Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Venom of Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat”

By Allegra Castro

Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat,” though typically read as just a short story, actually also operates as a scary story, highlighting the fear of snakes and invokes frightening imagery of domestic violence. Delia, the story’s protagonist, has sustained years of physical and verbal abuse not to mention infidelity from her husband, Sykes, until she reaches a breaking point and declares, “Mah cup is done run ovah.” No longer able to intimidate Delia, Sykes tries to use her fear of snakes to scare her out of the house she paid for with her own hard work and sweat.

Although Sykes had ruled over Delia in the past, her defiant words and threatening actions in response to his treatment give him reason to fear her. He is “cowed” and “A little awed by this new Delia,” who verbally challenges him while wielding an iron skillet. Indeed, her verbal prowess seems superior to husband in their combative exchanges.

At the end of the story, Delia’s formidable defiance is most pronounced as she witnesses but does not intervene in her husband’s death by snakebite. What makes the last scene of the story particularly disturbing are Hurston’s descriptions.

Delia hears Sykes’s “animal screams,” sees the window “shade torn violently,” sees his “huge brown hand,” hears “the great dull blows” on the wooden floor, and hears him cry out “Delia, Delia!” As readers, we are compelled to witness, alongside Delia, the horror of Sykes’s desperate struggle against the snake and his agonizing death.

“Sweat” could be read as a scary story. However, it is also a story about a black woman who defangs her fears surviving both a venomous snake and a poisonous marriage.

Related: Who's Afraid of Black Women?

Allegra Castro writes about nineteenth-century African American literatures, African American satire, and nineteenth-century black intellectual thought. She is a member of the UTSA Reading Collective

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