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
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.
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!
“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....”
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.