Why do you think Sykes dislikes skinny women like Delia? Why does he like fat women like Bertha? What could this tell you about his character?
In Zora Neale Hurston’s short story “Sweat” (1926), an astute remark by a tertiary character sheds much light on Sykes’ attitude towards the skinniness and amplitude of women.
Clarke spoke for the first time. “Taint no law on earth dat kin make a man be decent if it aint in ‘im. There’s plenty men dat takes a wife lak dey do a joint uh sugar-cane. It’s round, juicy an’ sweet when dey gits it. But dey squeeze an’ grind, squeeze an’ grind an’ wring tell dey wring every drop uh pleasure dat’s in ’em out. When dey’s satisfied dat dey is wrung dry, dey treats ’em jes lak dey do a cane-chew. Dey throws em away. Dey knows whut dey is doin’ while dey is at it, an’ hates theirselves fuh it but they keeps on hangin’ after huh tell she’s empty. Den dey hates huh fuh bein’ a cane-chew an’ in de way.”
The village men are gathered chewing cane on Joe Clarke’s porch, watching washerwoman Delia, the wife Sykes physically abuses, pass by with her load of laundry. Delia’s hard work and mistreatment at the hands of Sykes, as well as Sykes’ preference for voluptuous women, are all common knowledge in their village. Looking at Delia, the men wonder why Sykes is so obsessed with his new girlfriend, Bertha, who is often described as “fat.”
In the context, Clarke notes that Sykes is the kind of man who likes to squeeze the life-juice out of a wife. Unknowingly, Clarke has his finger on Sykes’ pulse. Sykes’ desire for “fat” women is tied up with his mistreatment of his wife. She too was “round, juicy an’ sweet,” when he wedded her, but with his constant financial and physical abuse, he has chewed up Delia like sugarcane and spat her out. It is because of Sykes’ unemployed state that Delia takes up the laundry of white people, working round the clock. Yet despite the role Sykes himself has played in Delia becoming skinny, he routinely mocks her physicality, humiliating her.
“Ah’m sho’ tiahed uh you hangin’ ontuh me. Ah don’t want yuh. Look at yuh stringey ole neck! Yo’ rawbony laigs an’ arms is enough tuh cut uh man tuh death. You looks jes’ lak de devvul’s doll-baby tuh me.”
Sykes' revulsion for Delia’s “stringey” neck and skinny form symbolizes that she is like used-up chew for him. Drained of juice and joy, she ceases to exist for him. Bertha, on the other hand, in her amplitude symbolizes a fresh source of energy for him—a new, juicy cane to chew. Thus, Sykes comes across as a quasi-vampire like figure, looking to drain women of vitality.
Sykes' obsession with women’s bodies also shows that this is all women represent for him. Early in the story, Delia observes that what Sykes brought into their marriage was a “longing after the flesh.” Whether it be through lusting to beat up Delia’s flesh or possessing Bertha’s corpulent body, Sykes cannot look behind the physicality of women. Therefore, he is shown to be a superficial and cruel man, consumed by his basest desires.