Sweat

by

Zora Neale Hurston

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Snakes Symbol Icon

Since Delia is afraid of snakes, Sykes uses snakes and snake-like objects repeatedly to frighten her. From a symbolic perspective, then, the snake could be a representation of Sykes’ cruelty. In a broader context, however, the snake also connects to the Christian themes at play in “Sweat.” In Christian iconography, the snake is associated with temptation due to its role in the Book of Genesis. In the Garden of Eden, the first snake (later associated with Satan in Christian theology) tempts Eve to eat fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which God has expressly forbidden. Eve in turn tempts Adam to eat as well, leading God to expel them both from the Eden. In “Sweat,” Sykes is the one “tempted” by the snake as a way to get rid of Delia and claim the house as his own. The sinful nature of his effort comes up in the very first scene of the story, when Delia explicitly tells him that “it’s a sin” to frighten her with his snake-like whip. Sykes persists with his snake tricks, however, and in the end is bitten by the rattlesnake he brought to scare Delia away. As the story closes, both Sykes and Delia gain deathly knowledge brought about by the snake: “...she waited in the growing heat while inside she knew the cold river was creeping up and up to extinguish that eye which must know by now that she knew.” Like Adam and Eve gaining knowledge but also being expelled from paradise into a world of death, Sykes and Delia also now “know” dark truths because of a snake. Snakes therefore symbolize not only Sykes’ cruelty, but also temptation and a fall from grace.

Snakes Quotes in Sweat

The Sweat quotes below all refer to the symbol of Snakes. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Domestic Abuse Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Harper Perennial edition of Sweat published in 2008.
Sweat Quotes

Sykes, what you throw dat whip on me like dat? You know it would skeer me—looks just like a snake, an’ you knows how skeered Ah is of snakes... You aint got no business doing it. Gawd knows it’s a sin. Some day Ah’m gointuh drop dead from some of yo’ foolishness.

Related Characters: Delia Jones (speaker), Sykes
Related Symbols: Snakes
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

The heat streamed down like a million hot arrows, smiting all things living upon the earth. Grass withered, leaves browned, snakes went blind in shedding and men and dogs went mad. Dog days!

Related Symbols: Snakes
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

“Look in de box dere Delia, Ah done brung yuh somethin’!”

She nearly fell upon the box in her stumbling, and when she saw what it held, she all but fainted outright.

“Sykes! Sykes, mah Gawd! You take dat rattlesnake ‘way from heah! You gottuh. Oh, Jesus, have mussy!”

“Ah aint gut tuh do nuthin’ uh de kin’—fact is Ah aint got tuh do nothin’ but die....”

Related Characters: Sykes (speaker)
Related Symbols: Snakes
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

“Sykes, Ah wants you tuh take dat snake ‘way fum heah. You done starved me an’ Ah put up widcher, you done beat me an Ah took dat, but you done kilt all mah insides bringin’ dat varmint heah.”

[...] “A whole lot Ah keer ‘bout how you feels inside uh out. Dat snake aint goin’ no damn wheah till Ah gits ready fuh ‘im tuh go. So fur as beatin’ is concerned, yuh aint took near all dat you gointer take ef yuh stay ‘roun’ me.”

Delia pushed bad her plate and got up from the table. “Ah hates you, Sykes, she said calmly. “Ah hates you tuh de same degree dat Ah useter love yuh.”

Related Characters: Delia Jones (speaker), Sykes (speaker)
Related Symbols: Snakes
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:

Finally she grew quiet, and after that, coherent thought. With this, stalked through her a cold, bloody rage. Hours of this. A period of introspection, a space of retrospection, then a mixture of both. Out of this an awful calm.

“Well, Ah done de bes’ Ah could. If things aint right, Gawd knows taint mah fault.”

Related Characters: Delia Jones (speaker), Sykes
Related Symbols: Snakes
Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:

Outside Delia heard a cry that might have come from a maddened chimpanzee, a stricken gorilla. All the terror, all the horror, all the rage that man could possibly express, without a recognizable human sound.

Related Characters: Delia Jones, Sykes
Related Symbols: Snakes
Page Number: 84-85
Explanation and Analysis:

A surge of pity too strong to support bore her away from that eye that must, could not, fail to see the tubs. He would see the lamp. Orlando with its doctors was too far. She could scarcely reach the Chinaberry tree, where she waited in the growing heat while inside she knew the cold river was creeping up and up to extinguish that eye which must know by now that she knew.

Related Characters: Delia Jones, Sykes
Related Symbols: Snakes
Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire Sweat LitChart as a printable PDF.
Sweat PDF

Snakes Symbol Timeline in Sweat

The timeline below shows where the symbol Snakes appears in Sweat. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Sweat
Domestic Abuse Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
Hard Work vs. Entitlement Theme Icon
...returns home and plays a nasty trick on her with his horsewhip, which resembles a snake—he throws it onto her shoulder, terrifying her. When Delia realizes what has happened, she tells... (full context)
Domestic Abuse Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
One hot day in August, Delia comes home to find that Sykes has caught a rattlesnake and placed it in a box by the kitchen door—seemingly in order to scare her... (full context)
Domestic Abuse Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
The snake remains in its screen-covered box by the kitchen door, and after several days digesting its... (full context)
Domestic Abuse Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
...her spirits. She comes home after dark singing hymns. When she arrives, she finds the snake is absent from its box, and she is struck with the sudden hope that Sykes... (full context)
Domestic Abuse Theme Icon
Hard Work vs. Entitlement Theme Icon
Race and Class Theme Icon
...sorting her washing, but upon opening the laundry hamper, she is horrified to find the snake waiting in the basket. It begins to slither out just as a gust of wind... (full context)
Domestic Abuse Theme Icon
Delia awakens to hear Sykes destroying the snake’s box in the pre-dawn light. She watches him linger outside the kitchen and then go... (full context)
Domestic Abuse Theme Icon
Delia hears the snake rattling, and the narrator notes that the rattlesnake is a “ventriloquist” and can be hard... (full context)
Domestic Abuse Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
Sykes freezes for a moment, then begins moving again and, hearing the rattlesnake, leaps onto the bed. Delia then hears a horrible, almost inhuman cry, followed by more... (full context)
Domestic Abuse Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
...up and sees Sykes crawling out on hands and knees, his neck swollen from the snakebite. She feels an immense wave of pity, knowing that it is too late to save... (full context)