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.