In "Sweat," by Zora Neale Hurston, what symbolism is present?


Quick Answer

Zora Neale Hurston's "Sweat" is replete with symbolism concerning religion and gender inequality, and the end signals the triumph of good over evil and the empowerment of women. The first piece of symbolism is the title itself. Sweat refers to the back-breaking work that the female main character is forced to complete throughout the story in contrast with her husband's life of leisure and stifling control over her.

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Full Answer

"Sweat" is a short story about the domestic abuse that Delia, the female main character, experiences at the hands of her husband. During the course of their 15 years together, he has used her fear of snakes against her to control her. Snakes are a religious symbol for evil. Delia's husband's jobless life of leisure juxtaposed against her own continuous turmoil is a symbol of gender inequality. In the end, the snake that he uses to attempt to murder her instead poisons him in a twist of karma brought about by Delia lighting up her laundry basket and finding the snake first. She illuminates the darkness and thereby triumphs over evil.

Other symbols are the clothes she wears and the clothes of others that she washes, which both represent her hard life as a washerwoman. The clothes are trampled by her husband, and the whites are marred by dirt and mud. There is a flowering Chinaberry tree in Delia's yard. It symbolizes femininity and womanhood. After her husband is poisoned by the snake, Delia sits under the tree and waits for him to die, and she finds peace and freedom there.

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