While Delia Jones is admirable, she is no heroine. As the central character in Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat”, she certainly displays qualities a hero would possess: perseverance and loyalty. In my opinion, however, she does not bear the two most important aspects of a true literary hero: courage, and the will to slay her particular dragons. She also fails to qualify for the nobility of character I feel the classical hero would espouse in her actions when Sykes died. Toward the end of the story she began to show the beginnings of bravery, but whether that was genuine courage or simply the loss of self-control borne of at long last reaching the limits of her patience, we will never know. I believe the author intends to portray her not only as the abused, overworked wife, but also perhaps as a symbol of oppression in contrast to Sykes, her oppressor.
Hurston instilled Delia with the strength of purpose one would find in a hero. Despite circumstances that would cause many people to break, as her situation worsened Delia simply worked harder. Her perseverance brings to mind Odysseus’ indefatigable will to return home. About her dogged determination, Joe Lindsay said “Hot or col’, rain or shine, jes ez reg’lar ez de weeks roll roun’ Delia carries ‘em an’ fetches ‘em on Sat’day.” (519). Her loyalty to Sykes was unquestionable until the very end. She fed him, kept house, took his beatings, and overlooked his womanizing in the hopes that he would one day return some small modicum of love. This self-effacing loyalty brings to mind Beowulf’s allegiance to Hygelac. It is not that the object of her faithfulness has earned her devotion but that, as her husband, he occupies the place that commands her loyalty regardless of who he is.
While Delia has the fortitude of a hero, in my opinion, she lacks two defining characteristics: courage, and the resolve to overcome her challenges. During the fifteen years of mistreatment by her husband, her “habitual meekness” (518) was a result of beatings “nuf tuh kill three women” (519). Rather than effect change in her situation, she buries her head in the sand and simply keeps going, digging in deeper and deeper to hold onto her path. While her endurance is laudable, it is not courageous. Finding the will to overcome her situation would have been. Slaying our dragons rather than simply outlasting them takes the kind of bravery that a true conqueror would have in abundance.
As the story opened, Sykes took advantage of Delia’s deep-seated fear of snakes to scare her for fun. For the first time in fifteen years, she refused to back down. As the story progresses, she reaches the end of her patience and makes her ultimate stand by telling him to “gwan ‘way fum me an’ mah house” (522). She threatens to go “tuh de white folks bout you, mah young man, de very nex’ time you lay yo’ han’s on me. Mah cup is done run ovah.” (522). Is this genuine courage or fearlessness born of reaching the bitter end of years of forbearance? I believe it is the latter, but only Zora Neale Hurston herself knows the answer to this question.
Delia understood that Sykes’ death was the one he had intended for her. While he surely brought it upon himself, she let him know in his final moments that she left him to die alone. I feel that a hero would have at least offered comfort, undeserving as he was, to illustrate the selfless compassion that the ideal heroine would exhibit. This may be a harsh assessment, but humanity is inherently flawed, and I feel that were Delia to have met the criteria for heroism then she would not have been such an authentic character.
The author portrays Delia as a single individual that is the victim of years of oppression and abuse. I posit that Hurston intended her to symbolize all oppressed peoples, especially the African Americans of the period and contrasted her with Sykes who represents the oppressors. The enduring spirit and endless hope in the face of overwhelming adversity are Delia’s greatest achievements. She is not a hero because few real people are. In my opinion, the author sees Delia as the personification of every man and woman carrying the weight of injustice on their backs. Whatever her qualities and faults, Delia is an incredibly moving figure in Hurston’s powerful story about one woman’s struggle to eke out an existence against the backdrop of abuse.
- Hurston, Zora Neale. ‘Sweat.’ Levine, Robert S., et al. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. W.W. Norton & Company, 2017. p.517-525.