In the short story “Sweat,” Zora Neale Hurston describes the final months of marriage between Delia Jones and her husband Sykes. Delia’s hard work supports both her husband and their small home, but Sykes takes Delia’s earnings and spends as he pleases. He is also known within their Florida town for his extramarital affairs. Delia’s life is one of managed goodness, and Sykes is Delia’s opposite in all ways. In an attempt to drive Delia from their marriage, Sykes brings a large rattlesnake into their home. Although the snake ultimately ends the pair’s marriage, it is not in the manner Sykes had envisioned. Zora Neale Hurston’s tale depicts the classic struggle of good versus evil, but she also illustrates that evil is pervasive and tempting, leading good people to succumb to evil.
Delia Jones is a churchgoing, hardworking woman who spends her entire week, beginning Sunday nights, washing the townspeople’s clothing. For fifteen years, Delia’s hard work has provided for her home, which she plans to have “for her old days” (Hurston 293). She and her husband Sykes are locked in a struggle over the home, which is Delia’s prized possession. Her “sweat…paid for this home,” and she has created life here by planting trees around the home (293). However, Delia’s plan to keep her home is compromised by her husband. Sykes promises his current lover, Bertha, that she “ ‘kin have dat li’l ole house soon’s [he] git dat ‘oman outadere’ ” (296). Hurston creates sympathy for Delia through this struggle. Sykes is the evil within the marriage, and Delia is the good counterpart.
Although Delia is marked by “habitual meekness” (293), she stands up to Sykes one evening. After he tramples her sorted laundry and “step[s] roughly upon the whitest pile of things” (292), Delia threatens Sykes with a skillet. White is often associated with purity, and Hurston illustrates Delia’s purity. Because Hurston writes about the abuse Delia has suffered, the reader is sympathetic to her situation and does not take issue with her action of threatening Sykes. Sykes also tells Delia, “ ‘Ah been hatin’ you fuh years’ ” (298). Hurston does not disclose why Sykes despises Delia, but she reveals that he is also physically abusive to his wife, creating additional sympathy for Delia. This is Delia’s first rebellion against Sykes’ tyranny, and the first Hurston illustrates that Delia may have a dark side that conflicts with her goodness.
Continuing his quest to obtain their home, Sykes turns to psychological tactics and exploits Delia’s fear of snakes. He lays a bullwhip across Delia’s shoulders, and she is paralyzed with fear, telling Sykes, “ ‘Some day Ah’m gointuh drop dead from some of yo’ foolishness’ ” (292). Delia believes that Sykes’ actions will eventually kill her, but she remains strong in her resolve to keep her home and she does not leave. Delia takes solace in her religion and she reminds herself that “ ‘Sykes, like everybody else, is gointer reap his sowing’ ” (294). Hurston is...