A Sweat-Stained Dilemma:
An Application of Ethics to Zora Neale Hurston's "Sweat"
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "People do not deserve good writing; they are so pleased with the bad." As true as it is that there are thousands of examples of "bad writing", there are also many pieces of literature that are considered "good writing". One may discover good literature through specific personal criteria. This is what the reader values most in a text. I consider "Sweat" by Zora Neale Hurston to be good literature because it follows my four personal criteria which I have established to increase my understanding of good literature.
"Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow." Swedish Proverb
It wouldn't be a far stretch to say that everyone at some time has felt under appreciated and has had someone, in a sense, kick them while they're down. Delia Jones in "Sweat" has had these same feelings. Her husband mentally, verbally, and physically abuses her. Delia is a character a majority can relate to because of her hardships. We are more concerned about the characters' welfare and how the story progresses because we can relate to the characters.
Often readers place themselves into a text and feel that they are in the story. Readers see themselves in the characters and therefore desire for them to succeed, to triumph. When two people share an experience or emotion, it makes it more bearable for each party. The same goes for the relationship between the character and the reader. When they have a shared experience the reader then has the opportunity to see their situation in a different light. This is possible through the reader's examination of the character's choices in that situation. The reader can see differences in reactions and solutions and may apply them to their personal situation.
Being able to relate to Delia can give comfort to those who have not been treated the best. The readers will see that someone can hurt another but they can never take away their fighting spirit. Even seeing the opposite side of the situation is beneficial. This leads the reader to a better understanding of the second side of the story. In "Sweat", Delia's husband, Sykes, is someone no one wants to relate to, but deriding someone would also not be a far stretch to say that the majority have done this at least once, perhaps, in a moment of weakness. Seeing these two contrasting characters helps the reader see how abuse affects others and become more aware of present social ills, like domestic abuse.
Explores Human Nature
"Man is a being in search of meaning." Plato
"Man is harder than iron, stronger than stone, and more fragile than a rose."
Human nature is complex. When a text explores human nature it helps the reader connect to the characters, the story, and the purpose of the piece. Exploring human nature brings the reader to understand why people act the way they do. The reader may better understand others around them as well as themselves. As sad as it is, one aspect of human nature is to deride someone in order to feel superior. Sykes does this to his wife. Showing the reader this alarming situation of constant condescension guides them to consider the flaws of human nature. As a result, it takes awareness before change and improvement can occur.
Delia is another example of the exploration of human nature. She is constantly put down and made to feel less than human, but her spirit and sense of self is never completely smothered. The difference between Sykes and Delia is incredible in the fact that both are exhibiting different aspects of human nature. Sykes degrades and destroys while Delia uplifts and protects. They couldn't be more different, yet both are on the spectrum of human nature.
Encompasses Realistic Causes and Effects
"Wisdom consists of the anticipation of consequences." Norman Cousins
It can be harmful to readers if there are not realistic consequences to the characters' actions because the reader may be led to believe that the fictional consequences, or total lack of consequences altogether, are real. This will skew reality. In "The Problem of Evil in Fiction", Orson Scott Card says, "any depiction of life without evil is a lie" (George 226). This is the same with consequences in response to the characters' actions. If it doesn't show natural consequences it is not a true depiction, and therefore, is dangerous.
"Sweat" portrays realistic consequences and situation throughout the text. Even though Delia is a strong and long-suffering woman, her life isn't perfect. She has a rotten husband who cheats on her, she financially supports, she has a very tedious job, and she is constantly derided and ridiculed. This shows the reality that bad things happen to good people and vice versa. In Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest Algernon states, "The good end happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means." As nice as this would be to believe, it is not realistic. People and characters have to go through situations they do not deserve and more than a few that they do deserve.
Another example of realistic consequences in "Sweat" is when Sykes is bitten by the snake and dies. The ending could have easily been romanticized by Delia helping Sykes because he shows that his is human, he is afraid. In actuality, he has a "death-bed repentance" and his life is not saved. "She could hear Sykes calling in a most despairing tone as one who expected no answerHe crept an inch or two toward herall that he was able, and she saw his horribly swollen neck and his one open eye shining with hope" (157). His hope was not enough. In a perfect world, maybe it would have been, but this story is true to life in that it is full of realistic consequences.
Guides the Reader towards Self-Reflection
"When you re-read a classic you do not see in the book more than you did before, you see more I you than there was before." Clifton Fadiman
"The test of literature is, I suppose, whether we ourselves live more intensely for the reading of it." -Elizabeth Drew
Good literature has the ability to guide the reader towards self-reflection. By self-reflection I mean that a reader looks at their own beliefs, prejudices, and view of the world and moves towards re-defining or strengthening them. Just by examining the choices the fictitious characters make aide the reader to evaluate their own possible choices in that situation. Marshall Gregory says in his essay, "Ethical Criticism," "The first proposition about selfhood that ethical criticism rests on is the assumption that there are ethically better and worse versions of our selves always pending and always being realized" (George 53). Reading good literature like "Sweat" helps the reader realize their "better and worse versions" and gives the opportunity for change.
"Sweat" guides the reader towards self-reflection and determining if it was moral for Delia to leave Sykes for dead. The reader is led to question their own ethical/moral values because of events that lead to the conclusion. The reader may then question if it was ethical for Delia not to warn Sykes about the snake, or was it ethical for Delia not to help Sykes after he was bitten, or even if Delia should have at least comforted him during his last minutes of life.
Good literature is more than a fun story. It has an affect on the reader. It enlightens and increases understanding of human nature and ourselves. The American author Edward Abbey says, "Good writing can be defined as having something to say and saying it well. When one has nothing to say, one should remain silent. Silence is always beautiful as such times." Literature must aide the reader to understand the world around them to a greater degree. Gustave Flaubert says, "Read in order to live." Reading will help us understand ourselves and the world around us. As a result, we have the opportunity to change our lives for the better.
George, Stephen K., ed. Ethics, Literature, & Theory. Maryland: Rowman and
Card, Orson Scott. "The Problem of Evil in Fiction." George 225-230.
Gregory, Marshall. "Ethical Criticism: What It Is and Why It Matters." George 37-61.
Hurston, Zora Neale. "Sweat." E Fictions. Ed. Joseph F. Trimmer, Wade Jennings, and
Annette Patterson. London: Heinle & Heinle, 2003. 149-157.