Critical Analysis

Zora Neale Hurston’s Sweat

Hurston’s “Sweat” is the story of Delia Jones, a wash-woman, who is married to Sykes, an abusive and selfish man. Married for fifteen years, Delia has endured physical, emotional and verbal abuse. It is through the use of symbolism, imagery, anaphora, heteroglossia, and carnival that the author creates for the Formalist a unified story about struggles, God and in the end―peace.

With the use of symbolism, Hurston begins the story with Sykes playing a joke on his wife, Delia. He acts on her fear of snakes and by using his bull whip to pretend it is a snake, he terrorizes his wife. Screeching with fear at what she thought was a real snake; Sykes takes great pleasure in his joke. Throughout history and different cultures, the snake symbolizes fertility; while in others it symbolizes vengefulness or vindictiveness. The author leaves the interpretation process to the imagination of the reader. The formalist must determine what it means to him/her and how this affects the protagonist, Delia. Another symbol used throughout the story is Delia’s taking of the sacrament. Throughout her dark life, Delia has several constants in life, her home and faith. Even Sykes tries to make her come across as a sinner when she chooses to wash clothes on Sunday after coming back from Church. Yet, it is Sykes who is the sinner for he has been having an extramarital affair. That Delia hides in the barn, symbolic of the birth of Christ, is evident that through God’s grace she is protected.

Hurston uses dialogized heteroglossia, through the narrator’s educated voice to culminate in the different dialects, giving the reader a complete visual of the sufferings and thoughts of her diverse characters. Through heteroglossia, Hurston creates different dialects for her characters: There is Delia, the protagonist whose lines are a mixture of an uneducated and educated person, perhaps due to her exposure to the white folks: “Ah aint for no fuss t’night Sykes. Ah just come from taking sacrament at the church house.” unlike Sykes’ voice whose voice exposes an uneducated verse, as his words are phonetically pronounced: “Ah don’t keer if you never git through. Anyhow, Ah done promised Gawd and a couple of other men, Ah aint gointer have it in mah house.” Another example of dialogized heteroglossia exists among the conversation between the towns’ men folk as they relate what it is like for Delia to have been married to Sykes: “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. But 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 cane-chew. Dey throws em away.” While the dialect between Sykes and the towns’ men folk are identical their beliefs about Delia’s value as a member of their community are different.

The story does not lack anaphora, as it is used to express what Delia’s work really means to her as a wash-woman―when she tells Sykes that her house and the food that she provides him with was done with “sweat, sweat and sweat”. The repetition emphasizes the important constant in Delia’s life is her home, which has been able to maintain because of her job. As a wash-woman Delia has poured sweat over the washing of laundry for the white folks. Hurston uses irony here, as Sykes takes joy in taunting her stature as a wash-woman, yet it is this very thing that keeps a roof over his head.

Through carnival, Hurston draws together the cast of many together to encourage interaction and free expression of their thoughts or actions. This includes the reversal of fortune for in the end when Sykes brings in a snake to kill his wife, justice arrives for Delia, in repayment for all of the ill-treatment and abuse she endured at the hands of her husband. Finally, through carnival, another figure of speech, Delia is no longer a victim of terror, but a victor; as Sykes, the victimizer becomes victim to the terror he has been lashing out at his wife for fifteen years. Carnival adds playful element, a twist that allows Delia to find justice.

Though the story is told in different voices and dialects including those of the town folk; however, it is through the narrator’s voice that the reader catches the true meaning of Delia’s unhappiness and tortured existence. Throughout the story, the author’s used of the figures of speeches provides the reader a unified story―a unified story from a formalist’s perspective as seen through the examples of symbolism, imagery, anaphora, dialogized heteroglossia and carnival. Delia’s journey through darkness to eventual light becomes possible through her faith.