Hatred And Dominance In Zora Neale Hurston’s Sweat

In Sweat by Zora Neale Hurston, both Delia and Syke express their hatred towards each other – Delia, in her calm fury, and Syke with his usual aggression – but it is clear that while Delia’s disdain for Syke arises from the latter’s mistreatment of her in more ways than one, his lack of contribution to their household and his attempts to turn Delia away from her own house, Syke’s hatred and aversion for her seems to rise from his criticisms of her physical appearance, and in a deeper sense insecurities in his own masculinity which he then tries to combat by establishing dominance over her through hurtful words and/or violence.

What is also surprising is that he almost always gets away with Delia not responding to his words – that are definitely meant to injure – and when she does respond in a way that mirrors his own, he is left sputtering empty threats and stomping out. This captures what Delia and Syke both value (or not) in their marriage and what the other brings to the table while also asking the question of how the objectification of a woman in a marriage by her husband can be harmful and its translation to domestic violence/abuse – what constitutes domestic violence in this scenario, if it is only the whipping and beating, or if it is also Syke’s various other actions that are not explicitly violent in their appearance.

When Syke says “Ah don’t want yuh. Look at yuh stringey ole neck! Yo’ rawbony laigs an’ arms is enough tuh cut uh man tuh death”, he points directly to something he has mentioned many times before – about Delia being skinny and how he hates that in a woman, but this line connotes something more than just Syke not wanting Delia, it creates the affect that no man would want Delia because of her appearance.

The words “You looks jes’ lak de devvul’s doll-baby tuh me” are especially important considering both Delia and Skye are church-going Christians. One can only imagine how being called the Devil’s ‘doll-baby’ might have been meant to make Delia feel, considering the Devil stands for all that is evil in their faith and that Delia holds her faith very close to her. It is evident that Syke designs his words to injure where he knows they will. It is also clearly his intention for this to happen.

“You cain’t hate me no worse dan Ah hates you. Ah been hatin’ you fuh years.” – this line is meant to be devastating and sounds almost like a competition that Syke is trying to defeat Delia in – since Delia was the first to say calmly that she hates him, hates him more than she ever loved him. He is trying to assert that none of what Delia says matters because he has hated her for years anyway, more than she ever could or would. Although this is a horrid thing to say or for Delia to hear, it is interesting that this line comes after he has to actually pause in order to muster the proper fury to reply to Delia’s calm, cold fury. Delia’s fury is not only calm, there is an air of disappointment that is hard to match with any type of anger he could ever try to portray. In the grand scheme of this whole situation, after Delia’s calm interference, Syke’s outburst falls short in front of Delia’s honest, long overdue monologue.

It is also interesting to note that at the beginning of Sweat, Syke is described as “his whole manner, hoping, praying, for an argument” – it is definitely not a one-time instance, it is typical of Syke to do that since Delia immediately notices and understands. It indicates that a lot of Skye’s outbursts may be to either assert his manly dominance over Delia or because he is bored and irritable, considering he has no job.

All this, of course, is not to say that Syke does not hate Delia like he claimed. It is just to say that the ways in which he communicates this or the reasons he has are weak and superficial compared to Delia’s valid claims on Syke’s mistreatment of her.

Every single one of Syke’s beratement of Delia revolves around her appearance that he does not find appealing – that, or the fact that she works for White people, which also fractures his ego, but that is something he addresses far fewer times than he does her appearance and her worth. This also shows the worth he attaches to her, that she is of no use to him, and that he does not want her because she cannot satisfy his needs. There is a dichotomy in Syke’s attachment of ‘use’ to Delia – he does not think she is of any use to him because she is not attractive enough for him, philandering to other women, like Bertha, who plays an important role here, but he also uses Delia – for all the insulting and ‘skinny-shaming’, he lives under her roof, benefits from her hard labour while contributing nothing to the running of their household.

It is not only words and violence through which Syke disrespects Delia. Many instances – bringing the whip and scaring Delia, openly hanging around the village with Bertha on his arm, engaging in sexual activity with Bertha in his bedroom with Delia and bringing the rattle-snake home, intended to drive Delia away are all actions that need no words to explain their meaning or intention. His blatant disregard for Delia’s hard work and sweat and his acquiring other women, who are bigger, to only satisfy his sexual and aesthetic needs are enough to describe the kind of value he assigns to women – shown in this story through his mistreatment of Delia and his ‘treatment’ of Bertha.

Hurston writes in a way that is so relevant even today about the lines of mistreatment, violence and abuse, that is evident in our own homes and society in general. The non-explicit ways in which Syke hurts Delia and the way in which Delia deals with the abuse are stories everyone can relate to and say something about worldwide. She writes about humans like they are, and no character in this story can come off as good or evil – except for Syke, in my opinion –, but just as flawed people in bad situations, despite all the Biblical references and comparisons, which is what resonates most with a reader. 

16 August 2021
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