What is Hurston's purpose in using a snake as a symbol?

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The main character of "Sweat," Delia, has a fear of snakes. Her husband, Sykes, uses her fear against her by telling her his whip is a snake. Sykes uses this power to show that he feels he is dominant over Delia. Later in the story, Sykes traps Delia in their house with a rattlesnake which he has caught. The snake eventually bites Sykes, resulting in his death.

In some cultures, snakes have long been a symbol of malevolence and treachery. In others, they symbolize rebirth and fertility. The snakes used in "Sweat" may symbolize both of these ideas. Malevolence is shown by Sykes using the snake to scare her, and rebirth is shown when Sykes is killed by the snake. His attempt to hurt Delia using the rattlesnake causes his own death, in turn allowing Delia to move forward without him and his torturous ways.

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In Zora Neale Hurston's story "Sweat," the snake—both real and fake—is a prominent element in the plot. When Delia's husband, Sykes, comes home one day, he pretends his whip is a snake to scare her because he knows she's deathly afraid of snakes. Later, to torment her even more, he brings home a snake in a soap box. She screams when she sees it and doesn't understand how her husband can be so mean. When the snake winds up biting Sykes, he dies while Delia waits outside.

In this story, the snake symbolizes evil and treachery. Hurston uses this symbol to represent Sykes's evil ways. A snake is generally a symbol of evil, from as far back as the Bible, where the snake enters the Garden of Eden and tempts Eve to try the forbidden fruit. However, by trying to harm and upset Delia with his malice, Sykes suffers at his own hand. Hurston employs irony as she incorporates the symbol of the evil snake in this story.

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