Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1167
Bertha is Sykes’s plump mistress, with whom he is openly cheating on Delia. Elijah Moseley calls her a ‘‘big black greasy Mogul’’ (this last word referring to the Muslim rulers of India between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries), a description that connotes some of the white stereotypes and
Zora Neale Hurston
racist caricatures of the time as to what kind of women were attractive to black men. Bertha has picked up a bad reputation in her previous town and carried it to Eatonville; she is bold enough, unlike Sykes’s previous mistresses, to call for him at Delia’s gate. For three months, she has been living in Della Lewis’s disreputable inn, and Delia can tell that Sykes has brought her into their house.
One of the men on the porch of Joe Clarke’s store, Dave mentions that Bertha looks like an alligator when she opens her mouth to laugh. The character of the same name in Hurston’s play Mule Bone (coauthored with Langston Hughes) is described as a ‘‘Dancer, Baptist, soft, happy-go-lucky character, slightly dumb.’’
Joe runs the general store on the main street. His character is based on the real man of the same name who ran the general store during Hurston’s childhood, and the gathering of people on this porch is an important and omnipresent element in much of her fiction. Eatonville residents gathered there to joke and gossip, but there was also philosophy, politics, and storytelling in their conversations, as Joe demonstrates in his commentary about men who abuse their wives like ‘‘a joint uh sugar-cane,’’ throwing them away when they’re finished with them.
The protagonist of the story, Delia is a washerwoman fighting to keep her house and her sanity. She is a thin woman with sagging, overworked shoulders, and she is deathly afraid of snakes, a fear that her husband cruelly exploits. ‘‘Sweat’’ marks a turning point in her life, when she has finally had enough, and the reader can notice an entirely ‘‘new Delia’’ emerging between the first time she confronts Sykes and his death.
As the men on the porch of Joe Clarke’s store remember, Delia used to be a very pretty young woman until her husband began to abuse her. It is clear from lines such as ‘‘Delia’s habitual meekness seemed to slip from her shoulders like a blown scarf’’ that she had taken his beatings, unfaithfulness, and squandering of her money without a fight for a very long time. But Delia also says to Sykes, ‘‘Ah hates you tuh de same degree dat Ah useter love yuh,’’ and the reader can infer from the vehemence of this outburst that she used to love him quite a lot before they were married fifteen years ago and his cruelty began.
The story does not describe how their marriage came to be so miserable, but Sykes is the main source of Delia’s problems. She does not complain about working so hard for white people to pay for her ‘‘lovely’’ home, and Joe Lindsay notes how she delivers the clean clothes every week without fail. Imagery like ‘‘Delia’s work-worn knees crawled over the earth in Gethsemane and up the rocks of Cavalry many, many times during these months’’ paints her as a victim, a martyr even, of intersecting oppressions, from the white community and from her husband. She has tried meekness, friendliness, and hard work to get along with Sykes and finally only wants to be left in peace to do her work, to live in the house she has worked for, and to worship on Sundays. It is only when she cannot possibly take the abuse from her husband anymore that she begins to be aggressive towards him and, as a sort of last measure, to refuse to help while he is dying.
Nevertheless, the reader is left contemplating Delia’s actions during her husband’s death. Hurston seems to emphasize that Delia is driven to this end with no alternative, but she also suggests an element of emancipation and a refusal to bow to conventional ethics in her character. This ‘‘new Delia’’ has changed quite radically, and along with her newfound freedom has come a loss of innocence.
The wife beater who is duly punished by the end of ‘‘Sweat,’’ Sykes is Delia’s husband of fifteen years. Since two months after their marriage, he has physically and verbally abused his wife, as well as frequently cheating on her and wasting her money. He is no longer attracted to skinny women and prefers his mistresses to be portly and, if his current lady is an indication, disreputable. Sykes is a prankster whose fascination with snakes leads to his death by the same creature he caught to exasperate his wife.
The men on Joe Clarke’s porch point out that there are plenty of men like Sykes who wring ‘‘every drop uh pleasure’’ out of their wives, cheat on them, and are overbearing and self-important profligates. It is possible that Sykes was not always this way, since Jim Merchant mentions that he used to be very ‘‘skeered uh losin’’ Delia when they first married. But he has become more brazen and open in his abuse even since the beginning of the story, although Delia’s finally standing up for herself seems to halt his beatings.
Some of Sykes’s characteristics, particularly his attraction to big women and his money-wasting, were common stereotypes that white people held about black men, reinforced in various racist publications during the time in which Hurston wrote the story. In fact, he embodies a great many bad traits that leaders of the Harlem Renaissance discouraged black authors from portraying, such as heavy drinking, sexual deviance, and irresponsibility. And, at moments such as Delia’s threatening to go ‘‘tuh de white folks bout you,’’ Sykes seems less demonic and more victimized himself as a result of his ignoring white value systems. Indeed, Hurston allows the reader some room to pity him in the closing moment of the story, when his neck is swollen and he has ‘‘one open eye shining with hope’’ despite the fact that his wife has left him to die.
Jim comments on Sykes’s habit of cheating and relates the time that Sykes tried to seduce his wife. Like the other men gossiping on Joe Clarke’s porch, he jokes in heavy Eatonville slang and provides some important insight into the general attitude of the town towards Delia, Sykes, and Bertha.
Elijah is the man from Joe’s porch who jeers at Sykes’s treatment of women and pesters Joe for a watermelon.
Old Man Anderson
Suggesting that the men whip and kill Sykes, Old Man Anderson does not follow through on his advice to the rest of the men on the porch.
Walter remembers that Delia used to be a pretty young woman before she married Sykes.