‘Sweat’ by Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama in 1891 (although she claimed that she was born in Eatonville, Florida in 1901 for much of her adult life).
In the third chapter of Genesis, Yahweh ejects Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and condemns them to a life of toil: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Historically, most of the blame has been pinned on Eve (Adam’s sin is listening to a woman). Zora Neale Hurston’s intense short story ‘Sweat’ reverses the expulsion from Eden and absolves her hero from sin. Delia is a washerwoman in the black township of Eatonville, Florida. She’s a hardworking, deeply spiritual woman who’s spent fifteen years in an abusive marriage to her jobless, cheating husband Sykes. Her life comes down to “Sweat, sweat, sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat.” When Sykes cruelly tricks Delia into thinking the bullwhip he’s brought into the house is a snake, she finally snaps and defends herself. Sykes ups the ante, bringing in a real snake. Karmic consequences ensue. We get a snake, a tree, a cleansing, and a survivor who, through her own work, her own sweat, returns to the “spiritual earthworks” of her home and garden.
‘Sweat’ condenses some of the themes of Hurston’s major work, Their Eyes Were Watching God. The hero of that novel, Janie, like Delia, survives (and is witness to) disasters (natural and personal). Hurston’s conclusions contrast Kate Chopin’s – she figures out a way for her heroes to live freely.

First published in Firell, November, 1926 and collected in Spunk, Turtle Island Foundation, 1985 and The Complete Stories, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008

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