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Hurston’s Use of Irony in “Sweat”

Updated on November 14, 2014

Cosmic Irony?

The beginning of the story focuses on cosmic irony. Delia is a hardworking Christian woman who attends church regularly and tries to do the right thing. Although refusing to be taken advantage of, Delia means Sykes no harm. She has accepted that there is no love between them, only hatred, and that Sykes is running around town with a no good woman. Delia let her faith in god shield her from Sykes’ cruelty.

She was content to let things be and get on with her life. Sykes’ intentions were to get rid of his wife any way that he could, which makes him the irony of the situation. At this point in the story, it is perceived by the audience that Sykes will succeed in either driving Delia out of the house or killing her. Either way, Sykes wins and Delia loses. Of course, by the story’s end, we the audience know that the irony of this story is that Sykes receives the fate that he had set out for Delia. What is also interesting is the foreshadowing of the story.

In one verse of the story, Delia sets Sykes fate in motion, not knowing what he had in store for her. She states, “Oh well, whatever goes over the Devil's back, is got to come under his belly. Sometime or ruther, Sykes, like everybody else, is gointer reap his sowing." By this use of foreshadowing, the audience can expect that the tables will be turned on Sykes and that he will reap what he has sown on Delia.

Isn't it Ironic?

There are many ironies in the story, stemming from the growing frustration that the main character Delia feels toward her husband Sykes, and his growing aggravation towards his wife. This is a story about marriage, adultery, hatred, and death. With all that said, you would have to wonder why these two people stay married, which is the real irony of the story.

Sykes and Delia are not happy and if it was never mentioned in the beginning of the text, you would not even know they were married because Sykes does not treat Delia the way husbands are supposed to treat their wives. Here in this text, the meaning of husband is contradicted by Sykes’ obvious impression of being a heartless, monstrous, cheating man. The story contains a combination of dramatic and situation irony.

Delia, the main character, is not the center of the situation irony, though at times she appears to be. She’s a religious woman who works very hard to maintain her meager lifestyle. Up until a certain point in the story, it is perceived that Delia is physically and psychologically abused by her husband. She’s fed up but chooses, for whatever the reason, to take all that Sykes dishes out.

Her situation changes when Sykes has gone too far. He fools her into believing that a snake, which Delia is very fearful of, has fallen on her shoulder. Quite possibly the fear of believing that she would be bitten and her overall disgust at Sykes’ behavior propelled her into standing up for herself.

But at the same time, Sykes realized his power over Delia because of her fear. Sykes hopes to move along with his plan to have his mistress Bertha move into the house by frightening Delia into leaving. Sykes is aware that the house actually belongs to Delia and the only way to get her to leave is to scare her out or kill her.

Let The Drama Begin!

At the stories conclusion, we find Delia in a dilemma. Sykes has placed the snake in her workbasket and Delia has now discovered it. Her reaction at that point is ironic compared to what Sykes has always expected of her. Although she is overtaken by fear, it does not prevent her from getting away. She runs in the darkness but she doesn’t stumble. She has the sense of mind to climb into the hay barn for safety.

Delia has been blessed with the ability to escape, but the same cannot be said for Sykes. In the final ironic turn, Sykes returned to what he believes is the scene of the crime. This is evident in the fact that Sykes attempted to destroy the box that the snake was occupying. It’s possible that Sykes intended on letting the snake go or maybe he believed that he could kill the snake. After all, Sykes claimed to be a snake charmer. “But Ah'm a snake charmer an' knows how tuh handle 'em.” (1027). According to Sykes, he could catch one everyday if he wanted to.

Awe, The Many Twists and Turns!

In another twist of dramatic irony, it’s obvious that Sykes thought the snake would be unable to get at him because he would be digesting his dinner of Delia, but we the audience knows differently. Sykes enters the house and instead of finding a much fulfilled snake and a very dead Delia, he stumbles in the dark. Here is another bit of foreshadowing; earlier on, Delia is angry with Sykes for not placing a new batch of match sticks behind the stove. Now Sykes is in need of a match and he does not have one. "'Mah Gawd!" he chattered, "ef Ah could on'y strack uh light!" (1029).

As a result of that he stumbles around in darkness. “Oh, fuh de light! Ah thought he'd be too sick” (1029). The very snake that was intended for Delia bites Sykes. Delia, who is now aware of what has happened, moves toward Sykes but does nothing to help save him. We the readers can believe this because Delia’s hatred of Sykes has been mounting and although she is very religious, she has already predestined her feelings with her statement, "Ah hates you tuh the same degree that Ah uster love yuh," (1072).

By now, the reader has perceived what is in store for Sykes. They knew it the minute Sykes went into that house expecting to find Delia dead, but Sykes didn’t know it. The dramatic irony is when the reader is left with the awareness that Sykes never expected his tragic end, but has indeed gotten what he deserved.


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