Zora Hurston's Sweat can be correctly termed as a feminist novel since throughout the novel; we are confronted with the struggles of a woman in a marriage turned violent and her final success and independence at the end. At an age where female voices speak for gender equality and an end to violence and manipulation in marriages, the novel quite leaves a mark and resonates with the contemporary society in the hope that at the end, the society would change its perceptions of gender. Hurston explicates the major theme in this novel through her use of character, gender roles, symbolism, and imagery.
Zora Hurston's works were mainly influenced by the Harlem neighborhood where she lived. Her works and a majority of other writers' works belonged to the Harlem Renaissance period. The cultural, artistic, and social explosion that occurred in Harlem during the mid-1930 was called The Harlem Renaissance (Candia, p.15). During this period, Harlem became sort of a cultural hub for aspiring and up-coming black writers, artists, musicians, and photographers. They seized upon the opportunity for self-expression and self-determination. Their community was a major influence to their works of art, music, or literary, and they expressed their cultural identities through their art (Burke, p.1). In case one was a musician, it was likely that the music he created would convey the struggles of the black race, thus reveal to the listener what they really go through or their way of life in terms of their successes, their failures or their motivations.
Hurston's works clearly revealed the society as it was. The idea behind her characters and the theme in the novel was inspired by what she saw in the society. She was among the women feminism writers that arose during this Harlem movement (Candia, p.2). Her works plus those of other such like authors sought to express their perceptions on race and gender relations. They played a significant responsibility as the voice for the struggling African American women in marriages, workplaces or society in general.
In Sweat, the shorts story major theme is female empowerment. In it, we encounter a woman struggling against adversity from her abusive husband (Hurston, p.2). Therefore, the novel is centered majorly on marriage and set in the context of the home. The marital strife depicted in the story is typical and as relevant in our contemporary society just as it was more than 50 years ago when the story was brought into life. This means that it is common to encounter such instances where marriages are rocked by physical confrontations and hurt. Hurstons objective in writing such a story was to reflect on the issues facing women in her society. From the factual situation on the ground, women were highly regarded as the minority and treated as the less equal gender hence women rose up to defend their rights and to emphasize to the society the meaning of equality (Dowan, p.181). They held less percentage of seats in congress and they were less likely to hold highly-rewarding jobs that had a high responsibility (Moran, p.1). In the society, they were given the label house-wives and their main obligation, as forced upon them, was to give birth and take care of the children and the house while the man of the house was engaged in fending for the family. Such unequal roles were also reflected in marriages where women were expected to speak less and do more, and in consequence domestic violence was inevitable.
Hurston, however, takes on a different twist to the common domestic violence type of households we have ever heard of or encountered. In it, Delia, Syke's husband, takes on the role of the man that the society embraces. She is the one fending for the family and ensuring that there is enough for the two to get by. Syke, on the other hand, is the stay-at-home dad. He is jobless and spends his days drinking his wife's money, arguing with the wife, or seeking extra-marital relationships (Hurston, p.1).
Hurston is a minimalist in terms of character use. This serves as an advantage to her rather than a liability for through these two major characters, Delia and her husband Syke, she manages to bring out the major themes she wanted brought out in the short story with the effect of impressing the mind of the reader and initiating change in the society. In addition, the character of Delia and Syke is representative of real characters of individuals in the society. An author's work is basically a reflection of what happens in the society. Therefore, with this in mind, through a portrayal of such characters she seeks to make the society aware of such individuals, hence trigger change or affirmative action.
Through Delia, we see a hardworking woman struggling to make ends meet. She has a simple job as a wash woman, and since the opening of the story we are struck with a sense of just how busy she is and she usually is. Her days Sunday to Monday, she usually has to work (Hurston, p.2). The title of the story Sweat is essentially a reference to her character and no word would be fit in describing her hardworking characters than the word sweat that Hurston chooses. Delia uses her labor as a way of escaping the physical abuse at home. Her job occupies her mind enough to sort of heal her emotional hurt and abuse by transferring her focus into something worthwhile. Through her sweat, she is able to endure as it makes her strong and even though she does this under hostile working conditions, at the end, it is this that helps her win the battle against Sykes persistent humiliation. Apart from her hard work, she also uses her consciousness and individuality of being a wife to her advantage as it makes her keep her composure and at the end is able to defeat Syke (Hurston, p.3).
Syke's efforts and hard work typically denotes the way women in our contemporary society are always busy, always sorting this and that out and this might be an encouragement for women that lack such basic characters to emulate Delia. From the short story, we see Delia being patient with her husband. Despite the regular beatings and abuse, she always seems to cling on to the hope that her husband will one day change and cherish their marriage. We see that she avoids confrontations with her husband always never resorting to physical ways of solving their issues. In the beginning of the story, when Syke is busy threatening Delia and desperately seeking confrontations, Syke instead shrugs her shoulders and gets back to work (Hurston, p.1).
On the other hand, Delia's husband, Syke is the opposite of Delia's character. Through the story, there is nothing positive mentioned about Syke. His character quite fits the villain stereotype from who proceeds the purest form of evil. As described in the story, Syke is quite the macho type. He is an abusive husband that lazes around the house the whole day, with regular trips to the local bar and engages in extra-marital affairs sometimes in full-view of the wife and in their marital home. Syke makes no effort in helping out the wife and instead, uses Delia's hard-earned income to pay for his mistress's house rent (Hurston, p.5). He always seeks physical confrontations with the wife and looks for arguments over very little and baseless things (Hurston, p.1). He is based on real-life lazy and cruel husbands. Such characters like Sykes are not hard to come by in our contemporary society. Syke causes his own death as seen in the story when he brings a venomous and deadly snake that turns on him (Hurston, p.9). This illustrates how individuals end up being the cause of their own problems and ultimate death. Hurston sort of warns the husbands that go on abusing and mistreating their wives that a worse fate will come upon them if they do not cease in their misdeeds.
The portrayal of Delia and Syke in such respects gives insight into the gender roles typical of domestic violence ridden households. During the period in which the short story was written, women were going through tough times. Women were desperate to find some way of ending the neglect and abuse they encountered in the society, thus while some resorted to being faithful Christians, others took matters into their own hands (Burke, p.1).
Society is responsible for the gender roles placed on either partner in a marriage. Women are vilified while the men privileged. Such gender roles compromises marriages and it is less likely that marriages will work once society pre-determines the responsibility the man and the woman will have in the marriage (Burke, p.1). In a typical family in such a gender role specified society, the woman has the role of taking care of the husband in terms of cooking. In addition, she is to be submissive, always doing what the husband demands of her. On the other hand, the man is supposed to be the bread-winner, ensuring that the family is well taken care of. In the story, the violence observed is as a result of Syke assuming the master role in the marriage with the consequence of him ruling the household and taking total ownership of it rather than sharing in the decision making in the house with the wife. The gender roles specified by the society gives Syke the leeway to infringe upon Delia's rights. He physically and emotionally abuses her, while Delia silently suffers since she is not supposed to speak against her husband. Such households where the man is the master and the wife slave are bound to end in confrontations.
Symbolism is majorly used in the story and it is the main creative tool through which one understands the underlying meaning of the story. Delia's main job is the first symbol that Hurston uses and as readers, we encounter. Delia is a wash woman. This is symbolic and represents the jobs that African American women in her society endured. They had to go through hard back-breaking labor. Historically, this idea of women and labor is true considering African-American women and the domestic labor in the American South (Moran, p.1). The instance when Syke tramples on Delias laundry is symbolic in that it represents her hatred towards her and her job. This is despite the fact that the job pays for their meals and housing needs. The snake that painfully ends Syke's life at the end is symbolic. The snake is used throughout the story as a symbol of evil and meanness expressed by Sykes. At the start of the story, he throws a bullwhip at her to scare her (Hurston, p.1). This was to show that he has dominance over her but at the end; the same snake that he uses to his advantage becomes what kills him. In this regard, the snake is also symbolic of how one gets eaten up by his mistakes. Sykes initially brought the snake to his home as a way of scaring his wife or intimidating her (Hurston, p.6). However, in the end, the same snake ends up becoming the weapon in ending Syke's life. The story's title, sweat is symbolic of Delia's sweat during her painstaking working to eke out a living. It is representative of her daily routine and struggle both spiritually, emotionally, and physically that forms part of her life. She once exclaims when Sykes becomes hot-headed that, been takin in washing for fifteen years. Sweat, sweat, sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat! (Hurston, p.2).
Hurston is among the many African American writers that succeeded and cut a niche in the then male dominated field despite the various obstacles placed on their path. She does this just like her major character, Delia Jones, succeeds in the end and becomes free from the hurt she had earlier undergone from her husband. At the end of the story, she is now able to live an independent, happy and freer life (Hurston, p.9). Both successes, that of Hurston and her major character, Delia, represent the success of all African American women from the impediments t...
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