1. This door was life. It was air. The bottom starting-point of becoming a person. I simply must have this room with the shut door.
This phrase from Chapter X, when Sara finds the room she wants to rent, describes the bases on which Sara plans to build her new, independent life. The first of these is economic improvement, getting an education so she can later get a job that will pull her out of poverty. Practically, a private room will give her the quiet she needs to focus on her studying, which will help her get through school and on to her dreamed-of employment. Psychologically, the room helps keep Sara focused on the goal she is working so hard to achieve. Having her own room frees Sara somewhat from the pull of her family’s needs and expectations, which are so different from her own. The room also gives Sara a small taste of her completed goal. As Mrs. Smolinsky says earlier in the novel, in America only the rich can afford privacy. Sara values her first cramped, dirty bit of this piece of the American dream, and the solitude she’ll gain when she is a working teacher promises to be even more wonderful.
The room is even more important to the second base of Sara’s new life, the quest for her own identity. If Sara had stayed in her parents’ home, she would have remained what she had grown up being—a mere extension of her father’s will. Under Reb Smolinsky’s roof, his beliefs about a woman’s place in the world would always hold sway, and he would always have too much influence on Sara’s daily life for her ever to be able to escape those beliefs. If she had married someone like Max Goldstein, who wanted her merely as another possession, she would have become an extension of her husband’s will instead of her father’s. Her mother desperately worried about Sara’s single status, and though Fania hated her marriage, she worked tirelessly to push Sara into a similar state. If Sara had remained with any of these people, her own opinions and ambitions never would have survived. Only on her own, in her own little room, can Sara find the silence and the freedom necessary to discover who she is.
2. It says in the Torah: What’s a woman without a man? Less than nothing—a blotted out existence. No life on earth and no hope in heaven.
This comment is from Chapter XV, when Reb Smolinsky berates Sara for refusing Max Goldstein. Sara spends many of her formative years defying this teaching, declaring in a variety of ways that her existence is as strong and important as any man’s. Women are not supposed to judge men, yet at a young age, Sara interrupts the engagement party of Bessie’s former love, Berel, to curse him for hurting her sister, and she later grows to hate her father for hurting his daughters. She refuses to bow to her father’s will concerning store decisions she believes are wrong and defies him in a loud shouting match. Sara then runs away from home, hoping to live the life she chooses and not the one her father dictates for her. Despite her father’s strict disapproval, she also refuses to marry Max Goldstein, sensing that the marriage would stop her from fulfilling her dream. Sara pursues her goals using her own will on her own terms.
As Sara gets older, however, she begins to wonder whether her father’s words might hold a grain of truth. Sara is a total outcast in school and at work, left out of all social groups because of the way she has chosen to live her life. Society believes that girls her age should be seeking husbands, and no one is willing to accept or understand that Sara would much rather be on a quest for knowledge. She develops impossible crushes, first with Morris Lipkin and then with Mr. Edman, in an attempt to find a connection with someone. She’s so starved for male companionship that she nearly allows herself to be swept away by Max Goldstein, despite the fact that he can talk only about himself and belittles the education Sara is working so hard to achieve. Even the glories of a teaching job eventually begin to ring hollow, and not until Sara and Hugo Seelig become a couple do her descriptions of life regain their original glow. Though Sara is able to have a life on her own, she feels life is much richer when a man is involved.
3. I know I’m a fool. But I cannot help it. I haven’t the courage to live for myself. My own life is knocked out of me. No wonder Father called me the burden bearer.
Bessie makes this admission near the end of Chapter III, when she explains to Berel why she can’t run away with him, and it presents a complex picture of the forces that shape the lives of Bessie and many other women in Bread Givers. Outside forces and restrictions, rooted mainly in religion, are immeasurably influential in their lives. According to Judaism, women must dedicate their lives to men’s needs. If Bessie’s father chooses to call her a “burden bearer” for the family, she is then obligated to take on that role. This is the only way of life she and generations before her have ever known, and according to them and the community in which she lives, her very worth as a woman depends on this obedience and selfless dedication. Bessie must also deal with the guilt that comes from knowing that due to her family’s poverty and her father’s unwillingness to work, there is a distinct possibility that her family would literally starve without her.
The far more subtle and persuasive restriction, however, is Bessie’s own reliance on such a system. Unlike her sisters, Bessie has spent her entire life living for others until it gets to the point that filling other people’s needs is the only thing she knows how to do. Bessie stays with her father, as she explains, because he is truly helpless without her. Later, she attempts to run away from home but is called back by the needs of Zalmon’s youngest child, Benny, a little boy clearly desperate for a mother, which Bessie is capable of being. Berel, on the other hand, needed Bessie so little that he attempted to push Bessie into an ultimatum, and the moment she refused, he ran off and got engaged to someone else. He refused to understand that his lack of need would force her into an entirely new way of life, one she would need time and patience to learn. Without that time, there was nothing she could do but reject him.
4. I felt the shadow still there, over me. It wasn’t just my father, but the generations who made my father whose weight was still upon me.
This passage, given by Sara as the final line of the novel, suggests that despite her profession, her romantic partner, and the many gains she has made for herself, Sara’s struggle for an independent identity is far from over. Her once mighty father has become frail, and despite the alternatives Sara has tried to set up, the weight of expectation is pushing her into taking him into her own home. She knows it is what she has been taught to do, and the fiancé who has already moved her closer to cultural acceptance is so aware of the proper way of doing things that he assumes Reb Smolinsky will be moving in without a word of discussion. Though Sara can see the tyranny that will reenter her life, Hugo doesn’t understand, seeing only the community belief that serving their elders, particularly their male elders, brings blessings into the younger people’s lives. Despite how far she has come in developing her identity, the life her culture requires and expects is still waiting for her, ready to take advantage of the slightest slip in her vigilance.
Despite her dread, Sara still feels tied to her family. Her efforts to gain an education separated her from her family for six years, and the guilt she feels about coming back when her mother is dying lead her to promise to fulfill her mother’s last wish: to take care of her father. Feeling as though she failed her mother in life, Sara feels she has to sacrifice her own independence in order not to fail her mother in death. Also, Sara begins to teach herself to see her father through her mother’s eyes and to see that, despite his faults, he is a lonely old man whose internal candle is flickering out. Sara remembers this flame she was once so in awe of and wants to keep it lit, but to do so would bring Reb Smolinsky under her own roof and, she fears, restore to him the power he once had over her. In a way, her love proves to be just as solid a trap as her culture.
5. There was one in the school who was what I dreamed a teacher to be—the principal, Mr. Hugo Seelig. He kept that living thing, that flame, that I used to worship as a child. And yet he had none of that aloof dignity of a superior. He was just plain human. When he entered a classroom sunlight filled the place.
Though this statement, given by Sara early in Chapter XX, is describing the man Sara falls in love with, it also goes far in explaining the love-hate relationship Sara has with her father. According to Sara, the thing that drew her most to Hugo was the living flame that drove his teaching, the light that even passersby could see shining from him. Though Sara herself fails to note the comparison, Yezierska specifically mentions several times how the light shone from Reb Smolinsky’s face, even noting that this light was one of the qualities that first appealed to Sara’s mother. Sara has long admired this light of her father’s and seeks to find something similar for herself through her devotion to education. When she thinks she’s found it, after Max leaves, the first thing she wants to do is share it with her father. Even though he refuses the connection, Sara still can’t help but look for similar qualities in a potential husband.
Sara is careful to note at least one significant difference between herself and her father. Along with his light, one of the first qualities that drew Sara to Hugo was his humanity. Unlike Reb Smolinsky, who always set himself above the rest of his family and rejected his daughter’s attempts to reach out to him, Hugo is careful not to be seen as either aloof from or superior to the teachers and students with whom he worked. He treats small, grubby children with the same respect as learned scholars, a quality Sara reveres. Hugo respects Sara’s intelligence and ability, not taking credit for her work and not pressuring her into doing something more traditional. He understands her in a way her father never did, fulfilling the need that sent her running away from home and kept her resolve firm, even after she was disowned. Hugo might not have the same prestige as Reb Smolinsky, but in Sara’s eyes, it is that very prestige that kept her father from being the support she needed him to be.