What are Zora Neale Hurston's "Sweat" and Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” teaching in these stories?

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Zora Neale Hurston and Jamaica Kincaid, both black women writers, give advice to their potential readers. Each writer comes from a different background and time period, yet both writers offer advice for every woman who reads their stories.  The story “Sweat” by Hurston addresses the problems faced by woman with an abusive husband; and “Girl” by Kincaid provides advice for the woman who needs to understand how to behave and protect her reputation.                                                  

Delia, in Hurston’s story, works hard as a wash woman to support herself and pay for her house.   Stokes, her husband of fifteen years, takes advantage of his wife by spending her money.  Delia first received a beating from Stokes after three months of marriage; he has continued to physically and emotionally abuse her.  Stokes now has a mistress that he flaunts around town.

Stokes wants Delia to leave so he can bring his mistress home. Stokes’ plans turn sinister.  He knows that Delia is frightened of snakes; he brings home a rattlesnake in a cage.  Delia is scared and tells him to get rid of it. He refuses. 

One night, Stokes puts the snake in her washbaskets which she sees before she sticks her hand in. She leaves the house and stays in the front yard.   He comes home and goes in the house.  The snake and he meet with Stokes losing the battle.  Delia cannot help him nor would she if she could. 

Hurston’s lesson for her readers illustrates how far can a person be pushed before she strikes back.  Abuse in any form is never “all right.” Delia fought back in the only way that she knew to end her suffering.

Kincaid’s brief story renders advice from a mother to daughter. The mother and daughter are from Antigua whose culture sees the female role as one of subservience to men.  The mother tries to forestall problems that she knows her daughter will face in a male dominated world.

The daughter shows respect for her mother as she listens to the harsh, accusatory voice of her mother.  The mother tries to mold her daughter into a responsible woman. It is important to note that no mention is made of a job, career, or education because this is not in the future for the Antiguan woman. 

Her advice demonstrates the responsibilities of a woman in this culture with how to cook, clean, garden, use manners, walk, talk and behave.  The daughter has behaved inappropriately with men so her mother speaks not only with a cautionary voice  but a derogatory one as well. The mother gives instructions about having an abortion:

“…this is how to make good medicine to throw away a child before it becomes a child; this is how a man bullies you; this is how to bully a man.”

From her advice, the reader also learns that the Antiguan women have learned how to manipulate the male/female roles.  She also addresses the problem of abuse between the sexes and how to handle it. Ultimately, the mother’s advice centers on not what the girl knows but what kind of woman that she becomes.

Both stories deal with the black woman and the circumstances in which she finds herself.  Delia stands up to her husband because she knows that is the only way that she will be free.  In the story by Kincaid, the mother knows the kind of life that her daughter is facing.  By giving her this advice, she may keep her daughter from losing her own identity and becoming a “slut” in a culture that has a narrow slot for respectable women.



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