The novel by Anzia Yezierska is called “The Bread Givers”, it was written in 1925, and it describes the stories of the members of a family of immigrants living in New York City. The family is of Jewish origin, and they came from Eastern Europe. The Jewish people coming from that region traditionally had strict Jewish Orthodox values. The story explores the lives of its characters and the way the new society and new country influence them and their views. This story has many layers, and the author raises several questions that have always been popular and important in every family and every nation. There is a topic of religious values and the lifestyle of a devoted believer.
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The modern world is progressing quickly, and old-fashioned religious traditions and rules gradually start to fade away or undergo changes. It becomes more and more difficult for the people taking religion to the extreme to fit into the developing world and adjust to all the multiple changes and influences. This is why such people have only two ways out – they either have to alter their attitude towards the rules and limitations and make certain adjustments and compromises, or they could stick with their traditional lifestyle and experience a lot of discomfort coming from the social differences. Another important question the novel brings out is the question of the gap between people of different generations. The views, goals, opportunities and opinions of younger people often do not match their parents’ ideas about the lives they should live.
This issue is eternal, and it has been bothering society for centuries. Every family has experienced this kind of conflict and had to deal with certain levels of discomfort because of disagreement between younger and older people. Many young people grew up having mother or father issues due to the differences in views and expectations. The Freudian theory of archetypes states that these kinds of issues start to occur in childhood when the archetype of a parent is damaged or simply does not exist in the child’s world. We have whole generations of people with father issues because of wars that took fathers away from the families or because of the belief that the father’s role in the family was to supply, but not to participate in the process of raising the children. One more highly important social and psychological question explored in the novel by Anzia Yezierska is the problem of gender roles in society and in families. These days, in our emancipated world wherein most countries men and women have established equal rights, there are still feminist movements fighting against male domination and suppression.
Besides, there are still countries and cultures where one of the genders has limited rights and freedoms. At the time when the story “The Bread Givers” was written such movements were just beginning to appear, this is why this question was especially important to the novelist, especially knowing the fact that she came from a Jewish family that shared the traditional values and views about gender roles and their importance in the society. Of course, the story brings out such an important aspect of human life as love and relationships. It is a well-known fact that at some point every human being starts to experience the need of partnership, companionship, understanding and love, yet in families that belong to cultures with strong male domination it becomes impossible for a woman to take over her own life and make her own choices, especially concerning the man she would like to spend the rest of her life with.
In “The Bread Givers” the author suggests her readers have a look at the typical patterns in the behaviours of members of one family. Anzia Yezierska offers a perspective; she shows a life cycle of Sara and enriches it with the descriptions of her sisters, parents, and surrounding people in order to explain the choices all of these people made, the causes that pushed them to form their decisions and the consequences that followed.
The person that creates the biggest amount of destructive influence in the family is the father, Reb Smolinsky, a Jewish man who is madly in love not with his wife or family, but with his religion and his holy books. This passion of his makes Reb absolutely unsocial and unsuitable for the life in the developing and business-oriented America with the progressive society, big dreams and far looking goals. Reb believes that his holy books are the source of absolute wisdom, that they possess all the correct answers. This kind of behaviour resembles a type of escapism where a person is hiding from the unpleasant reality and avoiding an active pursuit of any practical values. Reb does not look for a job; he is used to being supported by his family.
He enjoys his dominant position of an absolutely useless member of a group, who still has the biggest power and gets to order everyone around and tell his women how to behave. Reb is selfish and does not show any understanding of his daughters and wife; he is just exploiting them to earn material goods. Besides, he treats the men they like the same way. He also exploits his religion as a tool to manipulate people. His holy books are literally his main source of power. He is good-for-nothing, he knows it, but does not admit it, and this is why he is trying to make achievements with somebody else’s hands. He leads a lifestyle of a parasite that survives only when he is attached to someone. This is why he re-marries quickly after the death of his wife – he cannot stand being alone, he is trying to use another woman for comfort, but it turns out the other way around, and he adjusts his religious beliefs making them comfortable enough to justify his desire to divorce.
Reb’s three older daughters obey their father and let him exploit them. They are perfectly aware of this, it makes them unhappy, yet they do not dare to object, they give up and give in. Bessie is stuck within one behavioural pattern – she is a supplier. This is the only social role known to her; the only occupation she feels comfortable about; this is why her life choices are based on the opportunities to take care of someone. Mashah, Fania and Bessie copy their mother’s behaviour; they accept this order of things and give up their rights to the only man of the family. These three girls follow traditional and strict rules of the Orthodox Jewish family. They let Reb act like a tyrant, abuse them, and insult their choices of men.
Sara, the youngest daughter, spends her whole childhood observing her sisters act within certain behavioural frames, being limited in many ways and forced to follow the rules and orders they did not like. She also got to see what kept happening to her sisters due to their decision-making. These observations quickly made her realise that she does not want to have the same destiny as Bessie, Mashah and Fania had. This is where the author explores the question of goals and ambitions of a young person involved in search of their place in this life. Anzia Yezierska raises the problem of values. She shows Sara’s desire to go to college, study, have independence, and earn her own money against her sisters’ and her mother’s values of family, religious traditions and marriage. I think this is not only the clash of generations within one family, but it is also a clash of cultures and lifestyles of old and new times.
The author shows what happens to people, who move to a new land and try to obtain a new life without accepting the fresh ambitions and views on living. Sara turns out the only member of the Smolinsky family, who is oriented towards becoming an American culturally and socially.
Sara’s way of thinking starts to work along the lines of what has to be done to avoid the life her sisters have. She is looking for the key to not following their footsteps and very soon she finds it. This is what her unconscious inner dialogue was directed at – the search of the way out. Logically, Sara understands that all her sisters did were giving in and giving up to their father, so in order not to end up like them, she needs to stop this pattern. Through the whole story, Sara never gave up to her father’s ideas about how her life should be. This is what makes her so different from the rest of her family, and this is why she goes through completely different stages of life than her sisters.
Every time she faces a choice, and she needs to make a decision, Sara does the opposite of what was expected from her by her parents. It seems like what Sara learnt from living with Reb and Shennah Smolinsky is the ability to identify things she does not want. She uses her parents and sisters as an example of how not to be and what not to do.
If Sara’s sisters acted the same way and disobeyed their father, they would be married to men they chose, and as a result, they would quickly move out of their parents’ home to build own families. This would leave Sara alone with her ageing parents unable to provide for themselves. Sara is a good person, and she would not abandon them and let them starve. I think if Bessie, Mashah and Fania followed their own choices, this would leave Sara doomed to work for her parents, maintain the household and, accordingly, forget about studies, knowledge, independence, career and love life. The negative experiences and sufferings of her sisters that Sara was witnessing through her whole childhood served as a sacrifice to shape her views and ideas about the future she wanted for herself and the ways to achieve it.