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In his essay “What Goes Around Comes Around: Characterization, Climax, and Closure, in Hurston’s ‘Sweat,’” Myles Raymond Hurd argues that Zora Neale Hurston intends for readers to see Delia, the protagonist of “Sweat,” as “an exemplar of virtue” (9), blameless in the death of her husband, Sykes. Hurd is right. Primarily through her use of symbolism, a technique examined by Hurd, as well as irony and revenge, Hurston portrays Delia as blameless in Sykes’ death because she wants the readers to understand that those who are cruel to others can’t expect kindness back.

Drowned flowers also play a symbolic role in the story. They represent the result of the marriage to her husband. The once beautiful flowers are now “drowned in the salty stream that had been pressed from her heart.” The salt is the tears and her blood. The flowers symbolize what she brought to the marriage, but he only brought brutal beatings. For this reason and others, Hurd considers Delia justified in not helping her husband after he was bitten by the snake.

Their marriage is abusive and terribly troubled. Delia’s husband Sykes is unemployed and insecure. He is furious that she cleans white people’s clothes and he is insensitive to Delia’s feelings, as he plays a practical joke on her by using her fear of snakes to scare her. The couple had been married for 15 years, and Sykes beat her beginning two months after they became married. Sykes is even more insecure because it is through his wife’s hard work that they were able to pay for their home.

There are several uses of symbolism in the story. Sykes dying by the bite of the snake is symbolic because it was introduced at the beginning of the story as the object he uses to torment Delia. The snake is the viciousness that Sykes possesses and which he has put into the relationship for 15 years. The snake symbolizes karma. The very tool used to torment and attempt to murder Delia, turns and attacks the antagonist. This is poetic justice at its very finest.

Hurd also uses symbolism by working the church into the plot. The church represents innocence. Delia is shown to the reader to be innocent because she is a victim of her husband and justified in not assisting him when he was dying. It becomes evident that the church is used to symbolize innocence when after she speaks forcefully to her husband, the plot turns to her attending Sunday night church and this enforces that she is a serene person. “Despite this forceful speech, misidentified by many readers as the story’s climax, Sykes neither immediately leaves the household nor ceases tormenting Delia, and to overemphasize her response to his bedeviling her at this early stage in the tale is to forget that she utters these words before later being restored to serenity through her attendance at Sunday-evening church services.” But she eventually acknowledges that her strong faith is pointless in trying to get her husband to become a better man.

The story is ironic because just as Sykes is looking to kill Delia, he is bitten and killed by the very snake he sought to kill her with by placing the animal in her clothes. He is instead bitten by the snake after Delia leaves the house with a lantern – the house is now dark – and Sykes is now left unaware of where the snake is. After he jumps onto the bed, he is bitten. It is also ironic that after decades of hard work that has drawn up a “Sweat,” Sykes is looking to provide a home to Bertha, who is a dark-skinned and fat “eight rock.” He spoils her and he is doing it with the money that is being earned by his wife. This treatment of Delia creates irony, which becomes one of the reasons why Delia is justified in not trying to find help for her dying husband.

The use of revenge is perhaps the most important justification for Delia not attempting to save her husband’s life. He was the source of so much pain for her. She was abused by him both physically and mentally. This was perhaps the only opportunity to not only get rid of him, but to also find revenge for the many years of torment that he caused her. Hurd is sympathetic towards Delia and he considers her act, or lack thereof, to be understandable and justified. Sykes even stole his wife’s money and used it to provide for a woman with whom he cheated. He even offered her Delia’s house.

Delia has put up with the behavior of her husband for so long, and now that the opportunity is there to allow him to die, she doesn’t pass it up. It is strange that she tolerated him for so long, as she could have divorced him, told him to leave – though he likely wouldn’t – or called the police on him for the abuse. It is unusual in the situation where a woman is dependent on her husband that she would choose to stay with him. In this case, she is actually supporting him and he is only a drain on her finances. She is portrayed as having so much virtue, and this could be the reason why it took her so long to get rid of her husband once and for all.

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By Hanna Robinson

Hanna has won numerous writing awards. She specializes in academic writing, copywriting, business plans and resumes. After graduating from the Comosun College's journalism program, she went on to work at community newspapers throughout Atlantic Canada, before embarking on her freelancing journey.

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