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Friday, August 28, 2020

Language and Ironic Imagery in Zora Neale Hurston's "Sweat"

I’ve been re-reading some of the short stories by Zora Neale Hurston. I like “Sweat” – it’s basically a “twist of fate” kind of “poetic justice” story that takes place in the 1920s in a historically all-Black town in Florida, probably modeled after Eatonville, Hurston’s hometown, which was founded by 27 individuals on August 15, 1887 (Florida History Network, n.d.). 

Delia, a hard-working black woman has worn herself out running a laundry business to support her husband, Sykes (who is often called "Syke" in conversation). He, in the meantime, grows increasingly indifferent to her as she has lost her looks due to all her hard work over the years.  He uses her appearance as an excuse to take up with Bertha, a woman who is new to town.  Bertha is heavy, and just what Sykes likes: “Ah sho’ ‘bominates uh skinny ‘oman. Lawdy, you sho’ is got one portly shape on you! You kin git anything you wants,” (Hurston, 2013, Unappreciated, and openly humiliated, Delia still tries to make amends with Sykes, but to no avail.  

Hurston was a Columbia University-trained anthropologist, who documented the language, lives, and customs of individuals and communities. She studied the people in the all-Black communities of Florida, interviewed a former slave who was on the last voyage of a slave ship to the U.S., and studied Voodoo (Voudoun) in Haiti.  Consequently, her short stories display a genius for language and characteristic cultural customs.

As for literary devices, in “Sweat,” Hurston creates visual echoes that have the potential to generate a multiplicity of interpretations.  For example, the bullwhip that Syke uses, and which startles Delia has a snake-like appearance.  Later, Sykes encounters a rattlesnake roughly the same size as the bullwhip. He decides to keep it, despite Delia’s pleas to kill it because it is dangerous and it terrifies her.  Sykes even has the temerity to tell her that he  likes the rattlesnake more than he likes her. 

“Naw, now Syke, don’t keep dat thing ‘roun’ heah tuh skeer me tuh death. You knows Ah’m even feared uh earth worms. Thass de biggest snake Ah evah did see. Kill ‘im Syke, please.”

“Doan ast me tuh do nothin’ fuh yuh. Goin’ roun’ trying’ tuh be so damn asterperious. 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. (Hurston, 2013,"


From a Freudian literary critical perspective, Hurston's use of the bullwhip and the snake are fairly obvious symbols of a male phallus and are used to represent male oppression of women. Specifically, they represent Sykes's domination of Delia, and a situation in which Delia willingly subjugates herself, since she will not leave Syke, even when she has to defend herself with a skillet.

In her analysis of "Sweat," literary critic Catherine Carter points out the way that snake is used as a symbol connecting the drama of Delia and Sykes to Biblical narratives, particularly those in the book of Genesis and the Garden of Eden (Carter, 2014).

Shortly after making the statement, the rattlesnake escapes the laundry basket and bites Sykes in the neck, killing him. In the end, the instrument of his own cruelty kills him.  Hurston makes that ironic parallel very clear.

What may not be quite as apparent is the connection that Hurston is making to slavery and the internalization of the relatively recent experiences of slavery and the consequent enslaved mindset.  The bullwhip is an image that evokes the idea of a slave owner’s or an overseer’s bullwhip. The slave owner, who was legally allowed to whip the men and women trapped in slavery, was also legally allowed to consort with any female who caught his fancy, and to openly mock and deprecate other women, including the mother of his children.

It is useful to keep in mind that Delia first mistook the bullwhip for a snake. Later, the rattlesnake, roughly the size of the snake, kills Sykes. However, given the visual analogue, one could also suggest that a poetic justice would also be served if the slave owners and overseers where killed by the instruments of their own torture.

Most writers who analyze "Sweat" focus on gender roles, the oppression of women, and women finally talking back. Those themes are certainly in "Sweat." However, Zora Neale Hurston's "Sweat" is also an anthropological look at echoes of slavery's implements of torture, and the internalization of slavery's various mindsets, which range from submission, sadism, and liberation. 

Works Cited

Carter, Catherine. “The God in the Snake, the Devil in the Phallus: Biblical Revision and Radical Conservatism in Hurston’s ‘Sweat.’” Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal of Southern Cultures, vol. 67, no. 4, 2014, pp. 605–620. EBSCOhost,

Hurston, Zora Neale.  “Sweat” Biblioklept. 2013.

The Florida History Network. "August 15, 1887: Eatonville, Florida becomes one of the first all-black towns in U.S."  The Florida History Network.  n.d.


Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.


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