In “Sweat,” Hurston clearly and directly condemns domestic abuse. Her condemnation functions in two ways. First, she depicts Delia and Sykes’ marriage as being wrecked by Sykes’ emotional and physical abuse. Second, she uses the viewpoints of other men in the town to also criticize Sykes’ behavior. In this way, Hurston does not allow abuse to be portrayed as the inevitable product of a patriarchal society. Instead, she shows it, quite simply, to be evil, and as something that can’t be explained away or justified.
Near the end of the story, as Delia finally tells Sykes to leave after his years of emotional and physical abuse, she says: “Ah hates you tuh de same degree dat Ah useter love yuh.” Delia makes clear here that she married Sykes for love, and the story makes clear that she only ever acted out of love: she worked hard to provide for her husband, she meekly obeyed him, she endured his beatings, and she did not fight back against his constant infidelity. Sykes, though, never ceased to beat her, to berate her, to play tricks on her, and to hate her all the more, it seems, for enduring his abuse. At no point in the story is it ever suggested, by anyone other than Sykes, that their marriage is wrecked by anyone other than Sykes. His emotional and physical abuse is always held front and center as cruel, unjust, and evil.
Halfway through, the story shifts for a few paragraphs from Delia’s point of view to that of a group of men gathered on the porch of a town store, as they see Delia out working and they talk about her and Sykes. This part of the story is rather remarkable because of the way that the men, roundly and completely, condemn Sykes’ behavior. None of the men at any time suggests that Delia deserves or somehow caused Sykes’ abuse of her. They don’t shame Delia, or claim that she’s deficient in some way. It’s quite the opposite: the men blame Sykes and see his abuse of his wife as unacceptable. In fact, Joe Clarke, the store owner, speaks up to define the dynamics of Sykes’ particular kind of misogynistic attitude as one that brings unhappiness. He compares sexist men’s abuse of their wives to a man chewing sugarcane: they use up all the sweetness, then resent the bitterness and damage their abuse has created. Clarke asserts that men like Sykes know what they are doing, and hate themselves for it, and then hate the women they abuse as a way to protect themselves. The other men then all agree. However, despite their wisdom about abuse and condemnation of its practice, one could argue that these men then don’t do enough to intervene. When Sykes shows up to the store, they do all leave, essentially shunning him. But they never step in, and no one ever tries to protect Delia.
Despite the men’s apathy when it comes to direct action, “Sweat” as a whole never seeks to justify or excuse domestic violence. It presents abuse, from beginning to end, as destructive, cruel, unjustifiable, and—as Sykes’ abusive action of bringing the snake into the domestic “Eden” of the house would suggest—even evil.
Domestic Abuse ThemeTracker
Domestic Abuse 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.
Delia’s habitual meekness seemed to slip from her like a blown scarf. She was on her feet; her poor little body, her bare knuckly hands bravely defying the strapping hulk before her.
“Looka heah, Sykes, you done gone too fur. Ah been married to you fur fifteen years, and Ah been takin’ in washin fur fifteen years. Sweat, sweat, sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat!”
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.
Taint no law on earth dat kin make a man be decent if it aint in ‘im. There’s plenty men dat takes a wife lak dey do a joint uh sugar-can. It’s round, juicy an’sweet when dey gits it. But dey squeeze an’ grind, squeeze an’ grind an’ wring tell dey wring every drop uh pleasure dat’s in ‘em out. When dey’s satisfied dat dey is wrung dry, dey treats ‘em jes lak dey do a cane-chew. Dey thows ‘em away. Dey knows whut dey is doin’ while dey is at it, an’ hates theirselves fuh it but they keeps on hangin’ after huh tell she’s empty. Den dey hates huh fuh bein’ a cane-chew an’ in de way..
Sho’ you kin have dat lil’ ole house soon’s Ah kin git dat ‘oman outa dere. Everything b’longs tuh me an’ you sho’ kin have it. Ah sho’ ‘bominates uh skinny ‘oman. Lawdy, you sho’ is got one portly shape on you! you kin git anything you wants. Dis is mah town an’ you sho’ kin have it.
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.
“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.