The story begins with Delia, a working Black woman in Florida, who is a wash woman. It is a warm spring day and she is sorting and soaking the clothing she washes for the white residents of her town. Her husband walks into the house and is immediately looking for a confrontation. It is throughout this confrontation that the exploitative and abusive nature of Delia and Syke’s relationship becomes clear.
Syke taunts her with his bullwhip, rolls around laughing in mirth at her fear, and continuously kicks the piles of clothing she is working on. Syke, overbearing and dominating, paints a startling portrait of sexist masculinity. He stands in clear contrast to the ways in which Delia is described in his presence: her “thin, stooped shoulders” sag deeper and deeper. In all his masculine, angry bravado, Delia is painted as his opposite, a portrait of meek servitude.
As he stoops over her as she attempts to do her work he yells, “You sho is one aggravatin’ nigger woman!” he declared and stepped into the room. She resumed her work and did not answer him at once. Ah done tole you time and again to keep them white folks’ clothes outa dis house. (Hurston, 1926)
Her work as a wash woman becomes a crucial point of the story. She is not willing to engage in this confrontation until Syke pushes her to snap. She stands up to him in an act of both agency...
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...troy her “insides,” her spirit. At his continued indifference she lashes out against him and tells him she hates him and everything he is. This striking display of female power illustrates the resistance against sexist oppression that Delia and women throughout the ages engage in.
Much like Delia’s earlier prophecy, Syke does indeed reap the seeds he sows. In the darkness of the night as he fumbles for a switch the hungry rattlesnake bites him. Afraid and in pain he calls out desperately to his wife. But Delia makes a choice, Delia, in a powerful display of female agency, does not answer his calls. By not acting, she makes the most important choice in the entire story, and lets Syke die.
Delia, in this short story, demonstrates the agency that women have in the face of oppression, and the way they resist sexism and all of its economic and social implications.
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