Zora Neale Hurston's Sweat and the Black Female Voice: The Perspective of the African-American Woman
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 inequality.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 sexuality 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 education 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 was 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 marriage. 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.
Novels developed in the Eighteenth Century as a low form of literature; they were easy to read and easy to write as compared to other forms. Since the novel was considered lowly, it was associated with women in a slight variance from the binary discussed above – maleness tends to be associated with all things superior while femaleness tends to be associated with all things inferior. At this time, “To think of a woman as having a special aptitude for writing novels was…something of a back-handed compliment, given the low status of a product which, as Jane Austen complained, tended to be thought of as ‘only a novel’ and therefore as something to be taken no more seriously than women themselves” (Ruthven 1986, 93).
Ruthven argued that such a negative connection should be fought against. In contemporary times, it seems society is coming to this more enlightened stance on the novel as more and more educated authors, both men and women, are expressing themselves in novels and in short stories. Hurston herself was an intelligent woman educated at Barnard College and is celebrated as a talented author (Boyd 2007). Using the form of a short story, Hurston was able to convey a strong political message. This message was made all the more poignant and meaningful because of the short story style in which it was written.
As a skilled female author writing on the issue of female inequality in marriage in her short story Sweat, Hurston makes subtle arguments to forward the cause of feminism. The protagonist Delia is a strong, independent woman who finds herself at the receiving end of a patriarchal society that strongly privileges men and denigrates women. But there is another important facet to the story that deals specifically with race. Hurston is not only promoting feminism but specifically black feminism. The story is comprised of all African American characters and makes only few references to whites. Like Hurston, not only is Delia underprivileged by gender, she is underprivileged by race. Sykes is similarly underprivileged by race but in his relationship with Delia he is dominant in the relationship because of his gender (Hurston 1997). Does the fact that Hurston is an African American change her writing?
Joyce Carol Oates’ essay “Is There a Female Voice? Joyce Carol Oates Replies,” can be applied here, though now substituting “black” for “female.” Perhaps the content of Hurston’s short story was shaped by her race; however, her skill and uniqueness are independent from her race and are what make truly “good” writing. The writing of African Americans has been long prevented and then marginalized. Slaves in the early history of the United States were not allowed to read or write and long after emancipation African Americans were barred from receiving a formal education.
To this present day, African Americans and other people of color continue to face hurdles that prevent them from becoming writers (Walker 1986). Just as Woolf argued in “A Room of One’s Own” (Woolf 1986) that there are undoubtedly many groundbreaking works from women that the world will never see because societal norms prevented them from being created, Walker argues a similar point in regard to African Americans. This has been a point of contention in feminism as black feminists see many other feminists as ignoring the significant role race plays in keeping African Americans from creating literature. Just as Delia is underprivileged by gender and race in Sweat, African American women are underprivileged by gender and race as well. According to scholar Terry Eagleton, “…the creativity of the black woman has been thwarted and…the white woman has failed to notice this injustice” (Eagleton 1986, 42). Eagleton argued that African American writers who can succeed despite the many obstacles white society places in front of them are relegated to a distinct subcategory (Eagleton 1986). This is evident looking at the life of Zora Neale Hurston.
Zora Neale Hurston is a celebrated author. However, she is celebrated as a black, female author. She is lumped into a category with the rest of the black writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston was never paid what she deserved for her works during her lifetime. Indeed, when she died on January 28, 1960, she did not even leave enough money for a funeral. Her neighbors had to take up a collection to pay for Hurston’s funeral and were unable to raise enough money to purchase a headstone (Boyd 2007).
As Delia Jones triumphs in the end of Zora Neale Hurston’s short story Sweat, so too does Zora Neale Hurston and all African American women with her. Delia Jones is freed from her oppressive husband, Sykes, at the end of the story and will be able to live an independent, happier life without him (Hurston 1997). Zora Neale Hurston was similarly redeemed. Although she died without enough money for a headstone, in 1973, Alice Walker travelled to Hurston’s final resting place and marked her gravesite with a tombstone after thirteen years of being unmarked (Boyd 2007).
Perhaps marginalized, Hurston and her works, however, are still read and celebrated today. While much more progress must be made in the field of literature for women, for African Americans and for African American women, Hurston is a success story to serve as a reminder of the progress women and black women have made in the field of literature. While the content of her short story Sweat may have been influenced by her gender and race, her skill as a writer transcendsboth gender and race. Zora Neale Hurston'sfiction not only represents a strong black female voice, but also ultimately creates meaningful, beautiful literature.
Boyd, Valerie. 2007. "About Zora Neale Hurston." Zora Neale Hurston. Estate of Zora Neale Hurston and Harper Collins. http://www.zoranealehurston.com/biography.html (accessed November 27, 2011).
Eagleton, Terry. 1986. “Introduction.” Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader. Cambridge: Blackwell. 42-92.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. 1986. "The Madwoman in the Attic." Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader. Cambridge: Blackwell. 63-69.
Hurston, Zora Neale. 1997. Sweat. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP.
Jones, Ann Rosalind.1986. “Writing the Body: Toward an Understanding of L’Ecriture Feminine.” Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader. Cambridge: Blackwell. 228-231.
Oates, Joyce Carol. 1986. “Is There a Female Voice? Joyce Carol Oates Replies.” Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader. Cambridge: Blackwell. 208-209.
Ruthven, K.K. 1986. Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader. Cambridge: Blackwell. 93-94.
Walker, Alice. 1986. “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens.” Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader. Cambridge: Blackwell. 228-231.
Woolf, Virginia. 1986. “A Room of One’s Own.” Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader. Cambridge: Blackwell. 47-96.