Within The Political Climate
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‘‘Sweat’’ is an intriguing story in terms of what it is ‘‘supposed’’ to be about, especially in its treatment of racial issues. The key piece of a magazine eager to defy the Harlem Renaissance artistic agenda, the story would have been expected to exercise its artistic freedom and break the taboos of leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois. Hurston had certainly grown irritated with the pressure from Du Bois and Alain Locke, her former mentor, to write with politics in mind. As she later wrote in Dust Tracks on a Road, ‘‘from what I had read and heard, Negroes were supposed to write about the Race Problem. I was and am thoroughly sick of the subject.’’ Given this sentiment, one might even expect her to have made a particular effort to spite Du Bois’s politicized view of art and write something that would be offensive to the Harlem Renaissance leadership.
And there is evidence that ‘‘Sweat’’ does defy Du Bois’s agenda, since it is the story of a conflict between an abusive black man and his wife, one that results in the wife’s standing by while her husband dies. As far as the black literary elite in Harlem was concerned, authors were supposed to play down interracial problems and instead help to achieve a unity of purpose and direction for the ideal of the New Negro. In 1925, Locke wrote in the New Negro that Hurston and her peers ‘‘have no thought of their racy folk types as typical of anything but themselves or of their being taken or mistaken as racially representative.’’ This comment actually comes out of an essay that considers this ignorance a positive sign for the newly developing black consciousness and their unprecedented freedom to write what they wish, but Locke remains condescending towards authors who choose to place the race in this light. One would expect him to find a story like ‘‘Sweat’’ inappropriate and counterproductive to the goals of his movement.
Du Bois, who, unlike Locke, never claimed to be exclusively interested in ‘‘art for art’s sake,’’ was even more condemnatory of stories with plots he considered unflattering to African Americans. Describing the obligations of black writers to the New Negro movement, Du Bois describes the important political influence of black artists in his article ‘‘The Creative Impulse,’’ proclaiming, ‘‘Thus all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists.’’ Locke was irritated when literature displayed poor, uneducated blacks, which (he felt) reinforced stereotypes and impeded progress, but Du Bois was irate, especially if they reflected some of the common white stereotypes against blacks. Du Bois was also more specific about the stereotypes to avoid, writing that whites want to see ‘‘Uncle Toms, Topsies, good ‘darkies’ and clowns’’ and that black writers should refuse to give them anything that could be construed as such.
So it is difficult to see how these black leaders could fail to condemn ‘‘Sweat.’’ Sykes in particular has many of the ‘‘folk’’ characteristics of which Locke disapproved, such as a preference for larger women and a problem with wasting money, which many whites placed on blacks as a race. And Du Bois might even have seen Delia as an ‘‘Uncle Tom,’’ which refers to the servile title character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel and came to be used as a label for blacks who tried to emulate or gain favor with whites. Indeed, Delia says she does not mind dirtying her black skin with sweat and blood in order to clean the clothes of white people, and she actually tells Sykes ‘‘Ah’m goin’ tuh de white folks bout you, mah young man, de very nex’ time you lay yo’ han’s on me.’’ One would expect Du Bois to be particularly angry that Delia, in a way, carries out this warning, leaving Sykes to his death so she can be left to earn her living as a diligent servant of whites.
In reality, however, Locke and Du Bois ignored the story. Locke made only two short and conflicting references to the entire Fire!! magazine, and Du Bois did not even mention it. There was some very negative criticism from Benjamin Brawley, a prominent academic and black leader, but the major players in Harlem Renaissance leadership did not appear to be offended enough to comment.
They could have been purposefully ignoring ‘‘Sweat’’ and the rest of the magazine because they were worried about attracting attention to it, but this does not explain why the Crisis, the NAACP journal edited by Du Bois, made a brief and positive announcement of the magazine’s publication. It is more likely that Hurston’s short story did not offend Du Bois or Locke because it had more in common with the spirit of the movement than she and her fellow editors of Fire!! would have liked to admit. Indeed, a closer look at the thematic implications of ‘‘Sweat’’ reveals, ironically, that it can be read as an allegory for the birth of the New Negro that is distinctly in line with the conception of Locke and Du Bois. To illustrate this point, it is necessary to examine Delia’s moral journey, concentrating on the values she denies and gains, and revealing how she comes to be what the black leaders actually meant by a ‘‘New Negro.’’
It is clear that ‘‘Sweat’’ is about some kind of birth. The story is heavily allusive to the Garden of Eden in the Bible, complete with the snake of temptation, and Delia is, in a sense, reborn at the end of the story with a radically different life view. This birth is not a straightforward representation of the Bible, however; it is complicated by other biblical references to the life of Jesus (‘‘over the earth in Gethsemane and up the rocks of Calvary’’) and to the journey of the nation of Israel under Joshua (‘‘Ah wantah cross Jurden in uh calm time’’), by which Hurston begins to develop an allegory of the birth and emancipation of a people that mixes and matches biblical stories suitable for her goals.
In fact, in the role of the prophet or deliverer, Delia undergoes a process of reinterpreting biblical authority, just as she reinterprets the religious custom of not working on the Sabbath, in order to provide herself a realistic and original solution to her difficult life. For example, she reinterprets the ‘‘awful calm’’ she finds after nearly being killed by the snake into the ‘‘calm time’’ for crossing the Jordan, and she reassigns the meaning of her sweaty hard work for white people, in a way, in order to baptize her followers, because a prophet always has followers, in the ‘‘salty stream that had been pressed from her heart,’’ the baptismal font of her sweat. But perhaps the clearest example is her reversal of the story of the Garden of Eden by refusing to act in the passive role of Eve and turning the symbol of abusive male power, the snake, against itself.
The allegorical lesson of ‘‘Sweat,’’ then, must consist of the value system that Delia gains from this process of reinterpretation and rebirth. And, this is where the story’s biblical imagery and allegory connect specifically to the prevailing concept of the New Negro.
The principle value system Delia denies and from which she leads her people away is that of Sykes and his abusive, phallic sexuality associated with the snake. By the end of the story, Delia has not simply retained her ‘‘triumphant indifference to all that he was or did’’; she has actively and violently allowed what ‘‘goes over the Devil’s back’’ to ‘‘come under his belly.’’ And her vehement rejection is not just of Sykes’s abuse; it is of all ‘‘he was or did’’—his laziness, his preference for large women, his money-wasting, and his prankster pleasureseeking— all of which are symbols of the discriminatory white stereotypes of blacks and the ‘‘folk type’’ that so irritated Locke. Under this allegorical interpretation, the whole point of ‘‘Sweat’’ is to reject the value system of the ‘‘old’’ Negro and start anew. Perhaps this accounts for Locke’s indifference to Fire!! Its feature piece seems superficially offensive but actually reinforces basic New Negro ideology, such as the importance of entering a new cosmopolitan moral system and denying the folk values that Harlem Renaissance leadership considered detrimental to the image of the race.
It is important to note, however, that ‘‘Sweat’’ also considers the negative consequences of this New Negro rebirth. From the story’s treatment of white oppression, for example, it is clear that Hurston is worried about the predominance of Du Bois and Locke’s artistic agenda. In rejecting Sykes, Delia is also rejecting a philosophy that, albeit violent and abusive, refuses white oppression as her own does not. When Sykes says, ‘‘Ah done tole you time and again to keep them white folks’ clothes outa dis house,’’ he is demonstrating independence from white capitalist (and exploitative) values, unlike his wife, and Hurston is sympathetic to this. The critic John Lowe even suggests in his book Jump at the Sun that the story laments and condemns Sykes’s indirect murder. By this logic, Hurston’s allegory of the rise of New Negro philosophy is somewhat ironic or at least ambivalent.
Nevertheless, Hurston’s ambivalence about the process she is allegorizing does not prevent her, like Delia, from allowing Sykes’s ideology to destroy itself. The reader, and the author, ultimately side with Delia, and the allegory of ‘‘Sweat’’ overturns sympathy with the ‘‘old’’ Negro. Hurston’s political statement is subtle about what it affirms, but it does ultimately reinforce the New Negro politics of Locke and Du Bois.
Source: Scott Trudell, Critical Essay on ‘‘Sweat,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2004.
Socioeconomics In Selected Short Stories
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Even more than ‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits,’’ ‘‘Sweat’’ exposes gender oppression by revealing the plight of women in a sexist society. The protagonist, Delia, works long hours washing laundry for white customers, whose economic privilege is contrasted with Delia’s economic status: not only can she not afford to hire someone to wash her laundry, but she must also wash wealthy people’s laundry to provide for herself. While the story demonstrates the disparity of wealth between the wealthy Winter Park whites and the poor Eatonville blacks, the main plot of the story does not center on this form of economic exploitation, but rather upon how Delia’s husband, Sykes, exploits her. Ironically, throughout the course of the story, sweat signifies Delia’s exploited labor and Sykes’s poisoned mental state that ultimately leads to the physical poisoning that kills him. Additionally, ‘‘Sweat’’ exposes gender oppression and economic exploitation by suggesting that ‘‘what goes around comes around.’’
The story opens with a technical description of Delia’s labor that reveals that she works long hours every day of the week. Early on, the narrative establishes that Sykes both physically and mentally torments Delia. Scolding him for scaring her by sliding across her knee a bullwhip that she thinks is a snake, Delia says she may die from his foolishness. More interestingly, she asks him, ‘‘where you been wid mah rig? Ah feeds dat pony,’’ informing him that the pony belongs to her and that she pays for its upkeep. He responds by reminding her that he has told her repeatedly ‘‘to keep them white folks’ clothes outa dis house’’ and by claiming that she should not ‘‘wash white folks clothes on the Sabbath.’’ Although the argument begins with a physical scare, it soon turns to a quarrel about economics. After scolding him for scaring her, Delia reminds him that she owns the pony, the means by which Sykes leaves the house. His rebuke reveals his resentment that Delia owns the material goods he wishes to use to entice Bertha to remain his girlfriend. He promises to give Bertha the house as soon as he ‘‘kin git dat ‘oman outa dere.’’ Sykes pays Bertha’s rent and spends money to take her to Winter Park for dates. He promises her that he will give her whatever she wants: ‘‘Dis is mah town an’ you sho’ kin have it.’’ Significantly, when Delia sees Sykes with Bertha, he is at the store purchasing groceries for her and telling her to ‘‘git, whutsoever yo’ heart desires.’’ Not only does Sykes spend Delia’s money on Bertha, he wants to give Delia’s other possessions to her.
Delia develops from a meek woman who acquiesces to Sykes’s abuse to one who defends herself both verbally and physically. Although Delia has suffered abuse from Sykes for fifteen years, she has yet to refute him. However, during this particular argument that has turned to economics, her ‘‘habitual meekness slips,’’ and she responds to Sykes’s verbal abuse with the assertion that she has been washing clothes and sweating for fifteen years to feed him and to pay for her house. Later, when he refuses to remove the snake from the house, she says, ‘‘Ah hates you, Sykes. . . . Ah hates you tuh de same degree dat Ah useter love yuh. Ah done took an’ took till mah belly is full up tuh mah neck.’’ Significantly, she ends her argument by saying, ‘‘Lay ‘roun’ wid dat ‘oman al yuh wants tuh, but gwan ‘way fum me an’ mah house’’ (emphasis added). Although the story involves a love triangle, the more important conflict is the battle between Sykes and Delia for possession of the house. Delia is much more concerned with protecting her property than she is with redeeming her marriage.
Hoping that Sykes will receive retribution for abusing her, a week before he dies, she says, ‘‘Whatever goes over the Devil’s back, is got to come under his belly. Sometime or ruther. Sykes, like everybody else, is gointer reap his sowing.’’ Also, announcing that she refuses to leave her house, Delia threatens to report Sykes to the white people. Apparently, this threat scares him, for the next day he puts the snake in Delia’s laundry basket. However, Delia does not depend on the ‘‘law’’ for justice. She seems to agree with the Eatonville community, which acknowledges both that there ‘‘oughter be a law about’’ Sykes and that ‘‘taint no law on earth dat kin make a man be decent if it aint in ‘im.’’ Depending on forces above the law, Delia allows Sykes’s retribution to come to him ‘‘naturally.’’ Unlike the conjure that renders poetic justice in many of Hurston’s works, Sykes’s own action renders justice in ‘‘Sweat’’: the very snake he intends to bite Delia bites him instead.
Sykes’s self-inflicted poisoning brings about poetic justice, as he is the victim of his attempt to kill Delia and thus gain possession of the house; but the sweat that comes from Delia’s exploited labor is not self-inflicted: it is inflicted upon her by a vile social system that privileges wealthy whites. This vile social system also, to be sure, victimizes Sykes. As Lillie P. Howard points out, Sykes clearly is Delia’s antagonist, but part of the reason he resents her is ‘‘because her work makes him feel like less than a man. He resents her working for the white folks, washing their dirty laundry, but he does not resent it enough to remove the need for her to do so.’’ Similarly, Lowe argues that although readers empathize with Delia, ‘‘the emasculation of the black man by a racist, capitalist society is on Hurston’s mind too. . . . ’’
Critics argue whether or not Delia’s refusal to help Sykes after the snake has bitten him exempli- fies her spiritual downfall. Lowe says, ‘‘Delia’s Christian righteousness, evident in the scene when she returns from a ‘Love Feast’ at church, also seems challenged by her failure to seek help for Sykes after he has been bitten by the snake at the end of the story and by her deliberate showing herself to him so he will know she knows what he attempted and that there is no hope for him.’’ Cheryl A. Wall says, ‘‘Delia makes no effort to warn, rescue, or even comfort Sykes. She exacts her revenge but at a terrible spiritual cost. . . . The narrator does not pass judgment. Yet, how will Delia, good Christian though she has tried to be, ever cross Jordan in a calm time?’’ Contrary to Wall and Lowe, Myles Hurd argues, ‘‘Because Hurston exerts quite a bit of creative energy in outlining Sykes’s outrageous behavior and in subsequently punishing him for his misdeeds, Delia’s virtue is too often easily overshadowed by his villainy.’’ Hurd suggests that because Sykes is a ‘‘more dramatically compelling’’ character than Delia, some ‘‘readers overeagerly expect Delia to counter his evil, rather than allow herself to be repeatedly buffeted by it.’’ When readers consider that the sweat, or poison, eventually seeps out of Delia’s body, the title of the story suggests that she is not spiritually corrupt. Similar to the poison that kills Sykes, Delia’s sweat represents both literal bodily toxins and symbolic poisons that represent the social system that has caused her to sweat. Sykes is possessed by an evil that consumes his soul and eventually kills him; however, Delia remains pure because the sweat, the toxin or poison that represents the social system that exploits her, is released from her body and does not corrupt her physically or spiritually.
In an interesting twist that parallels the snake that bites Sykes instead of Delia, at the end of the story, ‘‘the man who has loomed above her through the years now crawls toward her, his fallen state emphasized by the frame of the door and Delia’s standing figure; the man who has treated her with continuous contempt and cruelty now hopes for help from her.’’ At the end of the story, Delia notices Sykes looking to her with hope; however, she also realizes that the same eye that looks to her for help cannot ‘‘fail to see the tubs’’ as well. As he lies dying, he is forced to look at the tubs, the tools of Delia’s exploited labor. It is significant that while he is in the process of dying from self-inflicted poison, Sykes is forced to observe the tubs, the source of Delia’s sweat, symbolizing the poisoned social system. Perhaps the tubs represent for Sykes the very property he had hoped to acquire by killing her because he is reminded of the labor Delia has exchanged for the property. Earlier, in his attempt to kill her and thus gain possession of the house, Sykes places the snake in the laundry basket, another emblem of Delia’s exploited labor. Sykes’s use of a tool of Delia’s labor as a tool for his effort to acquire her property reminds readers that only through intense sweat, exploited labor, has Delia been able to buy a house for herself. However, Delia is determined not to allow Sykes to take possession of the house. In addition to releasing her from his emotional and physical abuse, Sykes’s death releases the threat that Delia’s house will be taken away from her.
The title ‘‘Sweat’’ refers both to Delia’s hard work necessary to survive economically in a society that offers limited employment opportunities to African American women and to the emotional and physical agony Sykes’s abuse causes her. As David Headon acknowledges, the story ‘‘forcefully establishes an integral part of the political agenda of black literature of this century. . . . Hurston places at the foreground feminist questions concerning the exploitation, intimidation, and oppression inherent in so many relations.’’ Breaking from literature that so often perpetuates stereotypical roles for women, ‘‘‘Sweat is in fact, protest literature.’’ Hurston simultaneously discourages those who try to reinforce sexist modes of oppression and encourages women to defy sexism by illustrating how those who abuse women are doomed.
Source: Laurie Champion, ‘‘Socioeconomics in Selected Short Stories of Zora Neale Hurston,’’ in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 13, Fall 2001, pp. 79–92.
Cast in Yo’ Nets Right Here’: Finding a Comic Voice
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Hurston’s comic gifts, simmering in ‘‘Muttsy,’’ came to a boil with Fire!! the magazine issued by the ‘‘New Negro’’ group in 1926. ‘‘Sweat,’’ the more gripping of her two contributions, details the grim story of hardworking Delia Jones and her nogood, philandering husband, also a devotee of practical jokes. Hurston cleverly turns this aspect of her villain into a structural device, for the entire story turns on the idea of jokes and joking. She begins with one of Sykes’s cruel jokes: he throws his ‘‘long, round, limp and black’’ bullwhip around Delia’s shoulders as she sorts the wash she must do for white folk in order to support herself. Sykes’s prank, motivated by Delia’s abnormal fear of snakes, begins the sexual imagery that makes the story more complex. Is Delia’s fear of the explicitly phallic nature of the snakes a sign of her innate fear of sex or, more likely, a fear that has been beaten into her? What has caused Sykes to seek the beds of other women? The story raises but never really answers these questions, yet suggests Sykes cannot stand his wife’s supporting them by washing the soiled sheets, towels, and undergarments of white folks. Lillie Howard thinks that ‘‘whether [Delia] needs Sykes at all is questionable and perhaps he senses this and looks elsewhere for someone who does need him.’’ On the other hand, Delia reflects that she ‘‘had brought love to the union and he had brought a longing after the flesh.’’ Only two months into the marriage he beats her. Why?
In any case, Sykes’s laughter at his wife and her fears fill the story; he continually slaps his leg and doubles over with merriment at the expense of the ‘‘big fool’’ he married fifteen years ago. Clearly, his insults deflect attention away from the ‘‘big fool’’ he knows he appears to be in the community, as he has never held a steady job himself and depends on Delia for his livelihood. Hurston in this story seems to be developing gender-specific forms of humor, which will be extremely important in Jonah, Their Eyes, and Seraph.
We may thus notice a difference in the rhetoric employed here. Delia too, although grimly serious in her defiance of Sykes, uses the deadly comic signifying language of female rivalry; referring to her husband’s mistress, she states, ‘‘‘That ole snaggletoothed black woman you runnin’ with aint comin’ heah to pile up on mah sweat and blood. You aint paid for nothin’ on this place, and Ah’m gointer stay right heah till Ah’m toted out foot foremost.’’’ Later, alone, Delia takes comfort in folk wisdom: ‘‘‘Oh well, whatever goes over the Devil’s back, is got to come under his belly. Sometime or ruther, Sykes, like everybody else, is gointer reap his sowing.’’’
The appearance of the communal comic chorus in the personages of the loiterers on Joe Clarke’s porch constitutes another significant development in Hurston’s craft. When Delia passes by with her pony cart delivering clothes, they render the community’s sense of pity for her and contempt toward Sykes, especially regarding his new mistress: ‘‘‘How Syke kin stommuck dat big black greasy Mogul he’s layin’ roun’ wid, gits me. Ah swear dat eight-rock couldn’t kiss a sardine can Ah done throwed out de back do’ ‘way las’ yeah.’’’ The men’s humor rises a notch as they wryly observe that Sykes has always preferred heavy lovers over the thin Delia. Hurston signifies here on jokes in the black community about some men’s preference for hefty women. A classic blues expression goes: ‘‘Big fat momma wid de meat shakin’ on huh bones / Evah time she wiggles, skinny woman los’ huh home.’’ The last line should particularly intrigue readers of ‘‘Sweat,’’ for Sykes’s plot is designed not so much to kill Delia but to secure her property.
Significantly, all of the men on the porch continually chew cane, but they do not throw the knots as usual, which creates a foundation for the extended natural metaphor that Clarke, their leader, uses to summarize the inversion of the story they are actually helping us to read.
‘‘Taint no law on earth dat kin make a man behave 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. Buts 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 canechew. 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.’’
This casually brilliant rendering of a tragic truth provides a double irony for readers who know all of Hurston’s work, for this same Joe Clarke emerges as a wife-beater himself in ‘‘The Eatonville Anthology’’ and becomes the model for Jody Starks in Their Eyes, who treats Janie like a mule he owns. Furthermore, the liquid squeezed out, the receptacle discarded, mirrors the title figuration of a woman’s sweat and her weary body.
Normally comic expressions can be used to deadly effect as well. In the heat of August’s ‘‘Dog Days!,’’ the ‘‘maddog’’ Sykes plays his ultimate and cruelest joke to drive Delia from the house that he has promised to Bertha. He keeps a caged rattlesnake on the porch, knowing Delia fears even earthworms. When she asks him to kill the rattler, he replies with a comically coined word and devastating irony: ‘‘‘Doan ast me tuh do nothin’ fuh yuh. Goin’ roun’ tryin’ tuh be so damn aster-perious. Naw, Ah aint gonna kill it. Ah think uh damn sight mo’ uh him dan you! Dat’s a nice snake an’ anybody doan lak ‘im kin jes’ hit de grit.’’’ When Delia’s fury overflows into courage, she tells Sykes, ‘‘‘Ah hates yuh lak uh suck-egg dog,’’’ and, of course, the imagery seems right, for Sykes’s gender is usually associated with dogs, and a ‘‘suck-egg’’ dog would be a predator of women, egg bearers. Hurston would later use the egg and snake symbolism to characterize the couple in Jonah.
When Sykes replies with insults about her looks, she replies in kind, joining a verbal duel that finally silences him: ‘‘‘Yo’ ole black hide don’t look lak nothin’ tuh me, but uh passle uh wrinkled up rubber, wid yo’ big ole yeahs flappin’ on each side lak uh paih uh buzzard wings. Don’t think Ah’m gointuh be run ‘way fum mah house neither. Ah’m goin’ tuh de white folks bout you, mah young man; de very nex’ time you lay yo’ han’s on me. Mah cup is done run ovah.’’’ Delia here effectively ‘‘caps’’ Joe by verbally emasculating him, in a doubled way. The ‘‘wrinkled rubber’’ seems obvious enough, but the buzzard reference varies her refrain that he is not man enough to support her; he just preys on her. This speech has much in common with Janie’s silencing of Joe in the great scene in Their Eyes, but our pleasure in ‘‘Sweat’’ at Sykes’s punishment is compromised by the ambiguity of our response throughout the story. Certainly, we feel for Delia, but the emasculation of the black man by a racist, capitalist society is on Hurston’s mind here too, and Delia’s threat to bring the white folks, whose laundry she washes, down on Joe, partially mitigates our natural inclinations to champion Delia; so does her tendency to taunt Joe about the fact that she brings home the bacon. Delia’s Christian righteousness, evident in the scene when she returns from a ‘‘Love Feast’’ at church, also seems challenged by her failure to seek help for Sykes after he has been bitten by the snake at the end of the story and by her deliberate showing herself to him so he will know she knows what he attempted and that there is no hope for him.
This climax occurs when Joe, trapped in the dark bedroom with the snake he left in Delia’s basket, jumps in terror onto the bed, where he thinks he’ll be safe; the snake, of course, lies coiled there. In Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Big Mama, advising her daughter-in-law, Maggie, pats the bed she is sitting on and tells her that all the big problems in marriages can ultimately be traced here; Hurston, at least in this story, would seem to agree. The final joke on Sykes is that his obsession with male, phallic power, and the way he misuses it in his marriage, finally kills him, in a doubly figurative and dreadfully comic way.
What made this story special? For one thing, it was written after Hurston had been collecting black folklore for several years in the South and returned to live in Eatonville. When writing this story, she seemed to have learned how intertwined comedy and tragedy were in folk culture and also how the comic was embedded in the cosmic. These relationships are always manifest in her best work, like ‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits.’’
Source: John Lowe, ‘‘Cast in Yo’ Nets Right Here’: Finding a Comic Voice,’’ in Jump at the Sun: Zora Neale Hurston’s Cosmic Comedy, University of Illinois Press, 1994, pp. 71–79.
The Artist In The Kitchen
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4829
Zora Neal Hurston’s short story ‘‘Sweat’’ (1926) presents a radical transformation of an oppressed black domestic worker who attempts to envision her work as a work of art. The story is remarkable in Hurston’s body of work for its harsh, unrelenting indictment of the economic and personal degradation of marriage in a racist and sexist society.
To accomplish this, ‘‘Sweat’’ functions at one level as a documentary of the economic situation of Eatonville in the early decades of the twentieth century. Hurston uses a naturalistic narrator to comment on the roles of Delia and Sykes Jones as workers as well as marriage partners, but ultimately the story veers away from naturalistic fiction and becomes a modernist rumination on Delia as an artist figure. The story’s coherence of theme and structure makes it one of Hurston’s most powerful pieces of fiction.
Preserved not only as a place but as an idea of a place, Eatonville, Florida, retains the atmosphere of which Hurston wrote. As putatively the oldest town in the United States incorporated by blacks, Eatonville possesses understandable pride in its unique history. When Hurston writes of Eatonville in ‘‘How It Feels To Be Colored Me,’’ she implies that her childhood place was idyllic because ‘‘it is exclusively a colored town,’’ one in which the young Zora was happily unaware of the restrictions that race conferred elsewhere. However, this gloss of nostalgia can be read simultaneously with ‘‘Sweat,’’ published only two years earlier. Although Hurston’s biographer, Robert Hemenway, writes perceptively that ‘‘Sweat’’ is a personal story without identifi- able local folklore, in the story Hurston reveals the somber and multifaced variations of life in Eatonville in the first part of this century.
Economically Eatonville in ‘‘Sweat’’ exists as a twin, a double with its neighbor, the town of Winter Park. Far from being identical, the twin towns are configured like Siamese twins, joined as they are by economic necessity. Winter Park is an all-white, wealthy town that caters to rich northerners from New England who journey south each fall to ‘‘winter’’ in Florida—‘‘snowbirds,’’ as the natives call them. Winter Park then as now boasts brick streets, huge oaks, landscaped lakes, and large, spacious houses. To clean these houses, tend these gardens, cook the meals, and watch the children of Winter Park, residents of Eatonville made a daily exodus across the railroad tracks on which Amtrak now runs to work as domestics. This pattern has been described in detail by sociologist John Dollard whose study Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1937) remains the classic contemporaneous account of a small segregated town in the 1920s and 1930s, approximately the time in which the action of ‘‘Sweat’’ occurs. What is unique about Eatonville and Winter Park is that they are not one town divided in two but two towns. Eatonville’s selfgovernance, its pride in its historic traditions, and its social mores were thus able to develop far more autonomously than those in the many towns of which Dollard wrote where the black community had to struggle to develop a sense of independent identity.
In ‘‘Sweat’’ we see the results of this economic situation. On Saturdays the men of the town congregate on the porch of the general store chewing sugarcane and discussing the lamentable marriage of Delia and Sykes Jones. Although these men may be employed during the week, Sykes is not. Some working people mentioned besides Joe Clarke, the store owner, are the woman who runs a rooming house where Bertha, Sykes’s mistress, stays, the minister of the church Delia attends, and the people who organize dances that Sykes frequents. Work as farm laborers on land owned by whites is probably available, but it pays very little and is seasonal. Jacqueline Jones points out that in 1900, not long before the time of the story, 50 to 70 percent of adult black women were employed full time as compared to only 20 percent of men. A black man might be unemployed 50 percent of the time. One reason that unemployed men congregated at the local general store was not merely out of idleness, as whites alleged, nor out of a desire to create oral narratives, as we Hurston critics would like to imagine, but there they could be ‘‘visible to potential employers,’’ as Jones asserts.
There is not enough work for the men as it is, but the townspeople discuss Sykes’s particular aversion to what work is available. Old man Anderson reports that Sykes was always ‘‘ovahbearin’ but since dat white w’eman from up north done teached ‘im how to run a automobile, he done got too biggety to live—an’ we oughter kill ‘im.’’ The identity of this woman and her exact role in Sykes’s life is not referred to again, but if she was a Winter Park woman, then perhaps Sykes worked for a time as a driver for residents there. All the more ironic, then, his comment to Delia in which he berates her for doing white people’s laundry: ‘‘ah done tole you time and again to keep them white folks’ clothes outa this house.’’ The comment suggests that Sykes does not work out of protest against the economic system of Eatonville in which blacks are dependent on whites for their livelihood. Has he chosen to be unemployed to resist the system? Within the story, this reading is fragile at best. The townspeople point out that Sykes has used and abused Delia; he has ‘‘squeezed’’ her dry, like a piece of sugarcane. They report that she was in her youth a pert, lively, and pretty girl, but that marriage to a man like Sykes has worn her out.
In fact, Delia’s work is their only source of income. In the early days of their marriage Sykes was employed, but he ‘‘took his wages to Orlando,’’ the large city about ten miles from Eatonville, where he spent every penny. At some point Sykes stopped working and began to rely entirely on Delia for income. As she says, ‘‘Mah tub full of suds is filled yo belly with vittles more times than yo hands is filled it. Mah sweat is done paid for this house.’’ Delia’s sense of ownership is that of the traditional work ethic; if one works hard, one can buy a house and support a family. That Delia is the breadwinner, however, is a role reversal but not ostensibly a liberation; her sweat has brought her some meager material rewards but has enraged her husband. Although she may at one time have considered stopping work so that Sykes might be impelled to ‘‘feel like man again’’ and become a worker once more, at the time of the story that possibility is long past. Sykes wants her to stop working so she can be dainty, not sweaty, fat, not thin. Moreover, he wants to oust her from the house so that he and his girlfriend can live there. Robert Hemenway perceptively notes that Sykes’s exaggerated reliance on phallic objects—bullwhips and snakes in particular— is an overcompensation for his ‘‘emasculated’’ condition as a dependent of his wife. Sykes’s brutality is a chosen compensation because he does not participate in the work of the community. He chooses instead to become the town’s womanizer and bully who spends his earnings when he has them; he lives for the moment and for himself.
Houston A. Baker’s ideological analysis of Their Eyes Were Watching God emphasizes what he calls the ‘‘economics of slavery’’ in Hurston’s works. This term refers to the historical use of human beings for profit, a potent theme he identifies in African-American authors from Linda Brent and Frederick Douglass to Hurston. In this context, one can point out that Delia’s work, difficult as it is, is productive; it allows her to sustain herself (and Sykes) and to become a landowner, a rare situation for blacks, as John Dollard points out. With her house she possesses not only a piece of property, but she also gains the right to declare herself as a person, not a piece of property. Because Sykes has not shared in the labor that results in the purchase of this property, he remains in a dependent state. He is rebellious against Delia whom he feels controls him by denying him the house he feels ought to be his; his only reason for this assertion is that he is a man and Delia is his wife.
Thus, the economics of slavery in ‘‘Sweat’’ becomes a meditation on marriage as an institution that perpetuates possession of women for profit. Indeed, Sykes is the slaveholder here; he does not work, he is sustained by the harsh physical labor of a black woman, he relies on the work of another person to obtain his own pleasure (in this case buying presents for his mistress Bertha). He regards Delia’s property and her body as his possessions to be disposed of as he pleases. Sykes’s brutal beatings of Delia and his insulting remarks about her appearance are the tools with which he perpetuates her subordination to him for the sixteen years of their marriage.
Sykes has been transformed during his marriage, or perhaps because of it, from contributor to the family economy to the chief recipient of its benefits. Delia is a producer of goods (she grows food) and a provider of services (cooks, cleans); she also works at a service activity that brings in cash. Sykes responds by becoming a consumer. He uses her to buy the goods and services he desires (Bertha’s favors, liquor, dances, etc.) rather than using this income to contribute to the family. Because he is a consumer only, he cannot become an owner of real estate, for he has a cash-flow problem. As a result, to use Walter Benn Michaels’s terminology, Sykes determines to possess the owner, to regard her body and her property as his possessions. Like the Simon Legrees of abolitionist fiction, Sykes proves his ownership by the brutality he shows toward Delia. His hatred of her rests not on a feeling of inferiority because she owns the house; rather, he hates her because as one of his consumable goods, she ought to be desirable, not sweaty; compliant, not resisting. He prefers Bertha because her fatness suggests an overly fed commodity; like a cow, she has been opulently and extravagantly fed beyond her needs. Sykes desires the large and the luxurious commodity; he does not want what he needs.
Given this hopeless set of economic forces, the story does not sink into a trough of despair, largely because of Hurston’s choice of its narrative point of view. While generally Hurston is associated with the lyrical, oral structure of Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), the narrative strategy of ‘‘Sweat’’ is a sophisticated amalgam of the naturalistic narrator and narrative voice that Henry Louis Gates identifies in Their Eyes Were Watching God as that of ‘‘speakerly text.’’ Gates defines such a text as incorporating oral tradition, indirect discourse, and a transcendent, lyrical voice that is ‘‘primarily . . . oriented toward imitating one of the numerous forms of oral narration to be found in classical Afro- American vernacular literature.’’ Gates points out further that in oral tradition the speaker tells the story to a listener who is part of the teller’s group; thus, in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie tells her tale to her friend, Phoeby, with the result that the first-person narrative is subtly shaped by the implied and the explicit dialogue. This type of novel is sharply defined in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), in which the epistolary frame embodies the dialogic, oral tradition to which Gates refers. Gates contrasts this narrative mode with that of Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940). In that work the thirdperson narrator is a removed authoritative, third commentor who possesses the knowledge of the larger context but does not permit characters to develop self-knowledge. Hurston’s speakerly text exists to permit the main character, Janie, to search for self-knowledge, indeed for self, in a way that focuses on central themes but does not rely on the architectural plot scaffolding that characterizes Wright’s fiction.
It is important to recognize that the narrative mode of ‘‘Sweat’’ is more similar to that of Native Son than Their Eyes Were Watching God. In ‘‘Sweat’’ the third-person narrator speaks in past tense about the events in the lives of Delia and Sykes. The narrator’s voice is one of an educated observer who has complete knowledge of the sociology of the town of Eatonville, its place as a poor, all-black town in central Florida, and the litany of troubles in Delia’s fifteen-year-long marriage. This narrator is, in short, the narrator of naturalism, who sees Delia’s life as a short, brutish thing because of the nature of marriage within an economic miasma of poverty and powerlessness. At first glance, the story conforms to Donald Pizer’s definition of naturalistic fiction as that which ‘‘unites detailed documentation of the more sensationalistic aspects of experience with heavily ideological [often allegorical] themes, the burden of these themes being the demonstration that man is circumscribed.’’ Not only has Delia’s life been a stream of ‘‘her tears, her sweat, her blood,’’ as the narrator despairingly reports, but her marriage to a womanizer and wife-beater becomes worse when he also adds attempted murder to the list of forces that literally threaten her. This narrative mode allows Hurston a wider context for Delia’s misery, the context of the economics of a central Florida community composed of black women who work as domestics in elite, white Winter Park. Hurston’s narrator is especially effective when speaking of the setting itself, the long, hot central Florida August that both parallels and contributes to the climax of the story. The narrator gives shape to the natural cycles that influence Delia and Sykes, as in this passage that forms a transition to the story’s climax: ‘‘The heat streamed down like a million hot arrows . . . grass withered, leaves browned, snakes went blind . . . and man and dogs went mad.’’ But the perils of choosing an omniscient naturalistic narrator sometimes results in heavy-handed didacticism: ‘‘Delia’s workworn knees crawled over the earth in Gethsemane and up the rocks of Calvary many, many times.’’
Because Hurston’s narrator in ‘‘Sweat’’ has many features of the naturalistic narrator, the question arises as to whether this story itself is naturalistic. Donald Pizer points out that the 1930s was a time when naturalistic fiction such as The Grapes of Wrath offered at least partial solutions to the problems besetting the protagonist. One of the remarkable aspects of ‘‘Sweat’’ is Hurston’s variation and escape from the naturalistic narrator. In the classic rhetoric of naturalism, characters are often curiously untouched by self-insight, as Pizer points out. In Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900), for example, Carrie’s victimization is unchallenged by anything more than a vague film of discontent that she feels now and then. Delia does fall from a state of relative success only to become brutalized, but she then begins the treacherous journey to selfknowledge and then self-esteem, the very journey that Janie makes in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Delia’s marriage is far worse than any of Janie’s; her economic situation is more impoverished. She does not have a friend like Phoeby or a grandmother to provide support, information, sympathy, and love. Yet Delia does change and grow in spite of her circumstances and her narrator. How does Delia (and Hurston) escape the narrator?
Hurston moves beyond the naturalistic narrator by employing a Henry Louis Gatesian dual focus; she uses the townspeople as a chorus who comment orally on the characters of Delia and Sykes. From them we learn of Delia’s former beauty, of Sykes’s early infatuation with her, of his difficult and brutal personality. We also learn that the town does not condone this behavior at all, but considers it an anomoly at best that their town should have produced a Sykes. Hurston sets up a dialogue between the narrator and the townspeople, the result of which is a double focus upon central characters. Unlike a Greek chorus, the townspeople are not omniscient; they are, on the contrary, interested in maintaining peace and harmony. They praise Delia’s work, regarding her weekly delivery schedule with respect: ‘‘hot or col’, rain or shine, jes ez reg’lar ez de weeks roll roun’ Delia carries em an’ fetches ‘em on Sat’day.’’ Delia’s work has become a predictable ritual for the town. Their reaction clarifies the attitude toward work: Work is admirable; the fact that Delia works on a Saturday and is as predictable as the seasons establishes her as worthy of their respect.
It is her work and her own attitude toward it that ultimately allow Delia to become a person who possesses self-esteem, pride, and the ability to create an ordered and harmonious existence. Delia has created her small world; she has lovingly planted trees and flowers in the garden around her house; her home and garden are ‘‘lovely, lovely’’ to her, as the narrator explains. For all her woes, Delia takes joy in her tidy house, her garden, and her work. These images establish the archetypal undertone of the story, that of the Edenic place. Hurston presents Delia’s portion of Eden/Eatonville as a femalecreated place, ordered and beautiful because of the efforts of a woman.
Among Delia’s efforts, and the central focus of the story, is her work. Although the stereotype of the mammy is all too pervasive as a symbol of black women’s work, Jacqueline Jones points out that the most frequent job for black women in the early twentieth century was not as a full-time domestic in the household of whites. For over 50 percent of working black women, ‘‘washing and ironing clothes provided an opportunity to work without the interference of whites, and with the help of their own children, at home.’’ Mothers generally were reluctant to leave their own young children and to tolerate the all too frequent humiliation by their white women employers. Being a ‘‘washerwoman’’ was as arduous a task as being a field hand, and thus was of lower status and lower pay than that of a maid or cook within a household—but it did offer a measure of independence.
Jones found that the typical laundry woman collected clothes on Monday, boiled them in a large pot, scrubbed them, ‘‘rinsed, starched, wrung out, hung up, and ironed’’ often in the hot days of summer. Starch and soap she paid out of the one or two dollars a week she received. She delivered the clothes on Saturday and collected the next week’s if she was lucky; otherwise she had to return on Monday. This pattern matches Delia’s, but her work assumes an importance beyond sociological accuracy.
Delia’s work acts as a metaphor for the work of the human creator, that is, the artist. Susan Gubar describes metaphors for the female artist in her essay ‘‘‘The Blank Page’ and the Issues of Female Creativity.’’ She comments that ‘‘many women experience their own bodies as the only available medium for their art. . . . Within the life of domesticity, the body is the only accessible medium for self expression.’’ When we apply these statements to Delia, the sweat of her body, which has laundered, cooked, and scrubbed, is the corporal medium of her art. Her basket of pristine laundry stands as the artistic object created by her body. Her creation exists surrounded by home and garden, a miniature Eden made by a woman.
The laundry is a brilliant and evocative symbol in the story. It is, of course, white, pure white, the narrator reports; its whiteness and purity connote Delia’s innate goodness as opposed to the evil darkness of Sykes’s snake. The whiteness also indicates that her created object is indeed a blank page waiting for inscription; however, the appropriate inscriber, Delia, must of necessity keep her canvas blank; only Sykes writes upon it with the dirt of his boots and eventually the male object, the snake/ penis, that symbolizes his desire to be the controller of the objects Delia’s body has created.
The laundry has been created by the sweat and blood of her body; it rests quiet and serene like a tabula rasa, awaiting purposeful fulfillment. Nestled snugly in a basket, the laundry is an object Delia protects and to which she devotes her time, her attention, and her body. The laundry thus functions as a cherished child, the child of their own that Sykes and Delia do not have. One can only speculate that Delia’s hard-muscled thinness coupled with the stress of the work itself and the cruelty of her husband have rendered her physically infertile. How much more pregnant, then, the potential fruitfulness of the laundry, the object of Delia’s devotion, the object of Sykes’s hatred. Had the laundry been literally a child, the story would devolve into a naturalistic tale on child abuse. But Hurston establishes herself as a writer, the Afro-American writer of her time and among the greatest in our century, by transcending such a cul-de-sac.
In Invisible Man, written twenty-four years after ‘‘Sweat,’’ Ralph Ellison’s nameless narrator, himself a blank page, ruminates on the qualities of whiteness and blackness in the brilliant section in the paint factory. The whiteness of the paint, considered so desirable, so good, so pure by white customers, results from the minute drops of blackness carefully, artistically added by the black paint makers. Ellison’s scene is prefigured in ‘‘Sweat.’’ Hurston takes the discourse on whiteness suggested by the laundry far beyond the stereotype that white is right and black is invisible. One could line up the side of the good in the story with Delia, the laundry, and whiteness opposed to Sykes, the snake, and blackness, but this easy dichotomy would overlook Hurston’s ultimate accomplishment. The laundry created by Delia does not belong to her. The laundry, her creation, belongs to the white people of Winter Park, her patrons, who will be the ultimate inscribers of it; they will turn the laundry into clothes. Delia has prepared the perfect canvas for her patrons, but she is not able to participate in the use, evaluation, or assignment of worth to the creation. Like Hurston as an artist, Delia depends ultimately on the white patron for recognition. As Hurston was in the late 1920s the companion of Fannie Hurst, a white patron indeed, the story shades into a troubling comment on Hurston’s relationship with her employer as a restriction on her art. Delia does not own her art. If the laundry represents a baby, then the baby is not Delia’s; it is a white person’s baby whom Delia tends so carefully. She is its mammy, creating the child but not owning it. But again, Hurston avoids the simple sociological statement of making the object of Delia’s sweat an actual child.
In keeping with the Edenic imagery is the serpent in Delia’s house, her husband. Sykes is not an Adam at all; his potential as a mate has been supplanted by the bullwhip he carries, which is the satanic object associated with a snake as it ‘‘slithers to the floor’’ when he threatens to strike Delia with it, as Robert Hemenway has noted. Sykes attempts to destroy everything Delia has created. He begins by complaining that she should ‘‘keep them white folks’ clothes outa dis house,’’ and purposely kicks the neatly folded stack of white laundry into a dirty, disordered heap. His demand is irrational on a literal level because these clothes are their only source of money. In an ironic way, however, Sykes is reflecting a lingering Adamic need to establish his home as terrain in which he too has power. He owns nothing of his own; the house legally belongs to Delia. His protest against a white-controlled labor system embodies a somber problem for black men, but Sykes’s anger and frustration cannot be directed toward the white perpetrators of his situation because he lacks the power to change the status quo. Instead he passes his days with careless pursuits and becomes increasingly violent with Delia. Her response to his violence has been excruciatingly passive, but when Sykes criticizes her work, he is not only protesting against his own economic condition. He has intuitively violated the one object, the laundry, that Delia values about all others.
Sykes’s attack on the laundry brings about Delia’s first assertion against him in fifteen years of marriage. When she grabs a heavy iron skillet from the stove, she is threatening her husband with a female object used for creation, in this case a cooking pot. Sykes responds by threatening her with the object of male creativity and violence with which he is most familiar, the bullwhip. The choices of these objects reveal that to Hurston, male creativity (the whip) exists only to injure and destroy; female creativity (the pot) can be used destructively but is intended primarily to be positive, that is, to cook and create a meal. Thus, women can use their creative power to defend themselves against the destruction that is the only intended use of male power.
The scene acts as a foreshadowing of the couple’s climactic confrontation when Sykes brings home in a crate the satanic object of destruction, a snake. He leaves the snake in the kitchen for several days; Delia is terrified and terrorized by the snake, but she repeats her assertive stance by ordering her husband to remove it. Sykes responds by criticizing Delia’s appearance. This apparent non sequitur reveals Sykes’s attempt to control Delia by reminding her of the role he expects her to play, that of wife/ sex object, prettied up and passive for the husband’s use. Sykes criticizes her thin, hard-muscled body; he prefers fat women with flaccid bodies. Delia is strong because she works hard, another Sojourner Truth in her ability to work like a man. But as a representative of patriarchal masculinity, Sykes cannot prize Delia for what she is; he expects her to make herself, her body, into the image he prefers.
In the climax of the story Delia picks up the basket of white laundry and sees the snake in it. She drops the basket, runs outside in terror, and huddles in a gully beside a creek; Sykes returns home to the darkened house, picks up the snake’s cage, and discards it. In this way the reader realizes that Sykes knew the snake was no longer in the cage; thus, it was Sykes who had placed it in the basket in order to murder Delia. When he goes inside to verify her death, he cannot see the snake in the dark house. Delia must decide whether to call out to warn her husband. If she does, he will live another day to take her life. She can save his life or she can save her own. In placing the snake in the laundry, Sykes has violated Delia’s creation; he has disordered her house and finally actually intends to take her life. Delia chooses not to call out; the snake strikes, and Delia is permitted the gruesome revenge of seeing Sykes die before her eyes.
Delia’s decision involves not only saving her life but preserving her vision of reality; her alternative choice would be to save her oppressor and thereby perpetuate not only her bondage to him but also to the corrupt, diseased vision of life he represents. As a female artist figure, Delia represents the power of the female artist who must adopt strategies that directly and violently bring change and allow her art to thrive. The debased condition of Sykes and of their marriage, even though it is in part a product of the economic disenfranchisement of black men, is not salvageable in this desperate story. Delia’s choice implies that the oppressors of the woman worker/artist must be eliminated because they are evil, that the oppressors will bring about their own destruction. The tension for the black woman of creating art in a milieu controlled absolutely by whites remains unresolved. Hurston’s story suggests that women artists must be free to create art and to contribute to a harmonious, ordered world. The issue of the need for a world that suits both men and women remains to be addressed, a task Hurston takes up in her later writing, especially in Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). The issue of the situation of the black female artist remained her lifelong subject.
Source: Kathryn Lee Seidel, ‘‘The Artist in the Kitchen: The Economics of Creativity in Hurston’s ‘Sweat,’’ in Zora in Florida, edited by Steve Glassman and Kathryn Lee Seidel, University of Central Florida Press, 1991, pp. 110–20.