Zora Neale Hurston's Sweat and the Black Female Voice: The Perspective of the African-American Woman

By Marion C. Burke
2012, Vol. 4 No. 05 | pg. 1/2 |


Zora Neale Hurston is the author of the acclaimed short story Sweat. The story was published in 1926, an incredible accomplishment considering the obstacles faced by black female authors at the time. Viewing the piece through the lens of feminist literary criticism, the effect of Hurston’s black female identity on her writing is analyzed.Hurston’s gender and race have undoubtedly shaped the story, imbuing its content with a deep political statement on social .However, this paper argues that the quality of Zora Neale Hurston's writing, which in this case takes the form of the often times marginalized short story, is exemplary and transcends both her race and gender. Though never paid what she deserved in her lifetime and still not given the praise she deserves today, Zora Neale Hurston’s work represents a noteworthy milestone in the fight for equality for black female authors, and will forever be celebrated in literature as a strong black female voice.

Historically, writing has been classified as masculine; it is associated with paternalism, creation and even Godliness. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue in their essay “The Madwoman in the Attic” that “a pen is a metaphorical penis” (Gilbert and Gubar 1986, 64). The ability to write has historically been seen as derived from male and akin to all things masculine. Just as maleness is associated with all things superior and femaleness associated with all things inferior as explained in the stark binaries of logocentric thinking, females are on the opposite side of the binary when it comes to writing (Jones 1986). Therefore, writing was something from which women were long excluded, “If male sexuality is integrally associated with the assertive presence of literary power, female sexuality is associated with the absence of such power” (Gilbert and Gubar 1986, 67). With a dearth of female writing from early times, this opinion might seemingly be confirmed. However, one must consider the extreme lack of access to women were afforded at that time, the remains of which are still felt today. As Virginia Woolf argues in “A Room of One’s Own,” certainly, there were women in the past with great passion and creativity that were barred from writing due to societal norms (Woolf 1986).

"Sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can anyone deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It's beyond me." Z.N. Hurston

In more recent times, women have been shattering stereotypes and breaking into the literary field. This is true for Zora Neale Hurston and her 1926 short story, Sweat. Hurston is a preeminent African American female writer who was prominent in the Harlem Renaissance, a predominantly black cultural movement of the 1920s and 1930s (Boyd 2007). She was born on January 7, 1891 and grew up in Florida – a time and place plagued with sexism and racism. These themes shape her fiction.

Her short story Sweat tells the story of protagonist Delia Jones, a washerwoman in Florida. At its most basic element, Sweat is a story about a . Delia is married to an unkind man named Sykes. Sykes is abusive to Delia both mentally and physically. Sykes is having an affair with another woman and spending Delia’s hard earned money on his mistress. One day, Sykes brings a rattle snake into the house in an effort to further abuse his wife. This snake ironically ends up killing Sykes. At the end of the story, it becomes evident to the reader that Delia does not make any attempt to help her husband as he lay dying from the wounds inflicted by the snake, as the narrator informs us “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 the eye which must know by now what she knew” (Hurston 1977, 8). Hurston writes a poignant description of life as an African American female in this time period. But is her writing different than a man’s?

Though the content of Hurston’s writing in Sweat is centered on a married woman and set mostly in the home, the style and execution of this short story cannot be classified as “feminine” in any way. The writing is indistinguishable from that of a man’s in the same genre. As Joyce Carol Oates noted in her piece “Is There a Female Voice? Joyce Carol Oates Replies,” “Content is simply raw material. Women’s problems – women’s insights – women’s very special adventures: these are material: and what matters in serious art is ultimately the skill of execution and the uniqueness of vision” (Oates 1986, 208). Hurston certainly executed the writing beautifully and had a unique story line. Any disregard of such a story could justifiably be considered unwarranted marginalization. But what about the genre in which Hurston has written?

Hurston’s works are concentrated in novels and short stories. Perhaps these genres have become the feminine area in literature? Once again going back to historically created norms, referring specifically to novels, feminist scholar Terry Eagleton explains: “…here was a form without a long history in male authorities. Because the novel’s genesis lay partly in forms of writing familiar to women – the diary, the journal, letters – the form could seem more accessible and approachable…In its content, also, the novel was often considered – and still is – an appropriate form for women” (Eagleton 1986, 88). The short story is, in many ways, akin to the novel in this regard. Women could write about the topics they knew about in novels and short stories and, importantly, could remain in the privacy of their homes while doing so (Eagleton 1986).

Virginia Woolf addresses these theme in her essay “A Room of One’s Own” (Woolf 1986). She lauded women writers for their skilled prose despite their many setbacks. She wrote of the circumstances of women writers in the 1800s – they had to write in the sitting room with near constant interruptions and a need to hide their work from people not in their immediate families. Because of this situation, it was not a wonder to Woolf that most works by women in her time were novels. Novels were fitting in such circumstances as they necessitated less focus as compared to other forms of writing. Women writers at the time persevered through the obstacles and created good, well-written novels with no hint of the constant disruption they faced (Woolf 1986). In many ways, the novel has emerged in history as the female form of writing. While this does not mean that novels (and short stories) are less of an art form, they were seen as such in the Eighteenth Century.

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