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Fear, Control, Transformation: Symbolism in Sweat by Zora Neale Hurston

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Abuse exists in many different platforms — whether it be mental or physical, abuse is inhumane and malevolent. Sykes Jones, the antagonist in the short story “Sweat”, creates abusive situations for Delia Jones, the protagonist, with the use of her fears. Delia, who has a feeble position in her relationship, is a hardworking washwoman that is characterized by sweat and has to deal with a constant fear of her abusive husband, Sykes. As Sykes dies a tragic death from a snake bite, Delia is shocked at first , but then comes to realize that she now has control over her life again and that Sykes is no longer an obstacle. In the short story “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston, the rattlesnake symbolizes Delia’s fears and Sykes’s control over her while also revealing how Delia undergoes a transformation. The symbolism of the snake allows for the reader to follow Delia’s character changes as well as Sykes’s abuse to her.

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Sykes knows of Delia’s fear of snakes, so he tries to manipulate her in order to show his power. Although Delia is a religious woman, to support herself and Sykes, she organizes laundry on the Sabbath (Hurston 1). As Delia is organizing laundry for the next day, she sees a large figure with a bullwhip skulk over over her. In response to her whipping , Delia exclaims '. . . what you throw dat whip on me like dat? You know it would skeer me--looks just like a snake, an' you knows how skeered Ah is of snakes' (1). Sykes is the one responsible for whipping Delia as he states 'Course Ah knowed it! That's how come Ah done it' with a malicious tone in his voice (1). Sykes intentionally uses a bullwhip because he knows it is as scary as a snake for her. In this scenario, the bullwhip is symbolic of the evil and oppression that Delia has to deal with in her adulterous and poisonous relationship. Knowing of Delia’s fear, Sykes uses the bull whip, which is physically similar to a snake, to show his power over her, which he thinks will only make Delia afraid of him more. Rather than to put herself in the position of horror, Delia becomes angry with Sykes as she claims that even “Gawd knows it's a sin” (1). Delia even talks backs, a rare occurrence, to Sykes, insisting that she has done all of the work in the house while he only makes Deliaś life harder for her (2). The rise of the new Delia is shown when she lifts the iron skillet, a symbol of defiance, to Sykes (2). Sykes, stunned and angered by Delia’s defiance, makes his abuse become harsher in turn to her defiance. Although Sykes feels like he has sole power over Delia, her character changes allow for her to take more power in their relationship.

Delia’s confrontational approach to Sykes taking advantage over her reveals that she undergoes a transformation. Perhaps Sykes’s most harsh act yet is when he brings home a “six-foot rattler” (6). Initially, Delia apprehensively asks that Sykes kill the snake, but later “she [Delia] [does] not run away . . . as usual. She [stands] for a long time in the doorway in a red fury that grew bloodier for every second that she [regards] the creature that was her torment” (6). Delia has a shift in character when she realizes the snake was being used as a torment to her. She came to the realization that Sykes was only using the rattlesnake to show his dominance, which made Delia feel used and powerless. As a result, Delia’s understanding of Sykes’s behavior leads her to confront him at dinner that night: 'Ah hates you, Sykes [. . .] Ah hates you tuh de same degree dat Ah useter love yuh. Lay 'round' wid dat 'oman [Bertha] all yuh wants tuh, but gwan 'way fun me an' mah house” (7). After Delia’s confrontation to Sykes, he is rather dazed by her behavior and has trouble answering her with rage (7). A change in Delia’s previously timid character, she confronts Sykes with anger, showing that her initial fear of him when he brought home the snake has been diminished.

As a consequence for fifteen years of abuse from Sykes, Delia watches Sykes die as she grasps the glory of freedom and relief. Delia one day comes home to find out that the snake has escaped its cage, so as a result, she goes to sleep in the barn, marking the climax of the short story. As another form of abuse towards Delia, Sykes breaks the cage of the snake, making it go loose in the house. Delia figures this out as she wakes up and sees “Sykes . . . at the wood-pile, demolishing a wire-covered box [of the snake]” (8). Sykes obliterates the snake’s cage to make Delia’s fear of the snake more continuous rather than limited to when she is home. Ironically, Sykes dies from a snake bite when he is the one responsible for letting it loose. As Sykes emphatically cries to Delia for help, she does not offer any assistance to him in turn for all of her abuse (9). Delia has now gained enough strength to not help her husband, for she has been his puppet for the last fifteen years. Instead of helping her husband, Delia watches Sykes die in shock but with comfort that her life is in control of her again. 

Delia’s change in character with the use of symbolism reveals that it is important to stand up to those who try to control your life. In the short story “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston, the author establishes the snake as a symbol of Delia’s fears, Sykes’s control over her, and reveals how Delia transforms with realization of Sykesś actions. Symbolism in “Sweat” is displayed as Sykes uses the bullwhip as a snake to scare Delia, as Sykes brings home a rattlesnake, and as Sykes breaks the cage to let the snake free. The use of symbolism establishes Delia as a dynamic character and shows that her position in the relationship was not as meek as it was at the start of the story, for she gains strength and confidence to talk back to and defy Sykes. Symbolism in “Sweat” also portrays how Sykes took advantage of Delia with the utilization of her fears. And with the use of symbolism, Hurston is able to accomplish her main goal— to show the relationship between the abused and abusive in any relationship.

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