Social Problems in “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston


The story written by Zora Neale Hurston is centered around a hard-working black woman who lived her miserable life with her ungrateful lazy husband. This short story raises many important social problems through the characters, rhetorical techniques, and historical background. Some of the issues reflected in the story are still topical in modern society. Sweat reveals the image of domestic abuse and hard labor work at the same time emphasizing the role of feminism and religion in life.

Abuse and Domestic Violence

Right from the beginning of the story till the end, the story demonstrates the abusive relationship between Delia and her husband, Sykes. Sykes treats Delia cruelly, constantly scaring her and disrespecting her. Throughout the story, he despises her appearance, work, inflicts physical violence. He abuses a woman physically by frightening her with a snake, beating her, and emotionally by using harsh expressions as “Gawd! how Ah hates skinny wimmen!” (Hurston 75). When Delia got married, she was young and beautiful, but after several long years of living with a tyrant, she lost her former appearance. It was noticed by everyone around, so Walter Thomas, one of the characters in the story, said, “She wuz ez pritty ez a speckled pup! Dat wuz fifteen yeahs ago” (Hurston 77). Sykes’s attitude towards his wife is a depicture of domestic abuse, which was a big problem back in that time and is still a topical issue for many women today.

The Role of Feminism

The topic of abuse and domestic violence smoothly turns into the importance of feminism for women. Although Delia provided money for her husband, paid for the house, and fed the two of them, he did not appreciate his wife’s efforts. Delia, having endured her husband’s attitude and behavior for a long time, finally begins to think that she does not need Sykes’ presence in her life. After another obscene act, Sykes comes at night and rudely tries to take his sleeping place. Delia is no longer responding to his actions, demonstrating “A triumphant indifference to all that he was or did” (Hurston 76). At the time the story was written, African American women were experiencing the pressure of racism and inequality. Hurston, in her story, represents a strong woman that could live a much better life independently if only she was not afraid to leave her measly husband. That highlights the feministic message of the work and protects the rights of women suffering from abuse by their husbands.

Strong Black Female Voice

The author, raising the topic of feminism, focuses on the situation of black women. This story highlights the role of the black female voice. At that time, black women faced infringement of rights from both racism and sexism. Considering the race and gender of the author, Sweat can be regarded as a statement on inequality. The work of Zora Neal Hurston has made a significant contribution to the fight for the rights of black women and, in literature, is associated with the strong voice of the black woman.

Hard Labor Work and Parasitism

Using portraits of the characters of Delia and Sykes, the author raises the topic of hard labor work. Delia, who works every day doing dirty work and making ends meet, embodies hard physical labor. After World War I, many African Americans were forced to do hard low-paid work and live in ghettos. In the twentieth century, the American economy experienced a boom; however, the black people were poorer, and not many African Americans could get high-paid jobs. Delia, who has worked almost all her life, shows how hard it is to work every day and feed her husband in addition. Sykes, on the contrary, is the personification of parasitism and trifling life. He lives off the hard work of Delia while at the same time spending money on his affairs on the side. The very word “sweat” conveys the significance of the work in this work. Delia told her husband that her sweat pays for the house, thereby making it clear that it is thanks to her work that they live in the house. The lifestyle of Delia and Sykes juxtaposes work and laziness.

The Role of Racism

Delia’s hard work and the poverty they live in to reflect the theme of racism. “Ah done tole you time and again to keep them white folks’ clothes outa dis house.” To earn money, Delia washes dirty clothes as her work. Sykes despises her work, saying, “Ah done told you time and again to keep them white folks’ clothes outa dis house,” (Hurston 74). By this he is demonstrating his negative attitude towards white people. Social inequity between black and white people is represented in the story, and the story reflects a historical time when African American people were oppressed and considered representatives of low social class.

Importance of Religion and Christian Symbolism

The topic of religion plays a significant role in the story. Delia, being a Christian, often mentioned religion and God’s power. In response to Sykes’s foolishness, Delia says, “Gawd knows it’s a sin” (Hurston 74). Thus, as if waiting for the time to come when God punishes him for all his sins. The author used Christian symbolism in order to emphasize the role of religion. Sykes brings a snake into the house, which is a symbol of death. At the beginning of the story, Delia says that “whatever goes over the Devil’s back, is got to come under his belly. Sometime or ruther, Sykes, like everybody else, is gointer reap his sowing” (Hurston 76). Suffering and finding peace through suffering are also characteristic of the Christian religion. Most of the main events take place on Sunday, a sacred day in Christianity. Religion occupies a vital place in the work and serves as the force that helped Delia withstand the difficulties in life.

Goodness versus Evil

The next topic raised in the story is the confrontation of good and evil. Sykes is the representation of evil and sin in the story, while Delia embodies goodness. When Sykes tries to kill Delia with a poisonous snake, the snake beats and kills him instead. That emphasizes the power of goodness and God’s fairness. In the end, Sykes dies, and Delia does not dare to help him, leaving him to perish. Thus, justice triumphed, good defeated evil, and the sinner paid for his deeds.


In conclusion, Sweat by Zora Neale Hurston reflects several topical issues, such as racism, feminism, social inequity, religion, and goodness versus evil. The work is a powerful story that supports the voice of a black woman. It demonstrates that a woman is strong and independent enough to leave an abusive relationship. At the same time, Sweat makes emphasis the role of religion in a person’s life and the idea that good will always win over evil. It reflects some historical events that are associated with the oppression of black people. This story is an outstanding piece of literature since it speaks about the problems that did not lose their relevance until today.

Works Cited

Hurston, Zora Neale, and Cheryl A. Wall. Sweat. Rutgers University Press, 1997.

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