What is the significance of Delia being a washwoman? Why, of all professions, might Hurston have chosen this one?

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In her short story "Sweat," Zora Neale Hurston decided to make Delia a washerwoman to illustrate just how miserable and harsh her life is and has been. Her job is a metaphor for the abuse that she receives from her ruthless and unfaithful husband, Sykes. The job entails hard, physical labor and requires one to be meticulous when cleaning customers' dirty laundry. Even though the work is hard, Delia takes pride in what she does. Delia applies the same patience in doing the laundry that she displays towards Sykes. The difference is that she gets rewarded for her work while Sykes's ill-treatment has no benefit whatsoever. It becomes clear that Delia has been tolerating her husband's maltreatment for almost their entire marriage.

Hurston probably also chose this activity to demonstrate the irony in Delia's life. She cleans others' soiled laundry, but she cannot get rid of the metaphoric filth in her own. Sykes is what soils her existence and makes her unhappy. Even though she, through her labor, is solely responsible for the upkeep of their household, Sykes does not appreciate her efforts or show gratitude. He exploits her tolerance and verbally, emotionally, physically, and financially abuses her. It is a pity that she cannot rid herself of the bane in her life as she so expertly removes the dirt in her clients' laundry.

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In Zora Neale Hurston's story, Delia is compared to dirty laundry. One of the men on Joe Clarke's porch says of men's treatment of their wives, "But dey squeeze an' grind, squeeze an' grind an' wring tell dey wring every drop uh pleasure dat's in 'em out." Like Sykes, men wear down their women through mistreatment, just as laundry is put through a wringer. Delia's job involves putting clothes through a wringer, while her husband puts her through a metaphorical wringer by abusing and neglecting her. After husbands like Sykes subject their wives to this type of abuse, the husbands discard their wives when the wives are worn out and have lost their freshness and newness. In addition, Delia's job as a washerwoman is associated with water. In Christianity, water is associated with baptism and rebirth. When people are baptized, they experience a spiritual rebirth. At the end of the story, Delia experiences this kind of rebirth when Sykes is killed by the snake. The author may have made Delia a washerwoman for these reasons.

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Delia's role as a washwoman in "Sweat" is significant. The piles of clothes are symbolic as Delia attempts to organize and maintain cleanliness in her life. She takes pride in her small home and works hard to maintain what she has. Her husband, Sykes, tears down what Delia builds. He disapproves of her doing white people's laundry, yet he profits by what Delia is able to provide. He steps "roughly on the whitest pile of things, kicking them helter-skelter." Sykes steps on the pile of white clothing because he knows Delia will have to work harder to get the clothes clean. White represents cleanliness. Sykes' attempt at "grindin' dirt" into the white clothing is symbolic of the dirt and dirtiness he brings to Delia's life and home. For example, Sykes openly flaunts his girlfriend. He treats his marriage to Delia as he treats her piles of laundry.

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In Huston's story, "Sweat," the protagonist, Delia, is a washwoman. It is significant that Hurston chose this profession for Delia for several reasons. For one, it is labor-intensive work. The act of washing, drying, ironing, and folding clothes at that time involved much back-breaking labor because it was primarily done by hand. Therefore, it is clear that Delia is not afraid of hard work and will do whatever it takes to support her household. Second, the act of washing the dirt out of clothes connects with what happens with her husband Sykes. He is the dirt in her life. He mistreats her, beats her, has an open affair with another woman, and brings no money into the household. When he dies at the end by the snake he brought in to torture his wife with, the dirt has been washed out of Delia's house and her life.

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