Sweat Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

The Snake (Symbol)

The snake, in Christian imagery, is commonly known as a symbol of the Devil. This relates back to the episode in the Genesis section of the Bible where Eve is tricked by Satan in the guise of a snake to eat the forbidden fruit, resulting in the permanent ejection of humanity from the paradise of Eden. Delia's fear of snakes can therefore be considered symbolic of her nature as a God-fearing, virtuous individual, and Sykes' bringing a snake home can be considered symbolic of how he introduces evil into their household, an evil that he eventually dies from.

The Eye (Symbol)

"The eye" is invoked repeatedly at the end of the story to symbolize Sykes as he slowly dies and Delia's feeling of culpability in his death. Eyes are the means through which we see and apprehend visual forms of knowledge, and Delia feels stricken when she thinks about Sykes' single open eye and what it has seen: her tubs and lamp, which show that she had already returned home before him. In this way, the eye symbolizes Delia's ambivalent guilt over Sykes' death.

The River Jordan (Symbol)

The River Jordan is another important Biblical symbol in the story. The River Jordan has much significance in the Bible. For example, the river must be crossed in order for the Israelites to reach the promised land, and the river is an important site in the Bible for the demonstration of God's power. As such, the invocation of the River Jordan symbolizes the story's themes of reckoning, deliverance, and God's justice.

Heat (Motif)

Heat is a repeated motif of the story and is both realistic (because Florida, where the story is set, is indeed very hot in the summertime) as well as useful for setting the tone for the story. The heat is extremely oppressive, animals are going mad, and people are at their wits' end. It is in this tense atmosphere that Delia continues on working as she always does and Sykes finally crosses the line by bringing a snake to their house. In this way, it both underscores how hardworking and constant Delia is, and also suggests how difficult this time of year is for everyone.

African-American Vernacular Speech (Motif)

Throughout the story, the characters speak in African-American vernacular rather than the standard American English in which the story is written. This is used for a realistic effect, as this is actually how African-Americans in that place and time in history would have spoken. One feature of African-American vernacular English (AAVE) is the use of double negatives, such as "She don't look lak a thing but a hunk uh liver wid hair on it" (p. 1025) to communicate the sentiment that "she looks like a hunk of liver with hair on it." Another feature of AAVE is the use of "done" for a past tense conjugation, like in the case of "he done got too biggety to live" (p. 1025).