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CATHERINE CARTER Western Carolina University The God in the Snake, the Devil in the Phallus: Biblical Revision and Radical Conservatism in Hurston’s “Sweat” ZORA NEALE HURSTON’S SHORT STORY “SWEAT,” FIRST PUBLISHED IN 1926 in Fire!!, is both supremely readable and beautifully teachable: short, accessible at the literal level, satisfactory in its “eye for an eye” justice, and rich in revisionary Biblical symbolism, the radical nature of which can sometimes pass unremarked. Scholars have noted that a Biblical framework is established by the story of a man and woman locked in struggle and blame, by the story’s setting (a house and garden whose equilibrium is shattered by the arrival of a snake), and by references explicitly associating Delia with Christ. Mary Jane Lupton calls “Sweat” “an Adam and Eve in reverse, a very unblissful bower which is made peaceful when the snake . . . bites the man” (50-51). Barbara Williams adds, “Neither the failures of the villains [nor] the hardships of the victimized can be attributed to a simple, single cause, such as slavery, or modern American society; these ills exist because of original sin.” Fred Fetrow devotes his entire essay to an examination of the Biblical parallels in “Sweat,” concluding that Hurston’s retelling of the Paradise Lost myth shifts the blame from the female temptress in league with the serpent to the oppressive male who would use the snake for his own evil purposes. . . . She seems to say that both sexes are guilty of cruelty to the other, but men have more power to be cruel and therefore are more guilty by default. (277) This scholarship does not fully explore the implications of the story’s Biblical paradigms, or the extent to which they render “Sweat” at once startlingly radical and ultimately conservative in its attribution of responsibility for domestic violence, first to masculine sexuality and ultimately to original sin. Such an exploration has implications not only for a fully developed critical reading of “Sweat” but also for the ways in which we teach this 606 Catherine Carter story to inexperienced critical readers. Student readers, after all, often bring to the table a host of opinions about Biblical stories and how they are to be read. For such students, the tension in which radical values and conservative ones remain throughout the story—neither canceling the other—can change what initially appears to be a validation of divine justice and human closure into a new experience of ambiguity, as this text both interrogates and validates New Testament Christianity’s sacrificial solution to original sin and the fall of humankind. In “Sweat,” the Biblical story of Genesis has been rewritten to associate men—not women—with original sin, with the cause as well as the results of the fall of man; to attribute New Testament Christian values (meekness, sinlessness, forgiveness, and hard work) to a black woman, well before most white readers understood that the historical Christ is unlikely to have been “white”; to present the snake, even the Satanic snake, as more benign than many a man; and to position black women as creators of an Eden which is spoiled only by the presence of men, not by that of the snake or any other animal. The story’s apparent conventionality—its Biblical allusion and imagery, its constant references to traditional Christian values, the tidy revenge by which, even as predicted, Sykes reaps what he has sown—only thinly conceals its much more radical Biblical revisions. The result is a story which initially appears satisfying, even comforting; my students generally embrace it with enthusiasm. But its complications become progressively more disturbing as the reader slips into a world in which Biblical parallels abound, but in which nothing is quite as it was in the original texts, and in which the appealing solution of snake-bites-abuser begins to reveal less appealing observations about domestic violence. Students who initially proclaim this a great story, a wonderful story of true Christian values, are sometimes less vocal by the end of class. Religious motifs first appear in the second sentence of the story, which (as Fetrow notes) begins and ends on Sundays, with references to hymns; by the third paragraph, however...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 605-620
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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