“Sweat” is structured around the contrast between Delia and her husband Sykes, and nothing is more basic to that contrast than their attitudes towards work. Through these two characters, Hurston affirms the value of hard work as a foundation for both moral integrity and survival under difficult conditions. Likewise, she condemns Sykes’ sense of lazy entitlement as morally bankrupt.
Hard work is associated with integrity and worthiness in “Sweat.” The fact that Delia has labored—and sweated—to care for her household means that she has a substantial claim to the house. Delia’s long years of work as a washerwoman give her a sense of self-worth that not even Sykes can threaten. When he tries to prevent her from taking in washing, she replies that her washing has fed him and paid for the house, and therefore she has the right to continue doing it. Rather than respond, Sykes leaves. It seems that even Sykes finds it difficult to deny Delia’s right to the house, which is why he eventually resorts to trying to scare her out of it or to kill her, rather than to just claiming it as his own. As discussed in the theme of Christianity, Hurston portrays Delia’s suffering as Christ-like. This comparison is explicitly connected to her years of hard work: it is “Delia’s work-worn knees” that are described as crawling over the Biblical locations of Gethsemane and Calvary.
Entitlement is morally and practically untenable, Hurston suggests. Sykes believes that he should have possession of the house and anything else Delia has worked for without owing her any loyalty—simply because he is a man and her husband, presumably. This attitude, however, makes him a pariah in the community, and eventually leads to his death. Sykes’ demands on Delia are shown to be hypocritical from the beginning. He tries to control her in the house that her work paid for, a fact that she points out during their initial argument. He promises his mistress Bertha that she will be able to live in the house, even though Delia has a much greater claim on it than he does. He believes that he is entitled to what he wants without consideration for who actually worked for it. The men of the community judge Sykes not only for his infidelity, but also for failing to contribute financially to the household. They consider him worthless, critiquing his failure to perform any portion of “a husband’s duty,” which would include helping his wife to pay the bills. Ultimately, Sykes’ sense of entitlement to the house leads him to catch the rattlesnake to scare Delia off—he’s trying to claim her house and get rid of her without doing any real work. Despite her protests, and comments from other community members that he ought to kill the snake with a club to the head, Sykes persists and is eventually (and ironically) killed by the snake.
While Delia and Sykes operate on two different extremes of work and entitlement, the story also makes room for those in the middle. The minor characters in “Sweat” appear mainly while socializing with one another, rather than working. Still, they are not portrayed in as negative a light as Sykes. When they ask the storekeeper to bring out a watermelon, they all eventually agree to make a small contribution to pay for it, and the negotiation is friendly. By respecting one another and contributing as much as they can, the townspeople maintain their social relationships. This is especially important in light of the story’s setting as a whole—a poor, all-black town in the Jim Crow South. In the face of such harsh institutional barriers, no one has much to spare, and certainly no one can afford to be entitled to another person’s work—but by working together, members of the community can find room for both leisure and labor.
Hurston develops a stark contrast between the virtuous, hard-working character of Delia and the unlikeable, entitled Sykes. However, she also allows space for ordinary people who do not have Delia’s saint-like perseverance. The most important thing in “Sweat” is not capacity to work, but respect for work, both other people’s and one’s own.
Hard Work vs. Entitlement ThemeTracker
Hard Work vs. Entitlement 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!”
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.”