From Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick
“Booker T. Washington said once that you must not judge a man by the heights to which he has risen, but by the depths from which he came,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston in her 1942 autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. Born in Notasulga, Alabama, Hurston moved to Eatonville, Florida, with her family when she was a child. As a young woman, she attended Howard, which “is to the Negro what Harvard is to the whites.” She went on to Barnard, where she studied anthropology under Franz Boaz (whom she and her fellow students referred to colloquially as “Papa Franz”). She went on to become one of the central figures of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and ’30s, and her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God has found a place as a canonical text in American literature. “It was a long step for the waif of Eatonville,” she writes in her autobiography. “From the depth of my inner heart I appreciated the fact that the world had not been altogether unkind to Mama’s child.”
However far “the waif of Eatonville” came from her humble beginnings, Hurston never forgot her people or the influences that made her into a writer; she continued to explore themes of Black life in the U.S. over the course of novels, nonfiction, and short stories. Perhaps her background in anthropology explains, to some extent, the folk idiom that pervades her work, her penchant for examining the lives of poor Black Southerners in a way that rendered them, in the words of David Levering Lewis, “both mythic and palpably real.”
One of Hurston’s great subjects was the status of women, especially in relation to the menfolk who surround them. Hurston’s men are frequently brutal, selfish, and entitled, arguably none more so than Sykes, the husband of protagonist Delia Jones in “Sweat.”
Though it is apparent that when they first met, well before the opening of Hurston’s story, Delia was enamoured of Sykes, in all his virility and manliness, the bloom has long since come off that particular rose. “Delia and Sykes fought all the time now with no peaceful interludes,” Hurston writes. “They slept and ate in silence. Two or three times Delia had attempted a timid friendliness, but she was repulsed each time.” The word “repulsed,” with its dual connotations of “pushed away” and “disgusted,” carries a lot of weight in this sentence.
It doesn’t help that Sykes is conducting an affair with a “big Black greasy Mogul” named Bertha. “He’s allus been crazy ’bout fat women,” says one of the town men during a typical gossip session. “He’d a’ been tied up wid one long time ago if he could a’ found one tuh have him.”
The first thing that is apparent here is the tenor of the dialogue, which is conveyed phonetically to represent the regional dialect of the Black speakers. This has the effect of immediately locating the characters in a place (the American South) and a socioeconomic stratum. The risk in this kind of approach is in laying it on too thick, and there are places in “Sweat” where the apostrophes and neologisms clutter the page. But it’s hard not to appreciate the specificity of the vernacular in lines like, “We oughter take Syke an’ dat stray ’oman uh his’n down in Lake Howell swamp an’ lay on de rawhide till they cain’t say ‘Lawd a’ mussy.’ ”
What is most interesting is that the village men don’t have any more affection for Sykes than Delia does. “Syke Jones aint wuth de shot an’ powder hit would tek tuh kill ’em,” opines one of the men lounging in the heat on Joe Clarke’s porch. Delia, the men agree, used to be pretty, but her looks have suffered at the hands of Sykes’s mistreatment: “Too much knockin’ will ruin any ’oman. He done beat huh ’nough tuh kill three women, let ’lone change they looks.”
Sykes’s sadism and petulance stand in marked contrast to Delia, who works long hours laundering white people’s clothes to keep her and her husband fed and sheltered. “Ah been married to you fur fifteen years, and Ah been takin’ in washin’ fur fifteen years,” she tells him in a fit of pique. “Sweat, sweat, sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat!” The story’s title is not simply a reference to the dog days of summer during which the narrative unfolds; it encapsulates the conditions under which Delia toils away for small recompense and no regard from her loutish husband.
Far from thanking her for her hard work or striving to make things better for the two of them, Sykes continually goads Delia, preying especially on her fear of snakes. He first throws a bullwhip over her shoulders while her back is turned, frightening her out of her wits, then later hides a literal rattlesnake in Delia’s laundry basket. Psychologically, Sykes is a master manipulator, knowing precisely which buttons to push in order to get a rise out of his wife. His version of masculinity is the kind that in the 21st century would come with the adjective “toxic” attached to it.
Sykes gets his comeuppance when the rattler bites him – “Orlando with its doctors was too far” is the elliptical manner in which the man’s ultimate fate is conveyed. Hurston is not one to allow her women characters’ suffering to go unavenged, though Delia also succumbs to a “surge of pity too strong to support” when she stumbles across her husband with “his horribly swollen neck and his one open eye shining away with hope.” In his final moments, Sykes hopes for deliverance from Delia, notwithstanding the pain – both physical and emotional – he has inflicted on her. The conclusion of “Sweat” offers not so much triumph as a kind of rough poetic justice. As in Galatians, so too in Hurston’s story: a man reaps what he sows.