This was final paper for ENGL 219 – American Literature:1865 To The Present
Mythology, Transfiguration, and “Sweat”
The symbolism and mythology throughout Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat” is utilized to create a depth of message, and to empower Delia through the struggle of her married life. These allusions aren’t meant to make these struggles larger than life, nor to idealize the situation Delia is in but rather to make her even more relatable to the potential reader. The stories alluded to are considered to be cultural or religious touch stones, and thus a larger audience can find relevance within the story of an overworked, under appreciated and abused black woman in the south. But this goes a bit farther as these allusions do raise Delia through their comparisons. She is transformed through her struggles and perseverance, not unlike the mythic hero figures.
Our first allusion to discuss within the story is with the bullwhip that Sykes throws on to Delia’s shoulder. This phallic object is meant to emulate a snake and terrifies Delia. Mythologically the snake is a clear allusion to the Eden mythology with the Serpent, but I’d like to focus on another myth from the Ancient Egyptians first. This clearly phallic object (referred to in the story as “something long, round, limp and black fell upon her shoulders and slithered to the floor beside her”) also serves as an allusion to that of the story of Osiris from Ancient Egyptian mythology. Osiris was hacked to pieces and scattered. His wife Isis finds all of his parts save for his genitals and rebuilds him, and then builds a replacement organ from mud. Osiris is the chief of his pantheon of deities, and is not only defeated, but emasculated in the process. While not a common allusion, I feel that it highlights the narrative of Sykes from his own perspective. He feels that he is king in his keep, but will eventually suffer his comeuppance and suffer a loss of ‘male power’ in the process.
While on the subject of Sykes, the relationship with Delia could be read as any number of antagonist characters, such as Lucifer, Loki, etc. Sykes lives not only for his own satisfaction and fulfilment, but to find additional spiritual sustenance through the suffering of his spouse. And not merely at her suffering, but suffering via his machinations. He won’t be truly and genuinely happy unless she is miserable and beneath his heel. We see this with his mirth at her reaction to the whip on her shoulder. “She lifted her eye to the door and saw him standing there bent over with laughter at her fright.”
Sykes also directly impedes her work, “She saw that Sykes had kicked all of the clothes together again, and now stood in her way truculently, his whole manner hoping, praying, for an argument.” Sykes creates an environment where he can antagonize Delia, and if she acknowledges or confronts the situation she will lose either due to his further antagonism or via violence. This is akin to the other antagonist characters, as the leading deity of their mythology cannot or will not acknowledge them as a legitimate threat.
We also know for a fact that violence occurs in their household, particularly when Delia grabs the frying pan and takes a defensive stance. She has had to do this before, as recalled by Delia as she lays awake in bed, “Two months after the wedding, he had given her the first brutal beating.” Sykes being the serial abuser that he is knows when to back down to prevent an altercation that may change the status quo, or possibly result in Delia finding her agency. This aligns with the earlier mentions of antagonist characters, as they do not want to push those they antagonize to the point of taking action against them. This can also be seen with the word choice “Truculent” meaning aggressively defiant. If Sykes is the dominant persona in the relationship, why does he have to act defiantly to his wife? The answer is that he isn’t actually the dominant persona, but is actively trying to impede Delia from realizing this fully. While neither Lucifer nor Loki are considered to be the ruling characters of their particular mythologies, they both take action to prevent other members of their mythologies from taking notice of their actual roles.
Continuing on the analysis of Sykes, in his state of demise he mirrors the greek mythological monster, the cyclops. The cyclops shows up within the Greek epic The Iliad, in which Ulysses is trying to return to his kingdom after the Trojan War, a conflict resolved by trickery involving a wooden vessel. While we don’t know for certain if the laundry basket that ends up containing the snake is in fact wicker or made of wood, we do know the snake was contained in a soap box briefly, which enabled Sykes to later weaponize the snake for his devious ploy. The Cyclops is portrayed as a large, barbarous, flesh eating monster with one bulbous eye. “She saw his horribly swollen neck and his one open eye shining in hope”. A one eyed monster, which could again be read as a phallic image. Within Sykes’ demise we get another mythological reference, that of the river styx. This mythological body of water was traversed by the dead. That Delia “knew the cold river was creeping up and up to extinguish that eye” sounds a fair bit similar.
Continuing with the Grecian imagery, but instead pivoting to Delia, we have the allusions to the story of Heracles/Hercules. Firstly is the snake sent by Hera, the vengeful spouse of Zeus, to kill Hercules in his cradle. Thus far this plays pretty well into what we have seen of the relationship of Delia and Sykes. As we’ve established with the aforementioned adversarial god metaphors earlier, Sykes torments the peace of mind of Delia, who not only maintains the home and works, but also procured the home for them and paid for it with her wages. In this she is dualistically Zeus and Hercules, though she has not realized/ascended to this power until much later in the story. We see brief glimmers again, when she wields the frying pan, not dissimilarly to a club which in many depictions of Hercules is his weapon of choice. The twelve tasks of Hercules are all feats of physical exertion and strength which are punishment for having killed his wife and children in a fit of madness induced by Hera. In Delia’s case, her physical strife is also brought on by her spouse, who, while alive and able-bodied, refuses to be of any help and instead chooses to actively work against her.
With the non-judeo-christian allusions out of the way, let’s discuss the snake imagery and Garden of Eden metaphor mentioned earlier. We’ve established the phallic metaphor of the bullwhip, and that within the story Sykes uses it as a proxy for a snake to terrorize Delia. When this proves insufficient Sykes acquires a live rattlesnake. The story establishes Delia as a religious person with her mentioning attending church and taking sacrament. These elements, the snake and her belief, work together to instigate Delia into making a choice which is forbidden/a sin. With the climax of the story we can see this come to fruition as she does nothing to assist her dying husband. She is limited in her choices due to distance to any sort of medical facility, and lack of time, etc. But she could turn the other cheek, she could try to make him comfortable as he dies. In the strictest sense of the term, it is a sin that she does nothing. This is not to say that her husband does not deserve his fate, nor that she is morally wrong.
In fact, this opens an interesting counter-argument in regards to the delineation between morality and ‘religion’. Within the Garden of Eden, the first humans are told to not eat from the tree, they are given no reasoning beyond “Don’t, because I said so”. This mirror’s Sykes and his recriminations for Delia washing and working inside of the house. He doesn’t give a reason beyond his say so. Delia acts on what she feels she must over what she is ordered to do, by both her husband and by the religion she follows.
Then we have the actual snake itself. The actual serpent of this story is deployed in a laundry basket by Sykes, the Satan figure of the story, as a means of tormenting and potentially killing his wife. The biblical serpent is often alluded to being in collaboration with or being an outright embodiment of the devil. True to nefarious form, the snake deceives Sykes with it’s rattling, which leads not only to his demise, but to Delia’s freedom. She flees the house and waits beneath a tree, while not the Edenic Tree of Knowledge, it certainly plays into this particular theological allusion. In the end, our protagonist is granted agency through the powers of a venomous serpent. She is freed from the oppressive rule of her husband, and will no longer have to placate his hostile and violent nature. She is transfigured from beleaguered housewife into a being with open potential. A decidedly more positive take on post-edenic human beings and in line with most mythic hero figures.