In Zora Neale Hurston’s short story “Sweat” the author uses rhythm and repetition to shape her theme of survival and empowerment by simulating labored and conscious footsteps, rhythmic pounding of sledge hammers along a chain gang, and the loud beats of an anxious and overworked heart. This rhythm and repetition builds tension as Delia, the protagonist, finds within herself the strength necessary to survive and overcome the abuse with which she lives, and eventually conquering her abusive husband, Sykes, by allowing a snake’s venom to take over his blood stream, killing him.
The rhythm and repetition found in the short story “Sweat” simulate the echoes of someone repeating to herself the motivational words necessary to her survival. It is the author’s use of rhythm and repetition that create detailed characters, plausible events, and the comprehensive and complex detail of banal activities of everyday life representative of realism in literature. In “Sweat,” Hurston tells the story of Delia, a middle-aged, black woman who works very hard washing clothes for white people to support her cheating, unemployed husband, Sykes, who continually berates her during bouts of physical abuse.
Hurston uses accents in her rhythm to accurately and realistically simulate the sounds and actions of a washer woman bringing to life the torturous and necessary day to day activities of Delia. According to Kennedy, readers “favor a stressed syllable with a little more breath and emphasis” (429), and the author uses this technique to simulate in detail Delia’s mind and heart.
True to the realism movement, Delia describes her life as, “Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat” (233), as she works to grow beyond the poverty of her past. In reading this, one can hear Delia’s feet drag and pound, drag and pound, drag and pound. The author’s attention to detail allows the reader to hear and feel both rhythm and repetition with these phrases consisting of three words, each word being one syllable, and each phrase ending with, “and sweat. It is both the fact that Delia speaks to herself, as well as the words she uses, that inform the reader that Delia is pushing herself through the plausible life of a post Civil War washer woman in hopes for something better, and at the same time fighting for her survival. With the words “work” and “pray” the reader learns that the story’s protagonist is fighting for survival, hoping for survival, and begging her God for the assistance necessary for her survival. Delia’s life is one of begrudging hard work necessary for survival.
When reading Delia’s words to her selfish husband, “Sweat, sweat, sweat” (233), the reader pictures the swinging sledgehammer of a southern slave sweating through life as he works endlessly in the heat of the sun. It is the rhythm of her words that allows the reader to envision an enslaved man swing the hammer back, up and over his head, and then come crashing down as the business end of the heavy tool connects with the rock at the very instant the reader hears Delia say, “Sweat. Despite the abolition of slavery, Delia’s life is one of servitude. Her master is Sykes. Her sledge hammer is “her knotty, muscled limbs, her harsh knuckly hands” (234). The reader feels the anxious dread of Delia as she works day in and day out at a hideous, painstaking job in order to earn the money necessary to feed herself and her husband, as she knows that the reality of her life is that she is the only person on whom she can depend to prevent her from becoming homeless and/or dying from starvation.
One begins to wonder how Delia survives the torment and abuse she receives from her husband, but she does. Delia accepts the abuse, and it strengthens her. The reader can feel and hear the rhythmic, “duh DUM, duh DUM, duh DUM,” pattern of Delia’s heart beat stronger and stronger in the author’s words, “Her tears, her sweat, her blood” (234). Her heart is tired. Her heart is overworked. Delia knows this. She feels this. She wants it to end. She works hard, and like other muscles, her heart gets stronger as it works.
Delia continues to work her mind and body as endures the long, hard hours of work, as well as the physical and mental abuse of her husband. She will not succumb to the endless pain and suffering. The reader knows she is fighting in that she cries and works. One who is going to give into difficulty does not continue to work. Instead a person who wishes to give in lies down to die. Delia wants to survive. She fights for her survival everyday as she works, bleeds, cries, prays, and sweats.
It is this drive to overcome that motivates Delia to continue existing in a Hell she hopes to someday escape. Hurston uses rhythm and repetition to create realistic details of the life of Delia as she shapes the theme of empowerment and survival in her short story “Sweat. ” The author describes in detail the back breaking day to day reality of a Post Civil War woman as she strives with every ounce of her being to overcome the poverty of her past, and escape the bonds of slavery held by her husband.