Sweat Themes

The two main themes in “Sweat” are oppression and sex and love.

  • Oppression: In highlighting both racism and domestic abuse, the story explores the problem of oppression within the Black community.
  • Sex and love: The prominence of phallic snake imagery, as well as the infidelity and the sexual power struggle in the story, makes sex a key theme in “Sweat.”

Themes

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Oppression
One of Hurston’s central preoccupations in ‘‘Sweat’’ is the problem of oppression within the black community. Sykes’s ceaseless cruelty towards his wife is by far the most difficult part of Delia’s situation, and she must seek emancipation from her tyrannical husband before she tries to address the wider system of racial inequality.

This is not to say that Hurston oversimplifies Delia’s problems; her poverty and hard work are inextricably connected with whites, for whom she must work. A major irony in the story is that Delia must work so hard to clean white people’s clothes while her own clothes are dirtied with sweat and blood. It is precisely the combination of white racism and spousal abuse that leads Delia to a level of desperation not at all uncommon amongst black women attempting to carry the burden of two forces of oppression at once. Given the reality of her social and economic situation, Delia can no longer remain indifferent to her increasingly abusive husband, as she has attempted to do for fifteen years.

The story does not provide any neat solutions; indeed, Delia’s options are quite limited. Hurston is careful to emphasize that a black washerwoman is not able to clean away the abuse of a philandering and merciless husband while following a strict and meek Christian moral code. As she must work on Sundays (against convention) in order to fulfill the heavy obligations to her white oppressors, Delia eventually finds that she must resort to a conventionally immoral way of dealing with Sykes. Whether she is justified in standing by while he dies, and whether Hurston is advocating a transgression of a widely accepted moral standard, is not entirely clear, but Hurston certainly illustrates the stark desperation of Delia’s situation in vivid detail.

The editors of Fire!! may have felt that they needed to publish their own magazine in order to bring up these issues at all; the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance did not approve of topics like immorality and oppression within the black community. Wishing to portray blacks as civilized, modern, and virtuous people, Alain Locke and W. E. B. Du Bois were hesitant to highlight conditions that would be detrimental to their agenda. They were interested in trying to decrease the large numbers of black men lynched each year more than they were interested in allowing black writers free rein in their work. But Hurston and her peers professed that they were unwilling to accept any artistic compromise, which is why ‘‘Sweat’’ does not compromise in portraying all sides of a black woman’s oppressive reality.

Sex and Love
The prominence of phallic snake imagery, as well as the infidelity and the sexual power struggle in the story, makes sex a key theme in ‘‘Sweat.’’ When Hurston writes in the opening of the story that ‘‘something long, round, limp and black’’ fell on Delia’s shoulders, she is playing a prank on the reader in somewhat the same way that Sykes is playing a trick on Delia. This phallic reference is purposefully shocking so it can begin to ask questions about sex and love in the context of the Jones’s marriage.

The first thing the reader wonders is why Delia is so terrified of this ‘‘bull whip,’’ which falls on her shoulders, emphasizing that it represents the burden of oppression. It soon becomes clear that her fear derives from the beatings to which she has been subjected for fifteen years. Sykes seems to be painted, through the description of his fixation with snakes, as an aggressive rapist figure. Hurston does not, however, treat this theme as a simple complaint about male phallic tyranny. Indeed, the fact that this bull whip is ‘‘limp,’’ combined with Delia’s insults, such as calling her husband a ‘‘suck-egg dog’’ whose ‘‘black hide’’ is like ‘‘uh passle uh wrinkled up rubber,’’ questions what the author is really saying about Sykes’s sexuality.

In his book Jump at the Sun, the critic John Lowe highlights these instances of Delia’s ‘‘verbally emasculating’’ her husband (a concept related to castration, or taking away ‘‘manhood’’) and argues that Hurston must be thinking about ‘‘the emasculation of the black man by a racist, capitalist society.’’ This suggests a more complex power dynamic between Delia and Sykes than at first seems to be the case; for example, Hurston seems conscious of the impotence Sykes faces as a black man, exhibiting some of the stereotypical traits that leaders of the Harlem Renaissance attempted to shun.

Although she does not seem to be vindicating Sykes, the author is certainly playing with the idea of a reversal of sexual power into the hands of a thin woman who toils ceaselessly for white people. In fact, Sykes’s sexuality (associated with black folk values) is his undoing. As Lowe points out, it is when he jumps on the bed, the sexual space in the home, that he is finally poisoned by the representation of his violent sexuality. The manner in which this violent sexuality plays into the conflict of the forces of racial and domestic oppression in the story adds a complex and ambiguous dimension to the couple’s sexual power struggle.

Themes and Meanings

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Hurston’s story derives from the black folk tradition that she first came to know in her hometown, the black community of Eatonville, Florida. Christianity was a part of that tradition; her father was a Baptist preacher. Even after her years of study under anthropologist Franz Boas, her fieldwork as an anthropologist collecting folklore among her own people and in the Caribbean, and the consequent influence of Voodoo on her thinking, Christianity remained a living part of Hurston’s work. She continued to prefer biblical settings and stories; a character in Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) calls the Bible a “hoodoo” book. “Sweat,” one of her earliest stories, records her thinking before the Voodoo period. It assumes a Christian cosmology, as yet unmodified by Voodoo traditions, but adapted to the perceptions of a folk culture—that of poor blacks in the American South.

Hurston’s theme of extreme love and extreme hate within the black family acquires, in the story “Sweat,” the magnitude of a cosmic struggle between good and evil, God and Satan. The central principle, which almost has the force of a moral, Hurston pronounces through the voice of Delia: “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.” Faith in a Providence that will reward good and punish evil is a refuge of people who on earth know nothing but suffering.

Within the religious scheme of this fictional world, Sykes is the representative of those who defy the Christian God. He rebels against the principles of love and compassion, and, hence, his soul becomes hardened. A proud, vengeful creature, he is already damned. He cannot see goodness in others and elevates himself to the role of god. In an ironic assertion of his own powers, he claims, “Ah aint got tuh do nothin’ but die,” disclaiming responsibility to anyone on earth. He brags to Bertha that “this was his town and she could have it if she wanted it.”

The reader knows where his or her sympathies ought to lie. Sykes is clearly wrong throughout the story, and Delia is right in living out the principles of Christian love, tolerance, and humility. In addition, she has those virtues closely associated with Christian principles in America, hard work and “sweat.” She earns her way in life. The ending bears out her prediction of poetic justice. God does not forget the faithful.

Nevertheless, the ending of the story struggles against a strictly Christian reading. The pattern does not go so far as to challenge the Christian order. The man who plays with snakes and defies Christian ethics is not a hero, a conjure man of another cultural order, but a villain. However, Hurston does not allow the Christian scheme to dictate the psychology of her heroine. She has Delia at last defy her husband, call him the same names that he has called her, and in the end disclaim any responsibility for him. When he is dying of poison, she feels compassion but refuses to aid him. In the sense that Sykes is pure evil, one can see this as consistent with Christian eschatology, but in the sense that he is a man, one may read it as human, female vengeance. She not only does nothing to help him but also wills his destruction. She must live with the knowledge, too, that he sees her and knows that she lets him die.

“Sweat” is thus one of many literary accounts of Christianity’s impact on the black psyche and its modifications under the stress of psychological pressures. It is also, perhaps, an indirect comment on the economic consequences of a racially split society. What is more noticeable, however, is the absence of white society. The story pits black against black. Whites are far in the background. They appear only once, in Delia’s threat to complain to them if Sykes ever beats her again. In this respect, Hurston anticipates by forty years the fiction of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison: She affirms black culture by ignoring or subordinating the white; she allows the culture to speak for itself; she subordinates the male to the female consciousness. This last characteristic in itself dictates a modification of the Christian tradition.

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