes outa dis house.

Sykes claims that he particularly objects to the clothes being in the house on Sunday. He says it is hypocritical of Delia to go to church, then return home to work on the Sabbath. He says that he has promised God “and a couple of other men” that he will not have “it” in his house, though he does not specify whether “it” refers to washing in general, washing on Sunday, or washing the clothes of white people.

Sykes is always kicking the laundry, grinding dirt into it and making Delia’s job as hard as possible. He seems to equate the whiteness of the laundry with the whiteness of the people for whom Delia is washing it, a connection which exacerbates his anger:

He stepped roughly upon the whitest pile of things, kicking them helter-skelter as he crossed the room.

Apart from the promise Sykes mentions and the hypocrisy of a Christian working on the Sabbath, he seems to see Delia’s menial work for white people as an affront to his dignity and a sign of their low status. This is symbolized by the presence of white people’s laundry in the house.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

An objection that Sykes has to Delia bringing home the clothes of white people to work on is that he sees it as going against the Sabbath, a day when no one is supposed to work. He feels that Delia is being hypocritical by attending church services in the day and then doing white people's laundry at night, as that goes against their religious way of life. Throughout the story, we see that Delia works long hours every day to financially support them and that going to church is her only leisure time each week. Yet Sykes still feels that Delia isn't following their religion correctly and does everything possible to bother her while she is working, such as dirtying the freshly clean laundry. Delia does her best to follow her faith even though she is in a terrible financial circumstance, yet Sykes refuses to understand her reasoning.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Sykes is an angry black man who resents whites. White people's laundry in the house seems to encapsulate for him the way whites have structured a social system that compels blacks to do their dirty work in order to earn the money they need to survive. Sykes seems particularly resentful of the pile of white clothing Delia has sorted, kicking it around and making it dirtier, to her great chagrin.

Sykes tells Delia he has vowed to God and some of his male friends that he won't have white people's laundry in his house. Although he doesn't say so, he seems angry at the constant reminders of white exploitation intruding into his domestic space.

From Delia's point of view, Sykes is a sadist (which is the case) who does little to support the family. Without her income doing laundry, the couple would have trouble affording food.

Delia's pragmatism wins out. Sykes' brutality and shiftlessness make him an unsympathetic character (and though Hurston was black, played into negative stereotypes of blacks most black writers were trying to dispel). Delia's hard work and good sense cause us to sympathize strongly with her even though Sykes surely has legitimate cause to be resentful.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This is a good question! As you read through Zora Neale Hurston's short story "Sweat," you notice that Sykes gets angry at his wife Delia for having "white folks' clothes" in their home. (She makes her living by doing laundry for her white clients.) He tells her, in a frustrated manner, that he's reminded her before to not bring white people's clothes into their home. But Sykes doesn't say right away why he resents this. As readers, we wonder why Sykes cares whose clothes come into the house--after all, his wife's laundry work is supporting them, so shouldn't he be grateful or at least neutral toward his wife's customers and their belongings?

It's a few paragraphs later when Skyes finally reveals his problem with his wife bringing the white people's laundry home. First, he accuses her of being a religious hypocrite who works on the Sabbath day even after attending church services. But more to the point, he says that he's promised God (and some of his friends, too) that he'll never have white people's clothes in his home:

"Ah don't keer if you never git through. Anyhow, Ah done promised Gawd and a couple of other men, Ah aint gointer have it in mah house."

Sykes, a proud man who eschews the company of whites, means that Delia is annoying him, possibly degrading him and making him look foolish to his friends, by performing this lowly service (laundry) for white people. 

Of course, Sykes's objection to Delia's work reveals more about his character than hers: he paints himself as someone unreasonable, proud, and downright villainous. Keep in mind that he's openly cheating on Delia, and Delia is the one whose work supports Sykes, so why should he have any say whatsoever in how she does that work?

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team