April 25, 2005
Delia Through the Looking Glass
Is there more to a story than meets the eye? The answer is often a resounding yes—what may initially appear to be an uncomplicated, straightforward story often has more depth to it than may be readily noticeable. Take, for example, the writings of Zora Neale Hurston. Some people do not bother to take a closer look at her works and, after a cursory glance, are content with taking a story at face value. (Granted, not all writers intend any ‘deeper meaning’ in their compositions, and will even say so, but some critics insist on inventing unsubstantiated claims about the story’s supposed symbolism.) In Hurston’s case, however, readers who are even somewhat familiar with her works know that she is not to be read superficially. Her stories are deceptively simple. Here, the traditional analysis of Hurston’s short story “Sweat” is called into question. A straightforward, sociological reading of “Sweat” suggests that the story is simply about a man whose marriage is crumbling, who bullies his wife and who eventually gets his comeuppance. But closer attention to the biblical symbols used, as well as the topics of race and emasculation, produces a fuller understanding of the struggle that takes place.
The “incomplete” interpretation of Hurston’s “Sweat” might well say that it makes no pretensions. Such a reading would summarize it roughly as follows: “‘Sweat’ is about a man and a woman, Sykes and Delia Jones, who have been married for a long time. Delia is a hard-working woman, and Sykes is a good-for-nothing spouse. Delia’s husband no longer loves her and has been cheating on her with another woman. So he abuses his wife, hoping that she’ll get fed up and leave him—making the house free for him and his mistress. He brings a snake to the house to torture Delia, but eventually is the one who gets bitten. Righteousness has won over wickedness.” Perhaps as a pedestrian, capsulized plot summary this is okay, but it fails to recognize the complexity of Hurston’s narrative. If we begin by looking at the very title itself, we can see a couple of meanings. “Sweat” calls to mind the phrase “blood, sweat and tears,” which is very much an appropriate description of Delia and the work she does. She is thoroughly invested in it, and she takes care of both the financial burdens and the house’s upkeep. On an even deeper level, however, the title is the first of Hurston’s biblical references. In the Old Testament, the third chapter of Genesis (The Fall of Man) in part recounts Adam and Eve’s deception by the serpent. In punishing Adam and Eve, God sentences man to a lifetime of labor: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen 3:19).
The setting of “Sweat” also provides some clues to help guide the reader to a better understanding. The story takes place in Florida—specifically, the town of Eatonville, a locale where many of Hurston’s stories take place. Florida is well-known for its humid, warm climate, which is great for growing a wide variety of tropical plants. Recall that the book of Genesis describes the Garden of Eden as a place of abounding natural beauty, both in plants and animals. This is one way in which we might associate Eatonville with Eden; even the name has a similar ring to it. However, there is more to it than that: If Eatonville represents Eden, then certainly some of the characters must also represent an Edenic counterpart.
At one point, Sykes frightens Delia by cracking a bull whip: “Something long, round, limp and black fell upon her shoulders and slithered to the floor beside her … Then she saw it was the big bull whip her husband liked to carry when he drove” (1657). Freudian psychology might interpret Sykes’ bull whip as a phallic symbol, but while this would be an interesting analysis, it is not fitting with Hurston’s style—she is not generally known to use sexual symbolism in her stories. The better, more revealing answer lies in the fact that Delia initially thinks the bull whip is a snake. Sykes later brings home a very real one, knowing that Delia is terrified of the slithering creatures, and the [imagery of the] snake is closely associated with Sykes. Similarly, the bull whip evokes images of violence, torture and even slavery. Sykes and the snake seem almost interchangeable at times—especially to Delia, certainly—and while the snake may seem to be the most likely candidate for representing Eden’s serpent, it seems even stronger an argument to say that Sykes is the story’s serpent. The snake he brings has no inherent evil; snakes simply kill their prey as a means of survival. Sykes, on the other hand, is a cruel man. But we will actually depart, for the time being, from the analysis of Sykes and look more closely at Delia—this will help to explain the remainder of the analysis of Sykes.
The appropriate counterpart to Sykes’ evil, naturally, is Delia’s good. In fact, she is sort of the creator of her small world as she knows it. Around her house, which she had “built … for her old days,” Delia has “planted one by one the trees and flowers there. It was lovely to her, lovely” (1659). This is reminiscent not only of the Garden of Eden in the reference to the plants and flowers, but more importantly, it is strikingly similar to the way in which God created all. The line “It was lovely to her” reminds us of the repeated line in Genesis, as God creates the universe and the world: “And God saw that it was good” (Gen 1:10-24).
Delia’s many objects are further symbols to be interpreted as her innate good. A church-going, God-fearing woman, Delia’s goodness is associated with the “whitest pile of things” (1658)—the clean laundry. Sykes steps onto the clothes, “kicking them helter-skelter” and grinding dirt into them. White is a symbol of purity, and dirt is essentially its opposite here. At one point, Delia takes the iron skillet and threatens Sykes with it. Interestingly, what is normally used for ‘creating’—cooking meals—now doubles as a potential tool of destruction. The important object, however, is the laundry Delia takes in, as this may hold the key to understanding Sykes’ terrible nature. He greatly dislikes the fact that his wife “wash[es] white folks clothes” (1658), and this is a key source of his frustration. This is where the topics of emasculation and race factor in—Sykes, no doubt, feels emasculated and weakened by the fact that Delia is the family’s sole provider. (“Delia” sounds like “Delilah,” who rendered Samson powerless by cutting his hair—the source of his strength.) But even worse, she makes the money by doing “white folks clothes.” Sykes likely feels guilty that he cannot—or does not—support Delia, and as Hurston wrote “Sweat” in the 1930s, it was still very much the norm that the male, the husband, was the one who “brought home the bacon.” That Delia is the provider is evidenced near the beginning of the story, when she wonders where her husband has gone “with her horse and buckboard” (1657) (emphasis added). Sykes, in bullying Delia, is grasping at straws and trying to regain at least some shred of his dignity, his masculinity. He has no other real means of power, control or influence.
The above is one of the two reasons for Sykes’ feelings of ineffectiveness—and his subsequent treatment of Delia. The other reason for his behavior is hidden in the discussion among the “village men on Joe Clarke’s porch” (1659), who talk about how Sykes abuses his wife. They compare her to a sugar cane that has had all the juice wrung from it:
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 … Dey throws ‘em away. Dey knows whut dey is doin’ while dey is at it, and hates theirselves fuh it but they keeps on hangin’ after huh tell she’s empty. Den dey hates huh fuh bein’ a cane-chew an’ in the way. (1660)
Sykes has similarly crushed the life out of Delia, by bringing nothing more (to the relationship) than a “longing after the flesh” and “giving her the first brutal beating” (1659). He now regrets it, and after 15 years of marriage, as the men on the porch recall, she has gone from a beautiful young woman to a worn-out, quickly aging one. She is skinny and has “knotty, muscled limbs” and “harsh knuckly hands” (1659). It only makes sense, then, that Sykes regrets his long-term treatment of her, because her gradually deteriorating appearance reminds him that he has not fulfilled the role of provider. All of this makes it easy to understand Sykes’ motivation for seeing Bertha—other than the abovementioned point of trying to anger Delia [and thus force her to leave], the fact that he extravagantly buys gifts for Bertha proves the existence of his drive to provide for someone. So Bertha’s primary role is as a sort of surrogate wife.
This all can be tied in once more with the imagery of the snake, but now it can also be considered within the context of the ending, which is actually foreshadowed. Delia, driving home from church after having stayed for the night service, sings an old spiritual. Twice the song refers to the “Jurden,” and considering that Delia has just left a stirring service, the “Jurden” refers to the Jordan River. It is seen throughout the Old Testament, most notably in Joshua chapter 3, Crossing the Jordan. The Israelites’ safe crossing of the river meant their deliverance, and “crossing the river Jordan” is an oft-used literary allusion that refers to a final passing and/or death. Delia wants to cross in “uh calm time” (1663).
But we may still ask how to interpret the ending. We can wonder if Delia is delivered; if all really does end well for her. If we use the above quote, we might argue that, since Sykes himself was done in by the snake, then it (the snake) was actually beneficial—Sykes, the real serpent who disrupted Delia’s little Eden, is gone. In this case, the ending could be read as a very positive one: Delia’s faith and God’s judgment spared her, and she crossed the Jordan as she wished. The spiritual had described the Jordan as “col’” (1663), and the same “cold river” (1665) is described in Sykes’ eye as he is dying. He will cross the river, as well, but not in “uh calm time” as Delia will. Oddly enough, the snake that Delia had called “ol’ satan” (1663) and “ol’ scratch” (1664) could be more of a savior figure than a satanic one.
So how does that make the ending at all ambiguous or hard to read? It seems straightforward enough; the husband got what he deserved, right? The question isn’t about Sykes’ fate; it’s about Delia. After having been abused and tormented for so long, is she justified in not doing something to help her poisoned husband? The question can’t really be objectively answered, but we can look at the Chinaberry tree. This might well be likened to Eden's Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. For one thing, it is the only plant that, in both stories, is singled out. And Hurston repeats the word “know” thrice in one sentence: “She could scarcely reach the Chinaberry tree, where she waited in the growing heat while inside she knew the cold river was creeping up and up to extinguish that eye which must know by now that she knew” (1665).
As the serpent convinced Eve to bite the forbidden fruit, so does the snake in Hurston's story give Delia an opportunity. According to her faith, of course, it would be a sin to allow (not prevent) the death of another. But not helping Sykes would free her from him forever, and the snake gives her the similar ‘forbidden knowledge’ as Adam and Eve received. They got the ability to discern good from evil; Delia received the knowledge of how to go against convention and ‘sidestep’ Christian morals. Delia picks off a piece of fruit for herself and chooses to allow Sykes’ death—albeit for her own sake. This takes us back to the question of whether the snake is the savior or ‘another’ Satan. And is Delia blameworthy; does she feel any guilt? She does pity Sykes, at least a little: “A surge of pity too strong to support bore her away from that eye that must, could not, fail to see the tubs” (1665). Perhaps, then, the only way to reconcile the confusion of Delia's decision is to ‘compromise’ and give some credit to both interpretations. It seems most fitting that Delia’s feeling of pity has redeemed Delia from her hatred and ends the tragedy, possibly also suggesting that she has asked God’s forgiveness. She knows she is indirectly responsible for Sykes’ death, but also realizes that Sykes, in his evil nature, brought in the snake. His own evil, in other words, provided the opportunity for her to allow his demise.
The fact that Delia was taking in white people’s laundry may have been what made Sykes first feel emasculated and powerless, followed by his despising Delia—eventually he brings the snake into the house. He tries to kill Delia by hiding the snake in the basket. Sykes has brought about his own death in two ways. First, he brought the snake; secondly, his choice to abuse her made her decide not to help him. If he wanted to blame Delia for not trying to save him, it is his fault; she had no reason to help him, considering how abusive he was. In realizing that Sykes is really to blame more than anyone, Delia’s guilt becomes a little bit of sympathy for someone who has doomed himself by his own hand. The narrator, at one point, describes Delia’s suffering by saying that her “work-worn knees crawled over the earth in Gethsemane and up the rocks of Calvary many, many times” (1661). If we refer back to the Bible once more, the four Gospels say that Gethsemane was the garden where Jesus was arrested after Judas betrayed him, and Calvary was a hill outside Jerusalem on which the crucifixion occurred. According to John 19:17, Jesus was forced to carry His own cross to the site of crucifixion. Delia’s circumstances are likened to those of Jesus. She too has been betrayed, and she has her own great cross to bear, albeit a metaphorical one—all of the trials and suffering that Sykes put her through.
Holy Bible: New International Version.
Grand Rapids: Zondervan Bible Publishers,
Black History Month Biographies: Zora Neale Hurston.
2005. Thomson Gale. 19 April
2005. < http://www.galegroup.com/free_resources/bhm/bio/hurston_z.htm>.