The Smolinsky family is on the verge of starvation. The older daughters, Bessie, Mashah, and Fania, can’t find work, and Mashah spends what little money she has to make herself look more beautiful. Their father, Reb Smolinsky, doesn’t work at all, spending his days reading holy books and commandeering his daughters’ wages—his due as a Jewish father. When Mrs. Smolinsky despairs over the situation, the youngest daughter, Sara, promptly goes outside to sell herring and makes the family some money. Later, the older girls find jobs, and Mrs. Smolinsky rents out the second room, improving the family’s financial situation.
Quiet, dutiful Bessie soon falls for a young man named Berel Berenstein and invites him home for dinner one night. The rest of the family is excited for Bessie, but when Reb Smolinsky finds out, he decides he can’t live without the wages Bessie brings in. Though Berel is willing to marry Bessie without a dowry, her father says Berel must also pay for the entire wedding and set him up in business as well. Berel refuses and storms out. When he says Bessie should defy her crazy father and marry him at City Hall, Bessie says she doesn’t dare. Berel promptly gets engaged to someone else, crushing Bessie’s spirit.
Mashah is the next daughter to find a romance that Reb Smolinsky considers inappropriate. She falls in love with Jacob Novak, a piano player from a rich family. Mashah’s father disapproves of the match and blackmails Jacob into staying away for several days, breaking Mashah’s heart. When Jacob comes back to beg for forgiveness, Mashah feels defeated enough to stand by and let her father kick Jacob out for playing piano on the Sabbath. Reb Smolinsky also disapproves of Fania’s sweetheart, a poor poet named Morris Lipkin, and shames him away. He then arranges marriages for all three girls, which leave them all desperately unhappy. Sara is furious with her father for what he’s done to her sisters, but her age and gender leave her powerless.
Despite Mrs. Smolinsky’s warning, Reb Smolinsky takes all of the money he got from Bessie’s marriage and sinks it into a grocery store that the previous owner had filled with fake stock. Sara and Mrs. Smolinsky must again scramble for survival, and each day they endure increasing criticism from Reb Smolinsky. One day, Sara reaches her breaking point. She runs away from home and decides to become a teacher. She plans to live with either Bessie or Mashah, but both have been beaten down by poverty and bad marriages. Instead, she rents a small, dirty, private room of her own. To pay for it, Sara finds a day job in a laundry, using her nights to study and take classes.
The life Sara has chosen is not easy. She faces discrimination for being a woman and living alone; her fellow workers ostracize her; her mother begs her to come home more often; and her unhappy sisters nag her to find a husband of her own. On top of all this, Sara is desperately lonely, and when she is visited by an acquaintance of Fania’s, Max Goldstein, she nearly marries him and gives up her dream of seeking knowledge. When she realizes Max is interested only in possessions, however, she refuses him. When Reb Smolinsky hears of this, he’s so furious with Sara that he promptly disowns her.
College is another struggle against poverty and loneliness, but Sara wants so badly to be like the clean, beautiful people around her that she perseveres and graduates. She gets a job in the New York school system, buys nicer clothing, and rents a cleaner, larger apartment as a celebration of her new financial independence. Her excitement ends quickly, however, when she learns that her mother, whom she hasn’t visited in six years, is dying. Though her mother’s deathbed wish is that Sara take care of her father, Reb Smolinsky quickly gets remarried to Mrs. Feinstein, a widow who lives upstairs. His daughters are deeply offended by this insult to their mother, and after Mrs. Feinstein tries to extort money from her new stepchildren, all of them decide to stop speaking to their father.
Furious at her unexpected poverty, Mrs. Feinstein writes a nasty letter to Hugo Seelig, the principal of Sara’s school. The letter, however, actually draws Hugo and Sara together, and their bond tightens as they talk of their shared heritage in Poland. This new relationship finally marks the end of Sara’s loneliness, and in her new happiness, she decides once again to reach out to her father. Hugo does this as well, and the novel ends with the implication that Reb Smolinsky will soon escape his new wife by moving in with Hugo and Sara. Sara’s life has come full circle.