Zora Neale Hurston’s short story Sweat takes place in a small African American community in Southern Florida during the 1920’s when the society was still divided between the blacks and the whites. There has always been a struggle of power which gives one group of individual more control over the other. For example majority over minority, men over women, straight over gay and the list goes. Same power struggle between a man and a woman can be seen in the short story sweat. Delia Jones, one of the main character who has been married to her husband for fifteen years and has suffered through a strained marriage. Delia is a hard- working woman of christian faith and has supported both her husband and the household for years. Sykes on the other hand does not value her work or the hard work she does to support her family. In return he abuses her and criticizes her for washing clothes of white people. He feels threatened by her because he does not have the same control over her that he used to when they first got married. The lost of control in the household forces him to gain the control back by torturing and abusing Delia to make himself feel powerful. Generally speaking the more control a person has more power they have in the society. And when that control is lost it makes them feel powerless and that person go to any limits to gain back that power. In the same way Sykes want to take control of the Delia and his household and when Delia refuses to listen to him he went as far as to kill her. He wanted to kill her and take control of everything she owned. The power struggle in the Sweat one can be seen through the themes of marital struggles, struggle and hard work and prying on one’s fear.
Throughout the story, it is noticeable that Delia Jones is in an unhappy marriage and her husband has no appreciation for the hard work that she puts in to make their relationship work. Throughout the fifteen years of their marriage Delia Jones had endured nothing but physical abuse and oppression from her husband. The fifteen years of physical abuse and oppression makes Delia Jones realize that even though she had worked hard to support her household, her husband will never appreciate the hard work that she puts in for her family. hard for the. Even though she was the only one providing for the family she did not back down she stood up to Sykes saying “Mah tub of suds is filled yo’ belly with vittles more than yo’ hands is filled it. Mah sweat is done paid for this house and Ah reckon Ah kin keep on sweatin’ in it” (Hurston). The way Sykes treats Delia is not simply because of a bad marriage and that he is not happy with her. It is more about the control that Sykes want over Delia. In the story the reader can get a sense of how much sykes hates to be reminded that he has been unsuccessful in providing for his family and the fact that he has no power in his own house. The success of Delia through her works is a constant reminder that he is not in control of his household. Sykes does not hate Delia as a wife rather her accomplishments remind him of his failures which makes him hate himself. As a matter of fact the more he hated himself, for being a failure in life, he hated Delia for making him feel that way. This put a strain in their marriage and the more successful Delia got in her life more and more their marriage suffered.
Through the fifteen years Sykes has repeatedly cheated on Delia and it is not because he does not want to be with Delia anymore rather it is about the control that he lost over Delia through the years of her success. Sykes says that “Ah’m so tired of you Ah don’t know whut to do” (Hurston). Even though Sykes so tired of Delia he does not leave her which could mean that he enjoys that comfort that Delia provides him with her hard work. Delia has not stood up to Sykes and his abuse in the fifteen years of marriage because she hoped to save her marriage, but Delia realized that every effort to save her marriage was in vain. Delia has grown into a independent woman and she does not want to be controlled by Sykes and let him have power over her when she is the reason their household runs. Delia fight back when Sykes stops her from working for the white people. Sykes does not like that Delia is independent and wants control over her that he had before. It is the constant loss of control that makes Sykes feel powerless in his own house cause a strain in their marriage. It takes two people, who feel equal to each other, to make a marriage work, but sykes want complete control over Delia which caused him loss of his marriage.
Another instance where power struggle is evident is when Sykes tries to get control of Delia by prying on her fears of snakes. Sykes knows that Delia is deadly afraid of snakes yet he goes ahead and frightens her with a bullwhip that looks like a snake. When Delia gets scared of the bullwhip thinking it was a snake, Sykes accepts that he just wanted to scare Delia by disclosing that “Course I knowed ! That’s how come Ah done it” (Hurston). Snakes have long been a creature that people fear or are used as a substance of fear. Sykes knows that Delia is afraid of Snakes yet he intentionally brings home a bullwhip that looks like a snake and scares Delia. Even when he realized that Delia actually got scared of the bullwhip, he feels no remorse rather he insults her and walked away. Sykes uses the snake to his advantage to play on Delia’s fear and to prove his dominance over her. When Sykes feels that he has no control over his own household and the way to make himself feel superior again by playing with Delia’s weaknesses. This is not the only instance in the story that sykes is going out of his way to gain control and feel powerful. There are many instances in the story that show the reader that Sykes will go to any lengths to show dominance over Delia, and to gain control of “his household”. One of the of the instance in the story that demonstrates his desperate tries to gain control is when he brings an actual snake in the house to remind Delisa of her weakness and have power over her. Lot of people are scared of snakes because they represent power to kill. When a snake is used as means to scare someone, it is a action taken by a person who is hungry of power. When Sykes realizes that he is left with no control or power which he so desperately wants, he uses different ways to manipulate Delia to feel dominant in his house. Sykes uses Delia’s weakness as an opportunity to gain control of Delia because Delia has more control in the house since she is the one working hard to provide for her family.
Another important theme of hard work and struggle in sweat is a subject of power struggle in the story. The theme of hard work is very evident through the title of the story, sweat, which in itself implies hard work. Usually, it requires hard work and persistence to be able to rely on oneself for the luxuries of life. That is not the case with Sykes who depends on his wife to support his own lifestyle. Delia is able to support her lifestyle and her husband’s lifestyle through her hard work and persistence working as a washerwoman. Sykes on the other hand does not work and depends on Delia to pay for his lifestyle and Sykes, in return cheats on her and criticizes her work. Delia makes Sykes realize that she is the one working hard when she says that “”Ah been married to you fur fifteen years, and Ah been takin’ in washin’ fur fifteen years. Sweat, sweat, sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat” (Hurston). Delia makes Sykes realize that she has all the power in the household because she is the one wokring hard to run their lifestyles. Delia has all the control in the household because she is the one that owns everything and Sykes feel threatened by the power that Delia has over him. Delia’s hard work gives her control and power in the household, and that is what creates a power struggle between these two characters. Sykes had always been in control and had all the power as the man of the household, but since Delia became an independent woman he sees that the power is slipping from him. Power and control is really important to Sykes, but Delia’s hard work gives her all the power.
The importance of power is very evident throughout the story. There are many instances in the story that a reader can sense a power struggle between characters. Power is a very important tool and it is either earned by a person, or is given to a person by other people. In the story the reader can see the importance of power to Sykes and the different means of fear and cheating to gain back the power that he lost. Delia earned her power through harak work and persistence. Zora Neale Hurston establishes a power struggle in the story, and demonstrates that power is not a constant thing and it can shift.
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