Zora Neale Hurston Essay On Religion

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Religious Symbolism in "Sweat"


Zora Neale Hurston's "Sweat" is a short story rich in moral and religious parallels. This story is about a common African- American working woman in the deep South and how she clings to her faith in God to see her through the hardships caused by her faithful and abusive husband. Throughout this story there is religious symbolism that characterizes Delia and Sykes Jones as two people on opposite ends of the moral spectrum yet bound by marital vows that have lost their meaning.


Delia Jones is a hard working woman who uses her faith in God to guide and protect her from her husband's relentless physical and emotional abuse. From the very beginning, Delia represents diligence in work, humbleness, and saintly virtue. This protagonist is depicted as physically feeble yet spiritually strong.

Diametrically opposite to Delia's character is her husband Sykes. Sykes Jones seems to oppose Delia in his every word and action. He is physically abusive toward his wife, non-virtuous in that he is adulterous, and he takes advantage of Delia's hard work by spending the money that she makes on his lover. While Sykes is physically strong and has no virtue or faith in God, Delia's strength lies in her religion and humble tolerance of her husband which proves, in the end, prevalent over his brute strength and abusive attitude.


Certain objects and situations in the story suggest the influence of religion. The white clothes Delia washes in the story are symbolic of her character. White represents her virtue and saintly tendencies as she humbly tolerates Sykes' torment. The religious association of snakes and evil is prevalent in two instances in this story. Sykes at one point uses a whip to scare Delia by rubbing it on her and making her think it was a snake. Also, later in the story, Sykes places a real snake just outside the door of their house for the sole purpose of scaring Delia. These two examples could be seen as a biblical allusion as in the story of Adam and Eve when Satan took the form of a snake. The symbolism of snakes in "Sweat" subtly and cleverly illustrates Sykes as being an evil antagonist character.


The pattern of good vs. evil in this story winds down to a well developed and adroit conclusion. Sykes' own abusive actions throughout the story wind up to be his downfall. In the end, when the snake that Sykes uses to scare Delia gets loose and bites him, the sun rises steadily during his dying process. This sun rise is symbolic of the virtue of Delia being victorious over all the negativity and evil that Sykes represents. When Sykes is dead, the sun has finally risen. The light of goodness shines in the celebration of evil's death.


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Cheryl A. Wall, "Zora Neale Hurston's Essays: On Art and Such"
(page 5 of 6)

Hurston's insights into the form of African American religious expressive traditions are particularly compelling. "Spiritual and Neo-Spirituals," like "Characteristics," was published in Nancy Cunard's Negro. Hurston begins by drawing a controversial distinction between spirituals defined as the collective musical expression sung by believers in worship, and neo-spirituals, the written compositions based on spirituals that were performed by soloists and quartets in concert halls in the 1920s and subsequently. Hurston asserts that true spirituals have never been performed to any audience anywhere. Critics including Hazel Carby and Paul Gilroy have taken Hurston to task because of this apparent investment in authenticity. Her stance threatens to freeze folk expression in time.

From a twenty-first century perspective it seems unarguable that Hurston was wrong to devalue the "arranged" spirituals and right to value the anonymous musicians who kept other traditions of black sacred music alive in their communities rather than on stage or on record. Yet her stance is never simplistic. Although she does not introduce a third term, she seems aware that "spirituals" and "neo-spirituals" are not the sum of black sacred music. She opens the essay with a reference to a recent popular song that a congregation in New Orleans has retitled "He's A Mind Regulator." The title evokes a floating lyric in black sacred music, one that gives its name to a gospel song that enjoyed decades of popularity throughout the twentieth century. Far from a static form, gospel music, the genre that Hurston does not name, was created in churches in the 1920s and 1930s and continues to reinvent itself in the present.

Quite apart from the question of authenticity is the essay's reflection on the meaning of the prayer ritual in southern black churches; Hurston asserts that black people regard all religious expression as art, by which she seems to mean that they hold in high esteem those who are able to express their faith artfully. Although in "Characteristics" Hurston offered the tenet that for African Americans "there can never be enough of beauty, let enough too much," she placed the highest value on the beauty of religious expression: "Nothing outside of the Old Testament is as rich in figure as a Negro prayer. Some instances are unsurpassed anywhere in literature."[18] Having provided this point of comparison with which her all of her readers are familiar, she presents details of the practice to which those outside the community she depicts would not be privy. While, for example, the prayer may strike the outsider as extemporaneous, such a view is in error. Hurston insists that the prayer follows a formal pattern. As ritual, it is introduced by a hymn; the "prayer artist" is then compelled to create a dramatic setting, by calling attention to the physical situation he shares with his auditors; the interpolation of all or parts of the Lord's Prayer is required, as are the pauses in which the congregation is invited to interject a response. During what Hurston designates the accelerando passage, however, the audience takes no part. Lest the reader doubt the quality of the artistic performance, Hurston introduces another comparison that challenges any sense of artistic hierarchy the reader may harbor. A response from the audience during this passage "would be like applauding in the middle of a solo at the Metropolitan." As the performance reaches its climax, the artist "adorns" the prayer. Listeners sit in rapt attention: "nobody wants to miss a syllable."[19]

Rather than quoting examples here, as she does in Mules and Men, Hurston invents a figure of her own. It partakes of the tentativeness that I attribute to the essay and dares the knowledgeable reader to invent a better figure. It extends moreover the musical metaphors on which the essay has relied, and it offers in conclusion an inscription of the spirit of the worship/artistic experience as a whole. "The best figure that I can think of," Hurston writes, "is that the prayer is an obligato over and above the harmony of the assembly."[20] Her humility is misplaced. The figure not only illuminates the function of the prayer ritual; it theorizes Hurston's concept of the individual artist's relationship to the group. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, obligato is a musical figure essential to the completeness of a composition. It is an accompaniment that whether sung or played on an instrument has an independent value. Hurston's metaphor fuses the musical figure that alludes to the elements of performance she describes with the idea of religious duty or obligation. The prayer affirms the spirit of harmony, of one accord, that is the goal of religious worship. Assembly denotes a gathering of persons for religious worship or a congregation. As it rises above the assembly, the voice of the artist is distinct from, yet dependent on, the collective.

The metaphor sheds light on Hurston's impatience with the singers of "neo-spirituals." It is due less to their too-proper diction and formal attire or even the relative lack of improvisation in their performances than it is to the absence of the congregation that could affirm their value. Hurston's conception of the artist's role partakes of traditions of West African performance in which the performer is one with the audience. Yet the prayer artist retains a significant degree of individuality, which is heightened when his voice is heard against the sustained response of the congregation. In this regard the prayer artist is in a privileged position, far superior to that of the child Zora "speaking pieces" and alienated from her neighbors, or to that of the adult Zora in the New World cabaret, whose racial identity stands out against a white background but whose individual voice is muted in a pattern that evokes slavery's legacy. At the conclusion of "Spirituals and Neo-Spirituals," Hurston sets forth an ideal that she as a writer did not achieve. Although she was both the conduit of collective memory and a singular talent, the assembly that was her audience too rarely affirmed her song.


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