Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat”: An Ecofeminist Master’s Class in Symbolism and Dialect

 

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

Though Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat” is only 4743 words long (about 15 pages), the scope of the work reaches farther than most novels.  Within this small space, Hurston addresses a number of themes, such as the trials of femininity, which she explores with compelling and efficient symbolism.  This is woven together with an ecocritical/ecofeminist perspective that links the feminine realm with the natural realm, which is then contrasted with the human realm.  Hurston also proves herself every bit as capable as Mark Twain with regards to representing regional dialects and individual speech patterns, challenging the elitism of prescribed language and grammatical rules by representing an authentic dialect.  Though a short work, it is nuanced and eloquently compact as Hurston maximizes each word, object, character, and plot point to create an empassioned and enlightening narrative.

 

GENDER

 

While models like Ashley Graham challenge the media's prescription of beauty, Hurston demonstrates how even varying beauty standards can objectify women.

While models like Ashley Graham challenge the media’s prescription of beauty, Hurston demonstrates how even varying beauty standards can objectify women.

It is Hurston’s exploration of the feminine experience that is the most overt component of the story, particularly the way in which women are objectified.  Delia, the narrative’s protagonist, is seen as a strictly corporeal being.  This is demonstrated when her husband, Sykes, defines her in strictly physical terms.  He states, for instance, that he “hates skinny wimmen”, defining her not in terms of her personal characteristics, but rather in physical terms.  This tendency is reinforced when he tells Delia that the snake he brought into their home “wouldn’t risk breakin’ out his fangs ‘gin [her] skinny laigs”, further suggesting that she is undesirable based on her corporeal being.  When speaking to his mistress, Bertha, Sykes tells her that he “sho’ ‘bominates uh skinny ‘oman” and compliments her “portly shape”, while those who gossip about Sykes and Delia note that he has “allus been crazy ’bout fat women”.  In this way, both Sykes and even those who sympathize with Delia, frame women in terms of their physicality.  Sykes devalues Delia for being skinny, and praises Bertha for her full figure, while the gaggle of gossipers use demeaning phrases like ‘fat’ to describe Bertha.  This is reinforced in more subtle ways as well.  When, for instance, Delia sheds her “habitual meekness”, it is compared to a scarf blowing off her shoulders, framing this personality trait as an object, not as characteristic that defines her humanity.  Through both overt and subtle means, Hurston demonstrates the ways in which women are objectified through the narrative.

 

 

Rattlesnake: image borrowed from here.

Rattlesnake: image borrowed from here.

The suppressive nature of Delia’s experience as a woman is exacerbated by the physical toll of both abuse and labour.  Syke abuses Delia physically, psychologically, and economically.  It was “Two months after the wedding [that] he had given her the first brutal beating”, which would become a pattern, but he would likewise abuse her psychologically.  In the narrative’s opening sequence, for instance, he drops his bull whip on an unsuspecting Delia’s shoulder, knowing that the she would confuse it with a snake.  When confronted, Sykes concedes that he knows Delia suffers from ophidiophobia (a fear of snakes), and that is why he pulled the prank, underscoring his cruelty.  He takes this a step further when he brings a rattle snake into their home to terrorize Delia. This cruelty is intensified by Sykes’ economic abuse.  Early in their marriage, he gambles their money and refuses to contribute to the household finances, and when he does have money, it is Bertha he spends it on.  Not only does he spend Delia’s money and fail to contribute his own, but he impedes her work as well, kicking the laundry she is paid to clean, despite the fact that Delia’s “tub of suds [has] filled [his] belly with vittles more times than [his own] hands [have] filled it”, and that it is her sweat that “paid for [their] house”.  This passage demonstrates the extent of the economic abuse Sykes is guilty of.  Sykes, though, is not the only force taking a toll on Delia, as her work transformed her once soft body into “knotty muscled limbs” and “hard knuckly hands”.  It is not simply a single antagonist that supresses Delia, then, but the contextual forces that make her subordinate.  In each of these instances, Hurston articulates the impact of the pervasive and exhausting forms of oppression endured by women like Delia.

 

Image retrieved from Bing.

Image retrieved from Bing.

Though Delia initially seems as though she is manacled to certain gender stereotypes, she finds liberation through them and refuses to be defined as a victim.  She is, for instance, confined to the domestic sphere.  Hurston makes this suggestion overt as she places Delia in the kitchen in the opening scene, and moreover, has Delia doing laundry.  Both the kitchen and this chore are signifiers of the domestic sphere. However, it is by embracing her domestic duties that Delia is able to secure a degree of autonomy.  Rather than allowing her skill set to be wasted on unpaid work, she hires her service out to others and makes a profit. This allows her to buy both a horse and a home, both of which she, and not her husband, owns.  These domestic signifiers are empowering in others ways.  When, for instance, Sykes takes an antagonistic stance against Delia in the opening sequence, “She seize[s] the iron skillet from the stove and [strikes] a defensive pose”.  Though the skillet would typically be a symbol linked with the domestic sphere, and in turn the subjugation of women, Delia transforms it into a weapon that signifies her refusal to be a victim, thus empowering her.  Thus, Delia demonstrates a fortitude akin to Job and in the process manages to transform signifiers of oppression into the means of her liberation.

 

GENDER AND NATURE

 

Oscar Brown Jr., who sang about both the signifyin' monkey, and the snake and the woman.

Oscar Brown Jr., who sang about both the signifyin’ monkey, and the snake and the woman.

It is the template of nature that provides an understanding into the nature of oppression, and the fortitude required of Delia to overcome her oppression.  As the village men speak of Delia, one of them notes that many men take “takes a wife lak dey do a joint uh sugar-cane”, going onto state that sugar-cane is “round, juicy an’ sweet when dey gits it”, but that these men “squeeze an’ grind, squeeze an’ grind an’ wring tell dey wring every drop uh pleasure dat’s in ’em out”, and that “When dey’s satisfied dat dey is wrung dry, dey treats ’em jes lak dey do a cane-chew.”  This reinforces the notion that women are seen as commodities or objects to be used, and highlights how women, like elements of the natural realm, are exploited by men.  Sykes is even more predatory than this analogy suggests, as Hurston links Sykes with other elements in the natural realm.  In the final scene, as Sykes moans in pain, his animalistic vocalizations are compared to“a maddened chimpanzee, a stricken gorilla”, while asserting that his voice is devoid of “a recognizable human sound.”  This language seems to suggest a link between Sykes and the signifying signifyin’ monkey, who would antagonize those around him, much as Sykes did with Delia.  Sykes is also linked with snakes, both through Hurston’s use of a near homophonic name (Sykes vs. snakes), and also by having Sykes introduce a snake into the narrative.  This is reminiscent of the folk story of the snake and woman (recounted by Oscar Brown Jr.), whereby a woman nurses a stricken snake back to health only to be bitten and killed by the venomous creature.  Hurston, though, challenges the implications of this narrative, empowering the female figure and making the snake/Sykes the victim of his own brutality.  This contrast is in keeping with Hurston ecological metaphors that describe Delia as resilient.  For instance, the town gossips claim that Delia is like “Hot or col’, [or] rain or shine”, as she can always be relied upon to perform her duties. Just as Hurston used ecological metaphors to describe the narrative’ antagonist, so too does she use them to illuminate the characteristics that make Delia strong, framing the story, in part, as an ecofeminist (or ecowomanist) text.

 

 

DIALECT

 

Hurston follows in the tradition of Mark Twain in terms of her representation of dialect.

Hurston follows in the tradition of Mark Twain in terms of her representation of dialect.

Though issues regarding perceived race seems to be placed on the peripheral in the narrative, Hurston’s use of dialect is a statement on perceived race and culture in and of itself.  Hurston’s use of dialect places her in a category with great American writers such as Mark Twain.  Twain, though, represented the regional dialects of enslaved Americans through peripheral characters, and one could argue that this was akin to a literary incarnation of a minstrel show.  Hurston, in contrast, projects the dialects onto the central characters, and in so doing argues that these dialects must be recognized and presented through a descriptive lens.  Her central figure is a virtuous human whom the reader can empathize with and admire, and the fact that she speaks in a dialect of English, and not the prescribed standard, makes her no less relatable or deserving of empathy.  This, by extension, lends legitimacy to the dialect.  Hurston’s descriptive approach to language and grammar, though, was not received with universal praise by other authors from the Harlem RenaissanceRichard Wright, for example, Hurston’s called Their Eyes Were Watching God a “minstrel-show turn that makes the white folks laugh” and said it showed “no desire whatever to move in the direction of serious fiction.”  Wright felt that people of colour had to prove that they were capable of writing as academics wrote.  This though, not only undermines the value of the dialect while reinforcing the authority of the colonizers hegemonic institutions, but fails to take into account that Hurston wrote in third person.  In using third person, Hurston is able to simultaneously demonstrate that she is capable of writing in an academically accepted way, whilst giving a platform to regional dialects, just as Twain did.  Wright’s prescriptive view of language and grammar seems to suggest that he has a colonial version of Stockholm Syndrome and fails to see the beauty of Hurston’s approach to dialect.  This not only situates Hurston’s work within the tradition of the greatest pieces of American writing, but also validates these regional dialects while challenging preconceptions that some held with regards to writers of colour at the time.

 

OBLIGATORY CONCLUSION

 

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

To read Hurston is to read a master storyteller who has full command of all the tools around her.  Though the length of the story does not allow the characters to each be a roundly developed as the characters in her longer works, and though the brevity of the work may not allow for much more than binary gender archetypes, there remains a depth to the work that is uncommon in short stories.  Hurston describes the domestic condemnation that Delia endured, underscoring the pervasive nature her oppression, but does not allow her protagonist to be defined as a victim.  Instead, she overcomes her trials, and by linking together a series of effective symbols, Hurston is able to frame this story as one of empowerment, not victimhood.  In addition, her use of dialect adds a depth to the story that brings in the cultural context the characters were living in without allowing it to highjack the narrative.  “Sweat” is a template of subtle story telling that demonstrates the skill with which Hurston wrote.

 

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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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