Literature plays many roles in our lives; it entertains us, frightens us, and thrills us, but if written well it also teaches us and gives us a greater understanding of ourselves and human nature as a whole. When an author puts pen to paper he should have a story to tell or information he feels he must impart to the world at large so that the reader has a greater understanding of the life that surrounds him. Sweat by Zora Neale Hurston does that very well. Delia, the protagonist, attempts to live a moral and upright life, never dreaming of taking a life. Yet ultimately to save her own life she must use self-defense at the expense of her husband's life. Following this theme Hurston uses religious symbolism throughout her story to emphasize good and evil and the effect our choices have on our lives.
As the story opens we are introduced to Delia, an industrious and hardworking black woman who takes in the laundry of white people to pay the bills. Although married the only two things in her life that she truly cares about are attending church and her small home. Some may think this strange until we are introduced to her husband Sykes. Morally Sykes is the antithesis of his wife, choosing any opportunity to torment his wife. He is physically and emotionally abusive, and contrary to biblical teaching he is involved in an adulterous relationship that he takes no pains to hide from his wife. While Delia works tirelessly and attempts to save her money her husband is sinful and corrupt, stealing and spending the money Delia earns on his lover Bertha.
We can also see religious symbolism when we look at temperament and physical differences between Delia and Sykes. From the beginning we can see that Delia represents dedication in the work she does; humility and meekness in her thought and manner. Delia is portrayed as physically timid but spiritually and emotionally strong, using her faith in God to protect and guide her. In the war between good and evil Sykes fills the opposite role, having no virtue whatsoever or faith in God. Sykes is lewd, crude and takes arrogant pride in being physically stronger while Delia does the best she can to live her life in a saintly manner and attempts to tolerate her husband's behavior.
A bit later in the story Delia is working and wondering where her husband may be when she suddenly feels something snake-like lying around her shoulders. Terrified, she screams and jumps, only to find her husband there holding the bullwhip he uses with the horses, clearly enjoying the fright he has given his wife. The bullwhip implies another biblical symbol, that of the snake from the Book of Genesis. We then see him begin kicking the pile of clothes she has cleaned and folded into a neat pile while he verbally abuses her, seemingly determined to begin a fight. Finally she reacts, grabbing an iron skillet to defend herself. Taken by surprise he backs off. "It cowed him and he did not strike her as he usually did" (Hurston 2003). So from this we see two things: Sykes is not only verbally and psychologically abusive but physically abusive as well, and Delia has her limits of endurance. Clearly this is not a happy marriage nor in reality is it a true home.
At this point in the story Delia, although extremely unhappy, does no further thinking or planning of self-defense against her husband. She seeks no revenge. "Bottom of FormAn act of revenge is any deliberate injurious act against another person which is motivated by resentment of an injurious act or acts performed by that other person against the revenger, or against some other person or persons whose injury the revenger resents" (Rosebury 2010). Instead Delia did what she felt she had to at that point in time and then drops the subject, although she does think things will even out in the end. We are told Delia has the thought of "Oh well, whatever goes over the Devil's back, is got to come under his belly" (Hurston 2003). Or in other words, what goes around comes around and Sykes will eventually bring trouble to himself by his own actions against her. Prophetic words indeed.
Delia's belief that 'you reap what you sow' comes directly from the Bible.
"For Hurston, who would include Biblical allusions in many of her subsequently composed fictional and nonfictional works, the overall effect of drawing upon the New Testament chapter was to underscore its interlinked references to sexual sin, animalistic behavior, and Christian endurance so that her intended audience could detect parallels between the spiritual commentary and important plot elements in her own creative artistry. Thus, the story's emphasis on Delia's "spiritual earthworks" points to her extended tolerance of Sykes's malevolence within a New Testament context, and not to her "Old Testament vengeance" (Hurd 1993).
This is where we can take a closer look at the complexity of human nature. By studying human nature we hopefully come to a better understanding of why people do and say what they do. Additionally we are then able to take a look at our own lives and behaviors and that of those around us. Here we are able to see both sides of human nature; that of good and evil. There are many who believe that we are by nature fundamentally good. Delia's beliefs and nature allow her to rise above the treatment she receives at the hands of the man who is supposed to love and care for her. She is constantly belittled and made to feel unworthy of love or respect but her spirit refuses to be buried.
The opposite side of the coin is evil and it fits Sykes like a glove. "For sentimental moralists must deal with a potentially subversive question: if man is innately good, how does he come to commit evil actions?" (Borkat 1979). Sykes' nature is to degrade and deride his wife, being unfaithful to her and treating her in a condescending manner in an attempt to make himself feel superior.
Literature influences us. As readers we can relate to this type of behavior as we see and hear of it all of the time in our world. It is most often, though not always, women who are on the receiving end of abuse and pain, and yet they go on. By reading about Sykes' behavior towards Delia we can see how abuse of any kind affects others.
"There is good reason to believe that we can be influenced by fictions in ways that matter morally, and some of the time we will be unaware that we have been so influenced. These arguments fall short of proving a clear causal link between fictions and specific changes in the audience, but they do reveal rather interesting and complex features of the moral psychology of fiction. In particular, they reveal that some Platonic worries about the dangers of art cannot be dismissed lightly" (Harold 2005).
As the story comes to a close we see the full extent of evil that Sykes' possessed. Once again we see the religious association of the snake representing evil. Knowing his wife was afraid of snakes he catches one and brings it home as a 'pet'. One night when he was gone yet again the snake gets loose. Terrified, Delia runs out of the house, waiting for her husband to return. He eventually does but he has been out drinking and will not listen when Delia tries to get his attention and keep him from entering the dark house. When he nosily enters the house he is bitten by the poisonous viper. "She could hear Sykes calling in a most despairing tone as one who expected no answer. He crept an inch or two toward her all that he was able, and she saw his horribly swollen neck and his one open eye shining with hope" (Hurston 2003). Delia knows this and now has a choice; should she enter the house and try to save her husband's life or remain where she is and allow him to die? The use of snakes in the story cleverly depicts the evil that Sykes represents.
So we come to the question: is Delia guilty of murder or did she act in self-defense? I must state once again that I believe her to have acted in self-defense. Many have questioned if it was ethical or moral to have not attempted to save her husband's life. In The Evil of Goodness Borkat wrote:
As long as generous feelings are said to be one's motivation, one's deeds must be noble, and one's evil must be goodness. Although one may have performed bad actions, they are at least partly the result of factors for which one cannot be held responsible. Indeed, evil actions may actually spring from the inherent goodness of one's nature (1979).