Analysis of Major Characters
The driving force in Sara’s life is her desire to find her own version of the light she sees radiating from her father. As a child, she yearns for something that will inspire her, such as Morris Lipkin’s poetry briefly does. As a teen, she dreams of becoming a teacher so that all eyes will be on her the way they are on her father when he preaches. Later, she finds books that fuel her from day to day. When she gives up Max Goldstein because he would have stopped her education, she comforts herself with the thought that her sacrifice is like her father’s rejection of worldly success in order to study the Torah more fully. When she begins to understand what it takes to find an inner light, the first thing she wants to do is share it with him, believing he’s the only one who will truly understand. Knowledge, she decides, is what she wants more than anything in the world, and she devotes the same time and energy to obtaining it that her father does to studying his holy books.
During her quest for an internal flame, Sara hones her sense of fury at the injustices committed by others. Though she has no backing, she has the courage to protest at the restaurant when the cook gives her less meat because she is a woman. She is furious with both Berel and Jacob for hurting her sisters, and her hatred for her father begins when she sees the way he denies his daughters any chance to have lives of their own choosing. This need to fight injustice, however, is also what helps her reconcile with her father, and the first steps are inspired by her mother’s promise and the guilt Sara feels at returning home just as she is dying. Later, when Sara sees the way her father’s new wife treats him, she considers the possibility of once again living under one roof with her father, despite the tyranny she fears will re-enter her life. Her father’s light is threatened, and Sara knows better than anyone the importance of keeping it lit.
Having spent his entire life wrapped up in the study of the Torah and other holy books, Reb Smolinsky lives in his own private world of religious study, a world that is sometimes highly incompatible with the one in which the rest of his family lives. His days and nights are focused on the promise of heaven and offering charitable contributions to others, making him unable to see that on Earth, a man needs to make sure his own children are fed before he gives to strangers. In the holy works, men are good and kind, and they value the importance of study; he attempts to translate this awareness to a world where people don’t care what your excuses are for not paying them and try to cheat you on business deals. Even more damaging to himself and those around him is the fact that in his world of words, Reb Smolinsky is incredibly knowledgeable. He mistakenly believes this means that he is equally knowledgeable in the outside world, and he makes potentially foolish decisions without feeling the need to consult his much more sensible wife. If his decisions prove to have been poorly made, Reb Smolinsky refuses to admit this to himself and will allow the decision to degrade further rather than to confess that he might have been wrong.
Bessie has been crushed for so long by the weight of responsibility and family duty that it is hard to determine any personality she might have had beyond that. She has no time for outside interests because she’s forced to work all hours of the day to keep her family fed and clothed. She also has no hope of a future escape because her father needs the money she brings in too badly to ever really let her go. Though it often seems, especially to Sarah, that this treatment has crushed Bessie’s spirit enough that all she’s capable of is mute acceptance, Bessie does in fact plan to run away rather than marry Zalmon, the fish peddler. However, that would leave Bessie on her own, trying to create a life for herself without ever having the opportunity even to discover what she might want to be a part of that life. Being left alone with so few internal resources very reasonably terrifies her, so she resigns herself to what little light can be reflected off of the people she serves. First it was her father with his holy light, then little Benny, the fish peddler’s son, whose eyes shone with something fresh and beautiful. Better to cling to the little light you have, she feels, than to risk seeking more and find you have nothing at all.
Though her family suspects she is shallow and empty-headed, Mashah is instead simply a lover of beauty. She buys paper flowers, makes a special trip to listen to the free music in the park, and lavishes attention on her face and figure simply because they are some of the few reliable sources of beauty available to her in her impoverished life. Sara says early in the book that Mashah seems to feed off her beauty the way other people feed off food, and the time she puts into keeping herself attractive is simply a way of keeping her food supply strong. She is first drawn to her great love, Jacob Novak, through the beautiful music he produces. She responds to that love by spreading beauty as far as she can: the house becomes cleaner and more organized, the table has fresh flowers, and the joy on her face brings light to all who know her. She puts so much effort into creating beauty for Jacob’s sake that when he leaves, her belief in beauty itself is crushed. Her spirit slowly drains away. She still keeps herself looking nice, but there is no longer any heart behind it.
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