Style and Technique

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Though written in a southern folk idiom, “Sweat” has none of the humor of Hurston’s predecessor in the genre, Charles Waddell Chesnutt. Her message is somber from beginning to end. What the story offers is a naturalistic slice of life combined with some heavy Christian symbolism. The most potent symbol is the rattlesnake, known for its ubiquitous (“ventriloquist”) death rattle. Having already introduced evil into their house, Sykes next brings the snake itself. Delia’s known fear of worms and snakes and Sykes’s vain belief that he possesses a magic power over them are both symbolic attitudes toward evil. When he releases the snake from the box, giving it free rein in the house in order to drive out Delia (goodness), he only prepares the scene for his own destruction. Worked into this major symbol is that of the matches, Sykes’s practice of using up all the matches (light) without ever replacing them. When Delia returns home there is only one left, but it is enough. When he returns there is no light for him to see the rattlesnake. In total darkness “Satan” kills him.

Other symbols complete the Christian scenario. The experience of the Passion—suffering and triumph over it—is central. Delia’s whole life is the Passion experience, yet Hurston does not use the symbolism explicitly until Delia goes through the agonizing months of Sykes’s affair with Bertha: It is then that “Delia’s work-worn knees crawled over the earth in Gethsemane and up the rocks of Calvary.” On returning home from church on the fatal Sunday evening, Delia sings of the River Jordan that “Chills de body, not de soul.” The sacramental experience has begun her resurrection. (Another “cold river,” the poison of the snake, destroys both Sykes’s body and his soul.) Delia’s actual resurrection, however, comes in another symbolic place, the barn behind the house, clearly a reminder of the stable. There she ends her suffering and momentarily achieves peace.

Even the structure of the story at first seems to insist on a Christian salvation. It begins on a Sunday and the final act begins on another Sunday. Delia’s symbolic rebirth in the barn comes before Sykes’s death on Sunday evening. In fact, however, consistent with the psychological turn already noted, Hurston adds a twist to the symbolism in the final paragraph, for the real ending to the story comes not on Sunday, but on Monday morning. Life is not over for Delia. She must bear up under the knowledge that Sykes still had hope. The sun has revealed to Sykes signs that Delia had returned home and that she was close by watching. Though it seems clear that Delia is helpless—the doctors are too far away, and her fear of snakes keeps her from entering the house—the torment of imagining Sykes’s plaintive and accusing eye in the final moment of life gives the closing statement of the story the psychological horror of the macabre rather than the peace of resurrection. On that symbolic Monday morning, the agony of the Passion continues. The Passion is not simply a biblical story; it is human experience.

Historical Context

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Prior to and during World War I, African American demographics underwent a major shift, with over a million black people migrating north. Filled with hope of more jobs and less racial oppression, many black Southerners saw cities such as New York and Chicago as the land of their deliverance, although this was not always true in practice. Instead, blacks largely found it difficult to settle in and, after the war, tended not to benefit economically from the ‘‘Roaring Twenties,’’ finding themselves segregated to poor racial ghettos such as Harlem in New York City. The Ku Klux Klan remained active, actually increasing in membership during these years, and segregation was widespread.

What the newly arrived blacks in New York did find, however, between the end of World War I and the beginning of the Great Depression, was an unprecedented flowering of black art and culture later coined the ‘‘Harlem Renaissance.’’ Institutions like the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) were becoming increasingly influential, and black political thinkers such as W. E. B. Du Bois held more power and were much less conciliatory to the white gentry than were their predecessors. Black culture was suffused with the ideology of the ‘‘New Negro,’’ which emphasized abandoning traditionalist values and becoming a modern American citizen exercising the right to vote—and cultured leaders like Alain Locke were actively supporting this ideology in their magazines.

But Hurston’s reaction to the values of this movement demonstrates that they were not entirely pervasive, especially within the younger generation of writers living in Harlem. When she moved to New York towards the end of the ‘‘Great Migration’’ northwards, Hurston was more idealistic about the unity and agenda of the New Negro movement than she later became. She was invited to New York by Locke himself and proceeded to ingratiate herself with a number of key political and artistic figures in Harlem, writing against Marcus Garvey and in favor of Du Bois and his efforts to lower mortality rates and work for the benefit of his people.

After publishing a short story in Locke’s New Negro magazine, however, she and some of her peers began to be skeptical about elements of the magazine’s artistic agenda, such as its tendency to avoid commonly caricatured folk traits such as black superstition. As Robert Hemenway writes in his literary biography of Hurston, ‘‘The established bourgeois position was that black art should avoid reinforcing racist stereotypes by refusing to portray the lowest elements of the race.’’ The magazine Fire!! was created to refute these black bourgeois values when they clashed with ‘‘pure’’ artistic goals.

Spearheaded by Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Wallace Thurman, Fire!! had major difficulties getting published at all, including a lack of money and a fire in an apartment that destroyed several hundred copies, and the editors managed to publish only one issue before the magazine collapsed. But ‘‘Sweat,’’ along with the other pieces published in 1926, was a major achievement for Hurston and her subsection of Harlem Renaissance writers, earning them a little-acknowledged uniqueness within a movement whose leaders wanted to portray a uni- fied front to the country.

Literary Style

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Biblical Allusion
Hurston makes a number of allusions to the Bible in ‘‘Sweat’’ that underscore her authorial intentions. Perhaps the most important is the allusion to the Garden of Eden, with the serpent taking on its role of temptation (common to the Western Christian interpretation of the story of Eden) and giving Delia the opportunity to allow for her husband’s death. Delia’s character may not seem much like Eve’s, but Delia does obtain from the serpent the forbidden knowledge of how to disregard convention and subvert Christian morality.

The implications of this allusion are unclear, however. Hurston might be condemning Delia’s complicity with the serpent, or she might be praising her ability to bend the rules of Christian morality so that Sykes is punished by his own evil device—an idea Delia expresses as ‘‘whatever goes over the Devil’s back, is got to come under his belly.’’ This reference to the Devil is one of the phallic references discussed above and highlights the fact that, like the function of sexual imagery in the story, Hurston’s biblical allusions are highly ambiguous.

Further complicating the meaning of these allusions are Delia’s song about crossing the Jordan, which refers to Joshua leading the nation of Israel across the river, and her crawling ‘‘over the earth in Gethsemane and up the rocks of Calvary,’’ which were journeys of Jesus. They place Delia in the role of leading her people to a new destiny, either as a warrior or a martyr, although this becomes much less clear when seen together with her more subversive role as the enabler of the serpent. Perhaps the best way to regard Hurston’s biblical allusions is as a method of emphasizing Delia’s ability to draw power from all sources available to her and to manifest it in the manner most pertinent to her struggle.

Black Southern Dialect
Hurston is famous for her thorough knowledge of black slang and folk culture, and her use of black southern dialect is an important stylistic device in ‘‘Sweat.’’ The dialect itself, aside from portraying the authentic speech patterns of Eatonville, allows Hurston to take ownership of the language. Like Delia, who assumes power through the story by shouting back at Sykes and insulting him, the author gains her own autonomy over the meaning of the text by putting it into the rhythm of her community’s speech pattern.

Hurston’s ability to switch between Eatonville dialect and technically grammatical English allows her to act as a sort of intermediary and interpreter, bringing southern folk wisdom to New York. The philosophy expounded, for example by Joe Clarke, about using one’s wife like sugar cane, is a kind of wisdom very specific to the metaphors, rhythm, and imagery available in Eatonville slang. Relating this, as well as phrases such as ‘‘suck-egg dog’’ (a seemingly contradictory phrase perfect for relating Sykes’s violently sexual emasculation) in authentic phonetics gives Hurston authority in her radical politics and themes; she manages to pose as an ambassador of her culture’s wisdom. Nonbourgeois black readers might be more willing to accept ideas in this form than in the language of a doctoral student at Columbia, since folk wisdom seems much more tried and true than the whims of an individual, ambitious writer, especially when it is presented in authentic dialect.

Compare and Contrast

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1920s: Racism towards African Americans is an extreme problem, in both the southern and northern states. Much of the optimism of blacks moving to the North is turning out to be an illusion. Education is poorly funded, poverty is widespread, and 281 blacks, compared with 34 whites, are lynched during the decade.

Today: Racial discrimination is illegal, but it has not been completely abolished in practice. The Supreme Court has ruled to continue the process of ‘‘affirmative action’’ in public universities, a sign that the legal system desires to remain committed to equalizing the opportunities afforded to all racial groups.

1920s: The American economy is booming. The stock market is rising at unprecedented rates, and many Americans are becoming rich, although money and jobs are not generally trickling down to the poorer black classes.

Today: The United States has a powerful economy, but it has failed to completely recover from the downturn coinciding with the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York. Unemployment is particularly high for black workers—over double the jobless percentage for whites.

1920s: Harlem is a burgeoning urban center, full of black artistic achievement and exciting new ideas, but housing is becoming increasingly cramped, and poverty is widespread.

Today: After a long and severe decline since the 1930s in housing conditions, crime, and poverty, conditions have now drastically improved. Harlem property value is among the fastest rising in New York City, although some people are afraid this has created an unaffordable housing crisis and a negative impact on the local culture.

1920s: Spousal abuse goes largely unpunished, as police and courts rarely have the right to intervene.

Today: The Violence Against Women Bill of 1991 and other measures introduced to protect women within the home are likely to have decreased levels of spousal abuse, but it remains a major problem.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Du Bois, W. E. B., ‘‘The Creative Impulse,’’ in The ‘‘Crisis’’ Writings, Fawcett Publications, 1972, pp. 286–88.

Hemenway, Robert E., Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, Camden Press, 1986, pp. 41–50, 70–73, 148; originally published by the University of Illinois Press, 1977.

Hughes, Langston, and Zora Neale Hurston, Mule Bone: A Comedy on Negro Life in Three Acts, Perennial Press, 1991, pp. 1–2.

Hurston, Zora Neale, The Complete Stories, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr., HarperCollins, 1995, pp. 73–85.

———, Dust Tracks on a Road, Harper & Row, 1984, p. 206; originally published by J. B. Lippincott, 1942.

Locke, Alain, ‘‘Negro Youth Speaks,’’ in The New Negro, edited by Alain Locke, Atheneum, 1968, p. 50; originally published by Albert & Charles Boni, 1925.

Lowe, John, Jump at the Sun: Zora Neale Hurston’s Cosmic Comedy, University of Illinois Press, 1994, p. 74.

Further Reading
Croft, Robert W., A Zora Neale Hurston Companion, Greenwood Press, 2002. This indexed overview considers Hurston’s literary career as a whole and provides a useful reference source for examining the author’s short fiction in relation to her other writings.

Gates, Henry L., Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, Amistad Press, 1999. This collection of analysis of Hurston’s entire body of work provides a series of essays from diverse critical lenses and time periods.

Hurston, Zora Neale, Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, edited by Carla Kaplan, Doubleday, 2002. A comprehensive collection of Hurston’s letters, this volume is vividly suggestive about her life, writings, and decline in popularity.

Miles, Diana, Women, Violence, & Testimony in the Works of Zora Neale Hurston, Peter Lang Publishing, 2003. Miles’s book focuses on some of the most important themes in ‘‘Sweat,’’ as evidenced in several of Hurston’s other works. It is an excellent resource for readers interested in the most recent theories on the author.

Watson, Steven, The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of American Culture, 1920–1930, Pantheon Books, 1995. Outlining the key elements of the historical movement in Harlem, Watson provides photographs and poetry to illustrate his presentation of the cultural climate at the time.


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Awkward, Michael, ed. New Essays on “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribner, 2003.

Campbell, Josie P. Student Companion to Zora Neale Hurston. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Croft, Robert W. A Zora Neale Hurston Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Cronin, Gloria L., ed. Critical Essays on Zora Neale Hurston. New York: G. K. Hall, 1998.

Grant, Nathan. Masculinist Impulses: Toomer, Hurston, Black Writing, and Modernity. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004.

Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977. Reprint. London: Camden Press, 1986.

Hill, Lynda Marion. Social Rituals and the Verbal Art of Zora Neale Hurston. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1996.

Hurston, Lucy Anne. Speak, So You Can Speak Again: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Doubleday, 2004.

Jones, Sharon L. Rereading the Harlem Renaissance: Race, Class, and Gender in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, and Dorothy West. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Lyons, Mary E. Sorrow’s Kitchen: The Life and Folklore of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990.

McGlamery, Tom. Protest and the Body in Melville, Dos Passos, and Hurston. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Miles, Diana. Women, Violence, and Testimony in the Works of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: P. Lang, 2003.

Pierpont, Claudia Roth. Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

Wright, Melanie J. Moses in America: The Cultural Uses of Biblical Narrative. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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Critical Essays