In "Sweat" by Zora Hurston, is Delia justified in letting Sykes die at the end?

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While it is never morally right to allow someone to die when help is available, it is, nevertheless, understandable that Delia would not aid Sykes, who has been terribly abusive for many years.

Sykes is guilty of mental and physical abuse, as well as adulterous behavior, behavior that he flaunts before the community. The men on Joe Clark's porch talk about this behavior of Sykes's, and they castigate him. One says Sykes has beaten Delia enough to kill three women, and another says that there "oughta be a law about him." Then a man named Clarke speaks for the first time, observing that no law can make a man decent if there is no decency in him. He adds,

"We oughter take Sykes an' dat stray 'oman un his'n down in Lake Howell swamp an' lay on de rawhide till they cain't say Lawd a' mussy. . . . He done got too biggity to live—an' we oughter kill him."

Clearly, Sykes has the reputation of being a despicable man. It also seems unlikely that the men of her community would come to his aid even if Delia were to ask them to help.

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Delia Jones has been married to Sykes for fifteen years. After two months of marriage, he gave her the first brutal beating. She works hard and he spends her money.  He demeans her, harasses her, and now he flaunts his mistress around town. 

This is the life of the protagonist in the Zora Neale Hurston story "Sweat." Delia's habitual shyness and sensitivity have allowed Sykes to dominate her for too long.  She has just about reached her limit. Her tears, her sweat, her blood--these were what she had given to her marriage.

Delia worked as a wash woman for the white folks in a town nearby. Her routine began on Sunday evening after church.  Sykes would always come in and mess up her piles of clothes or make light of her job working for the white people.

Ah don't keer if you neer git through. Ahyhow, Ah done promised Gawd and a couple of other men. Ah ain't gointer have it in mah house.  Don't gimme no lipneither, else Ah'll throw em' [the white people's clothes] out and put mah fist up side yo' head to boot.

Delia was afraid of snakes.  Sykes knew this, and he began his ploy to get Delia out of the house or to have her dead.  He really did not care as long as he could move his mistress into the house.  

  • First, Sykes uses a bull whip which looks and feels like a snake around Delia's neck. 
  • He brings a box in saying it is a present. Delia opens it and finds a huge rattlesnake. 
  • Sykes leaves the snake in a box and tells her that it is a pet.
  • The rattlesnake begins to move around and make noises. 

Delia tells Sykes to get it out of the house before she gets back from church.  When she comes back, the snake is gone from the cage.  Delia thinks he has taken the snake with him. She begins her washing. She opens the wash basket, and there she finds the snake placed there by Sykes to bite Delia.

Delia runs from the house and hides in the garden.  Later, Delia sees Sykes tearing up the wire cage to get rid of the evidence.  He peeks in the window to see if he can see or hear anything.  Slowly, he opens the door and goes in hoping to find Delia's body; but instead, he finds an angry rattlesnake. Delia hears some animal screams and knows that Sykes has been bitten. 

In answer to the question, why does Delia not save Sykes? He has treated her like a slave and worse for fifteen years.  He placed a snake in her wash basket to bite her.  If she goes in there, Delia may be bitten herself.  It is too late to save Sykes from the snake now. 

The reader understands that Delia will probably not have a regret in her body when she attends Sykes' funeral.  He went too far!

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