Christian belief plays a major role in “Sweat,” both in the characters’ lives and words, and in the way that the story itself interacts with Biblical stories. This is particularly clear in the way faith serves as a source of emotional support for Delia, how Sykes hypocritically uses Christian ideals to assert social control over Delia, and the Biblically-inflected concept of justice that unfolds over the course of the story. Ultimately, Hurston uses “Sweat” to portray a modern alternative to the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden, one that complicates the idea of “meekness” and also relocates the source of “original sin.”
Hurston portrays true Christian faith as offering a person support through all manner of hardship. Delia is able to continue working hard and endure Sykes’ abuse at least in part because she finds solace in Christianity. Delia and Sykes’ first fight of the story takes place on Sunday night, after she has returned from church. While lying in bed after the confrontation, Delia feels able to “build a spiritual earthworks” to defend against his “shells.” These terms liken their conflict to spiritual warfare, using the language of the battlefield from the recently concluded World War I. Delia’s faith is her defense in this war. Hurston also explicitly compares Delia’s suffering at the hands of Sykes to that of Christ before the crucifixion. At one point, the story describes Delia as crawling “over the earth at Gethsemane and up the rocks at Calvary,” both important sites in the Bible story of Jesus’s crucifixion. This reference portrays Delia as an innocent victim who will suffer—who has willingly endured suffering—but will eventually triumph.
Whereas Delia’s faith is true and authentic, Sykes uses Christian ideas and beliefs almost exclusively as way to try to control Delia, and his words are contradicted by his actions. Sykes calls Delia a hypocrite for going to church on Sunday and then working afterward, on what is supposed to be her day of rest. But Sykes’ accusation of hypocrisy is immediately revealed as better aimed at himself: first, because it is his own laziness and carelessness with money that means Delia has to work so hard in the first place, and second because Sykes is calling Delia a hypocrite for a minor offense when he routinely breaks major Christian tenets by beating Delia and committing adultery. He also uses the snake, a symbol of evil in Christian iconography, to try to take what is not his. In the Book of Genesis, the serpent tempts Eve to disobey God’s will. In “Sweat,” Sykes’ use of the rattlesnake to chase Delia out of her house—out of her Eden, which she built with her work and around which she painstakingly planted every tree—implies that he is in alliance with evil against the will of God. That Delia addresses the snake as “ol’ satan” only reinforces this connection.
The plot of “Sweat” centers on a Biblical ideal of justice, with Sykes punished for his faithlessness—to both Delia and to God—and Delia rewarded for her faith. In the initial confrontation between the married couple, Hurston immediately establishes Delia as meek, but only in the context of describing Delia’s “habitual meekness” as falling away “like a blown scarf” when Delia picks up a frying pan and tells Sykes that she will no longer put up with his abuse. It is this action—this putting off of meekness by a normally meek woman—that puts into motion the events of the rest of the story. Yet even as Delia throws aside her meekness in regard to Sykes, she remains “meek” and faithful in her relationship to God. She does not decide to do away with Sykes, and she does not pray or demand that God do something to Sykes. Rather, even as she has suddenly stood up to Sykes she continues to put herself and her future in the hands of God. This is evident the night after the fight, when Delia thinks that Sykes will come to justice, or “reap his sowing,” one way or another. Ironically, that reckoning comes through Sykes’ choice to bring the rattlesnake into the house—to bring the snake into Delia’s Eden to try to scare her into leaving the house to him, and then secretly releasing it in hopes that it will kill her. When Delia escapes the snake, and then later listens from outside as Sykes is fatally bitten when he goes back to check on his handiwork, it seems like the story indicates a triumph of the meek, as the cruel and evil abuser is ironically done in by his own evil plan.
But the story doesn’t end in a moment of triumph or joy for Delia. After Delia listens to the commotion of Sykes trying and failing to beat back the snake, she creeps up to the door and sees Sykes, dying and swollen from the snake bite, with just one eye still open. “A surge of pity too strong to support bore her away from that eye that must, could not, fail to see the tubs.” Delia, in this moment, realizes that Sykes, seeing the clothes-washing tubs in the kitchen, must know that she knew the snake was in the house. In other words, she knew the danger he faced and did not warn him. Sykes let the snake loose in Eden and heeded its call. Sykes, in this story, is like Eve, who first encountered and was swayed by the snake. But Delia, like Adam, does not emerge unscathed either. Rather, she made her meekness into a weapon when she did not warn Sykes before he went into the house. The story ends with Delia still fixated on Sykes’ eye, as she waits outside the house and “knew the cold river was creeping up and up to extinguish that eye which must know by now that she knew.” The focus on the words “knew” and “know” can’t be an accident in a story that so clearly echoes the story of the Garden of Eden—which centers around the eating of the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. Delia is a sympathetic character, and the reader is likely to feel that her actions are justified—and that Sykes’ death is a kind of justice—but the ending of the story suggests that in allowing Sykes to die, Delia also has been made all too knowledgeable of good and evil, and may have been cast out of her Eden forever.
Christianity 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.
Oh, well, 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.
Delia’s work-worn knees crawled over the earth in Gethsemane and up the rocks of Calvary many, many times during these months. She avoided the villagers and meeting places in her efforts to be blind and deaf. But Bertha nullified this to a degree, by coming to Delia’s house to call Sykes out to her at the gate.
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!
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.