Contemporary critics advocate that stories must be complex, that shades of gray must be present in every character, every event and every action. The literature of Zora Neale Hurston does not abide by such a rule, preferring instead to make her characters wholly innocent and virtuous or blatantly wicked. In Sweat, she uses symbols, her characters’ deeds, and the story’s denouement to make a simple argument: Hurston proved that sooner or later, the downtrodden will rise up and overthrow their oppressors; by extension, she has demonstrated that in the timeless struggle between good and evil, good prevails in the end.
Sweat’s sumbolism allows Hurston to communicate her theme without compromising the story’s content or adopting a didactic manner of narration. In literature, the snake has been treated as a figure for power and evil by the many writers from the authors of the Old Testement to the compliers of Greek myth. Hurston, too, has picked this conventional symbol to stand for both Sykes and evil. Delia’s husband embodies an appalling evil which manifests itself in his infidelity, his physical abuse of Delia and finally, in his attempted murder.
The bull whip which Sykes throws on Delia at the opening of Sweat is a a symbol of his dominance over her as well as a representation of good’s submission to evil at this point in the story: “he picked up the whip and glared down at her.” For a moment, Delia believed the whip to be a snake and a “great terror…softened her knees and dried her mouth” (487). The snake icon reappears when Sykes brings home a “six-foot rattler” and Delia “all but fainted outright” when she peered into the cage (491). Again, the evil which Sykes brings into her house pertrifies Delia.
The laundry, which stands for goodness, represents Delia’s nature as well as her life with Sykes. Delia makes the best of her situation by picking out the few good aspects of her life (e.g. her sacraments and the “love feasts” at church) and cleaving onto them when the times get hard. This is much like how she sorts the soiled clothes by picking out the white things, then resorting the pile when Sykes “kick[s] all of the clothes together again” (487). For fifteen years, Sykes has dirtied her life, and she has washed it clean time after time. However, the oppressed will remain so as long as they can bear it, but every person has a breaking point, and Delia is no exception.
It may seem like the story’s climax embodies a sudden change in Delia’s character; in actuality, her willful failure to help him was a manisfestation of the courage she built up slowly over the course of fifteen years of brutality. During the first year of marriage, she was able to develop “a triumphant indifference to all that he was or did,” and later, she built a “spiritual earthworks” against Sykes (488). In the story, she also verbally attacks her husband for the first time: “Lay ‘roun’ wid dat ‘oman all yuh wants tuh, but gwan ‘way fum me an’ mah house.
Ah hates yuh lak uh suck-egg dog”. Sykes was so amazed at this rebellion that he almost lets the half-chewed food fall from his gaping mouth and he “had a hard time whipping himself up to the proper fury to answer her” (492). Sykes hasn’t paid attention to his wife for many years, and he is unaware of the fact that she is getting stronger and stronger as she tires of his barbarity. Sykes has never perceived Delia as a threat, but he during the argument, he should have taken heed at the her last words: With “no signs of fear”, Delia tells him “Mah cup is dune run ovah”–she has reached her breaking point.
For as long as Sykes only “soils her clothes”, Delia allowed herself to be trodden upon, just like traditionally, good shies away from its adversary as long as evil doesn’t coming knocking at its door. But when Sykes deposits the rattlesnake in the hamper, evil’s embodiment touch collides with the symbol of goodness and thus, the combat begins. “She threw back the lid of the basket…Then, moved by both horror and terror, she sprang back toward the door.
There lay the snake in the basket!” Initially filled with terror, Delia fled and climbed into the hay barn. But soon, her fear dissolved into something much more dangerous: she began to think coherently and as she cogitates, a “cold, bloody rage” stalked through her. Eventually, an “awful calm” came over her and she knew what she must do. “‘Well, Ah done de bes’ Ah could. If things aint right, Gawd knows taint mah fault'” (p.493). When the snake bites Sykes, she hears a “series of animal screams” but she “never moved, he called, and the sun kept rising” (p. 494).
By the story’s end, Delia, the personification of innate goodness, has overcome oppression. When she lets the snake destroy Sykes, she vanquishes evil by pitting it against itself. The last symbol Zora Neale Hurston employs is the rigid, straight Chinaberry tree, which stands in contrast to the sinuous snake of evil. At the fall of the curtian, Delia is clinging onto its trunk, where she waits for the cold river to rise and “extinguish that eye which must know by now that she knew.” Sykes dies knowing that he is no longer the oppressor and once again, evil is defeated.