While “Sweat” is closely focused on the troubled relationship between Delia and Sykes, it is also set in a poor, all-black town in segregated 1920s Florida. The theme of race and class, although it is not a central part of the story’s plot, inevitably comes into play in such a setting. Zora Neale Hurston uses this aspect of the story to explore the effects of race and class as it impacts the couple and their broader community. In doing so, she captures a community shaped by racism and poverty, and shows how these factors shape the lives of those affected by them.
Poverty is one of the main sources of hardship in Delia’s life, and it structures her relationship with Sykes. Delia works so hard at her washing that she cannot take a whole day off each week; she has spent her many years of “sweat, sweat, sweat!” on this task to keep the household running. Sykes resents Delia’s work even though it supports him, too. He tries to assert a middle-class ideal of the man as head of the household by telling her to take her washing outside, and threatening her with violence if she does not comply. Because they are poor and Delia is a working woman, Sykes does not have financial control over her, and instead uses physical abuse to assert his will. Sykes doesn’t have access to legal resources to throw Delia out of their house, so he resorts to planting a rattlesnake to scare her.
Sykes and Delia’s different relationships to whiteness—and white people—are also partially responsible for his failure and her success in life. Sykes resents whiteness and all things associated with it. While the individual reasons for this are not clearly articulated, simply living in the Jim Crow South is certainly justification enough for such resentment—but Sykes lets this resentment get in the way of his own happiness, and uses it as a weapon against his innocent wife as well. He scolds Delia for washing “white folks clothes” and tells her to keep them out of the house. Delia takes a more practical approach. She lives in the world she has, rather than getting caught up in resentment. Her job as a washerwoman, for instance, relies on white people’s desire for her services. Further, she threatens Sykes with telling the “white folks” about his abuse if he lays hands on her again, suggesting that her work for white patrons give her some leverage against her husband. Sykes, in contrast, is not as successful in coping with the effects of racism, segregation, and poverty. He takes out his frustrations not on those actually perpetuating oppression, but rather on Delia, and he is condemned by the narrative for that domestic abuse.
The exploration of race and class in “Sweat” shows the ways in which features of a story’s setting can pervade every aspect of the characters’ lives. Zora Neale Hurston portrays racism and poverty as serious problems that can provoke a variety of responses, some more useful than others. In particular, with the character of Sykes, she shows that the stress of inhabiting a marginalized social position may partially explain morally objectionable behavior, but it does not excuse such a choice. Regardless of his reasons for abusing Delia, Sykes is morally condemned. Delia stands as a counter-example, showing that it is possible to behave ethically even in the face of race- and class-related stress.
Race and Class ThemeTracker
Race and Class Quotes in Sweat
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!”
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.