Volume VIII, Number 2, Fall 2012

"Assujettissement and the Immigrant Experience in Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers" by Judit Szilák

Judit Szilák is a recent graduate of Eötvös Loránd University’s Masters program in American Studies. Her article featured here in AMERICANA formed part of her thesis, the subject of which was gender construction in turn of the century fiction, focusing on Yezierska’s Bread Givers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” and his novel The Great Gatsby, relating these fictional characters and their Foucauldian subjectivation to the historical emergence of the New Woman. Email:


The present paper aims to give a textual analysis of an early twentieth century fictional work by Anzia Yezierska in an effort to observe the ways in which Michel Foucault’s theories regarding power and assujettissement, or subjectivation, and Judith Butler’s related theories about gender construction, manifest in the novel’s female characters.

Subjectivation and gender construction are theories with established cultural applications, as Foucault relates the former to the prisoner of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, and Butler explains it in terms of sexuality.

For my purposes, subjectivation is a concept that would be particularly interesting to see applied to fictional works to determine whether the theory stood up to examination. Because the theory of subjectivation is so precisely defined, it provides an exact template for character analysis. Though Foucault uses the term in a more general sense, Butler broadens its application when she discusses it in terms of gender and gender construction. This aspect caught my eye because it corresponds with the specific historical period of the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when American society was going through an enormous change due to technological innovation, immigration, and the effects of World War I, all of which had a deep impact on gender politics.

Yezierska’s Bread Givers is a particularly good choice for character analysis because of its acknowledged autobiographical nature, which means that it reflects the period in terms of personal experience, yet, as a work of fiction, gives the reader enough distance to immerse herself in Sara Smolinsky’s world. Bread Givers was first published in 1910, exactly in the period that was seeing such profound changes in society. Another advantage of the novel is that it discusses the effects of immigration, which provides an outsider’s critical view of American society.

My main argument is that Sara Smolinsky, the protagonist of Bread Givers and Yezierska’s avatar, goes through the process of subjectivation deeply influenced by her immigrant status, a process which highlights the illusory and temporary nature of gender construction as defined by Butler.

In the following sections I am going to review Foucault’s theories about subjectivation, Butler’s theories about the same as well as her theories about gender construction. Then I am going to take a look at the specificities of turn of the century immigration. Finally, I am going to relate both theory and historical evidence to the female characters of Bread Givers, with particular emphasis on Sara Smolinsky’s character.


1. Subjectivation

In his essay “The Subject and Power,” Michel Foucault redefines what power means and examines how human beings turn themselves into subjects as opposed to being objectified by entities that have power over them. In fact, he gives two meanings for “subject”: one where subject is someone who is subjected to someone else, and the other who is an agent subject, subjected only to their own consciousness (781).

To Foucault power is not a thing, but a relation. The exercise of power is not only a relation between two entities, be it two individuals or an individual and an institution, but an action that alters another action. In this sense power is not about one partner dominating another who consents to the domination, but one action dominating another action. In a power relationship both dominance and passivity are the result of active participation: one actor governs the possible actions/reactions of the other, who is also free to choose a course of action (Foucault 1982, 788-9). An important characteristic of the Foucauldian understanding of power is that power is not the sole prerogative of the state; it exists at every level of society ranging from the personal to the institutional (Foucault 1982, 795).

In the essay “Subjection, Resistance, Resignification,” Judith Butler explains the Foucauldian term “assujettissement” or “subjectivation” as a process through which one becomes the subject as well as the process of subjection. In the latter case one becomes the subject by first being subjected to power, which usually takes place through the body (83). Butler interprets Foucault’s ideas about the subjectivation of the prisoner not as an “exterior relation of power” in which the institution, in this case the prison, subordinates the prisoner, but as an internalizing process the prisoner goes through. This means that more than just simply acting on the prisoner, dominating him, the prison “activates” the prisoner in his own subjectivation in regulating him (Butler 1997, 84). As she explains, though the prison acts on the prisoner’s body by restricting his movement and regulating his actions, it is the prisoner who, in obeying the prison’s rules, subjects himself to the institution and in doing so forms his identity of being a prisoner. As she quotes Foucault, the prisoner’s soul is the one having an imprisoning effect, thus “the soul is the prison of the body” (Butler 1997, 85).

Butler explains that the Foucauldian subject is formed, subjectivated, in repetition, meaning that the act of subjectivation has to be repeated for the subject to form, it does not take place only once (Butler 1997, 94). Foucault, Butler writes, understands resistance as an effect of power, because even as it opposes power it remains within that power: resistance cannot be understood outside of the power relation it opposes, only within (Butler 1997, 98-9).

Butler takes the Foucauldian subject and reinterprets it in terms of gender construction in her essay “Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire.” As she writes, it is the systems of power that produce the subject they represent, which means that woman as the subject of feminism is herself a discursive formation of politics, defined and regulated according to the particulars of the system she is produced by. Power acts in a “capillary” manner, that is, as we have seen with the prisoner who internalized Bentham’s Panopticon, it is us regulating our own selves; there is no need for an outside source of power regulating us. According to Butler, what feminist critique should concern itself with is the ways in which the category of “woman” is produced and restricted by power structures, precisely because the way feminist critique conceptualizes emancipation is within the framework of the same social construction they had been produced by. The question arises then, says Butler, whether women consent to be governed in this way (Butler 1990, 2).

Consequently, Butler argues, there is no pre-existing subject of women, because “women” cannot be denoted as a common identity applicable to all women. This idea that gender is consistent in different contexts is based on the faulty notion that “women” as a category is defined by the universal experience of oppression by the opposing, male, gender (Butler 1990, 3). This means that the identity of women comes from being defined against and within a masculine framework, which, according to Butler, is a mistake and defeats the purpose of feminists. She argues that since there can be no pre-existing category of “women,” no woman can stand, literally and figuratively, before the law, because she is created by the law (Butler 1990, 4). There is no need for a unifying identity as “women,” as such coherence is the product of confining “woman” within a “heterosexual matrix,” in Butler’s words, which means that “woman” is created through heterosexual practices that exclude everyone falling outside of heteronormativity, in which case the very term “woman” becomes exclusionary (Butler 1990, 5).

The assumption that sex is determined by biology while gender is a social construct, and that gender is not the causal result of sex nor is it as fixed as sex, fails to take into account that we do define gender in a binary system of male and female. In this binary system gender mirrors sex and is restricted by it: we immediately assign feminine features to female sex. From this it follows that sex is always already gendered. Butler argues that it makes no sense to define gender as a cultural representation of sex if sex is already a gendered category (Butler 1990, 6-7). By contrast, Butler suggests that gender identity is not fixed, but fluid, and it changes depending on the circumstances. She argues that identity is not already gendered according to certain pre-existing notions of what gender is like. However the question remains: to what extent does gender formation inform identity (Butler 1990, 16)?

Using the term “intelligible gender,” Butler explains that gender signifies a coherent correlation between sex, gender, sexual practice and desire, with these terms having a causal relationship with one another. Specifically, heterosexual desire is what strengthens the binary system of male and female, in which members desire the opposite sex, which in turn informs their gender, which informs their identity. In this sense heterosexuality regulates gender as a binary relation in which the feminine and the masculine are defined and differentiated from one another through the practice of heterosexual desire (Butler 1990, 17). This binary restriction on sex serves to create a compulsory heterosexuality, therefore, if heterosexuality is undermined, it is possible to establish personhood without having to take sex into consideration. For Butler, the lesbian emerges as a third gender, in so far as she transcends the binary restriction on sex (Butler 1990, 19). Quoting Foucault, Butler says that the identity that is informed by gender based on heterosexuality is revealed as a “regulatory fiction.” Gender is not a noun or an attribute, but a performance regulated by heteronormativity (Butler 1990, 24). There is no gender identity behind language, it is performatively produced through acts of heterosexual desire. From this it follows that there must be an agent who exercises her agency in performing her gender (Butler 1990, 25).

Moreover, sexuality does not exist outside of the heteronormative law. Turning to Foucault, Butler says that the subject has no sexuality outside, prior, or after power inherent in the prohibitive heteronormative law (Butler 1990, 29). However, as Butler emphasizes, it would be a mistake to return to the idea that gender is defined by biology, despite the fact that sexuality is constructed within discourse and power that are based on heteronormativity and male privilege, and therefore sex cannot exist beyond these heteronormative power relations (Butler 1990, 30). Butler concludes that there is no such thing as a “real woman,” by which she means one that pre-exists heteronormative regulatory practices that are in fact based on power relations (Butler 1990, 33).

In “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” Butler writes that gender is not a stable identity that informs the actions of the person, rather, gender identity is formed through repetition of “stylized acts.” Even more importantly, gender is formed through certain gestures and movements of the body that create the “illusion” of a stable “gendered self” (519). In this understanding gender exists in a “social temporality,” in which the repetitive bodily acts are understood as performances that become conceptualized as gender identity both by the actor and her audience, but only in that timeframe that the act is being performed. Subsequently, Butler argues, the temporary nature of gender identity means that it can be constructed differently in different times. Gender identity is therefore never stable, but a temporary illusion that is apparent only in the moment of performance and filtered through the gender assumptions of actor and audience (520).

These bodily acts, the embodying of gender, are performed by the individual, but that does not mean that the individual performs her gender ideals devoid of society’s influence. In fact, writes Butler, the family in which certain gender norms are enforced, rewarded or punished itself takes its cue from society at large. In this way, the act has already been “rehearsed,” but more than that, the act is really a “reenactment” of socially accepted gender acts, and this reenactment further legitimizes the socially accepted gender norms. Therefore, Butler argues, though it is individual bodies that enact the “social performance” of gender, these acts immediately become public, and so gender is not a wholly individual choice, but something that is regulated by society long before the performance takes place (Butler 1988, 525-6).

The idea of gender as regulatory fiction comes up again in this Butler essay as well. Butler suggests that when society sees certain acts as expressions of gender, that implies that there is a stable gender identity that preexists the act, and if the act conforms to that preexisting gender identity then the actor is rewarded, whereas if the act does not conform, the actor is punished in some way. By contrast, Butler argues that if this act is a performance of gender, and not an expression of gender, that means that there is no such thing as a gender identity that preexists the act, the performance, because it only ever exists in the performance (Butler 1988, 528).


2. Subjectivation and the New Woman in Yezierska

The issue of subjectivation is especially interesting when we place it in the period when attitudes of and toward women in the United States started to change at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Historically, the New Woman emerged at the end of the nineteenth century due to advances made in technology (the advance of household appliances making housework easier and less time consuming, and the typewriter and telephone creating jobs that were predominantly filled by women) and the economy (women replaced men in the workplace during World War I), which brought changing attitudes towards women’s roles in American society.

In Western thought women traditionally could not be disassociated from their function in the family, an assertion that continued in Colonial America, which took the subordination of women for granted, as Linda Kerber notes in her essay “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place.” Women were understood to live only in the private sphere of life; the public was reserved for men, up until toward the end of the nineteenth century, when the New Woman emerged and took her first steps toward achieving greater equality between the sexes.

Anzia Yezierska’s novel Bread Givers captures these very first tentative steps as it deals with a working-class Polish Jewish girl’s struggles with acculturation and assimilation into American society as well as her struggles against her domineering father’s traditional views about women’s roles in society. In the following section I am going to take a look at how immigration in turn of the century United States coincided with the emergence of the New Woman and challenged traditional assumptions about gender roles.

2.1. Immigration and the New Woman

In their essay “The Immigrant Experience,” R. A. Burchell and Eric Homberger write that in the early twentieth century the United States was experiencing a shortage of labor that in turn caused a raise in wages. Accompanied with the power of propaganda, improvements in communication and transportation, Europeans, among many others, who had very few opportunities in their home countries, either as the result of economic inefficiencies or political or religious oppression, were encouraged to embark on a long journey to the New World. For these people the idea of America stood for a new society in which every man can forge his own destiny and realize his dreams of self-fulfillment (Burchell and Homberger 1989, 127-8).

Jewish, Italian and Slavic immigrants mostly settled in east coast urban and industrial areas because it was easier to get a job and cheaper to get housing in bigger cities than in the rural areas. In terms of succeeding in assimilating to American society, those immigrants who came from countries with a culture similar to that of the United States found the transition to be somewhat easier than those of very different socio-cultural backgrounds. The Jews encountered hostility on the parts of Americans, as well as an unfamiliar culture and language upon their arrival (Burchell and Homberger 1989, 130-1).

As outcasts, they formed their own communities, for instance, in Bread Givers the Jews of New York lived on Hester Street. They also found it difficult to assimilate the value system of the new society. They managed to achieve a so called “behavioral assimilation” in so far as they embraced the republican ideology of the United States: the idea of political equality and the equality of economic opportunity (Burchell and Homberger1989, 132). For instance, Reb Smolinsky, the pater familias of the novel, never missed an opportunity to declare that in America any man can be a businessman and make a fortune, even though he himself was clearly not equipped with the skills to do so: for instance, he made an impulsive bargain purchasing a bankrupt grocery store, without having any knowledge about how to run a business.

Generally, Jews had their strengths in their belief in the value of education that opened professions for them, which in turn brought wealth and status in the larger society. (Burchell and Homberger 1989, 131) In terms of “structural assimilation,” on the other hand, many of them were reluctant to adopt American attitudes toward marriage and child-rearing, and were discouraged by their American counterparts as well. This is most noticeable in Reb’s belief that daughters had no use for education; they needed only to obey their father and later their husbands, whom would be selected by the father. There was disagreement between generations over what values of the new society could be adopted, and what might be destructive for their traditions. Parents often suffered as they saw their children acculturating faster than they did (Burchell and Homberger 1989, 132).

Problems of assimilation are also profoundly interlinked with questions of gender identity. Gay Wilentz, in her essay “Cultural Mediation and the Immigrant’s Daughter,” writes that for many Jewish immigrants Americanization meant the loss of their culture, the loss of their traditions. The Jewish immigrant woman, Wilentz argues, was doubly disadvantaged, as she had to struggle with both prejudice against her Jewish race and religion on the part of Anglo-Americans, as well as against a patriarchal culture that sought to define her role in society along strict lines. Yezierska exposes how a Jewish woman who secures her freedom finds herself alone in a hostile culture through the struggle between Sara, the protagonist in Bread Givers, and Reb, her Old World tyrannical father (Wilentz 1992, 34).

2.2. Immigration in Bread Givers

When the Smolinskys moved to the United States Sara was still very young, therefore she more readily accepted the American way of life than either of her older sisters or her parents. What she saw at home was in stark contrast to what she experienced outside her home and she was smart or mature enough to be able to criticize her family’s way of living. She not only nurtured dreams of living another way, she acted on those sensibilities. Cautionary tales have dreadful endings for runaway children, stressing the importance that it’s better for them to return home, but Bread Givers rewarded the runaway child for her courage and smarts in surviving.

Sara understood that education was her ticket out of poverty and she was willing to make sacrifices to achieve her goals. For instance, she was wrecked with guilt at times for disobeying her family, for being disloyal to Jewish traditions. Her punishment did come, because she was feeling very alone for years, especially when her mother visited her, a journey that cost a lot of money, and Sara was unable to return the visit because she was too busy working in the sweatshop by day making a living, and studying for college by night. But these experiences were just mere obstacles to be overcome. She received her ultimate reward in becoming a teacher and she received her mother’s approval and pride in the end.

Yezierska’s stance on how Jewish men fit in with the rest of American society is firm. Bread Givers portrays a line of male characters whose Old World patriarchism renders them incapable of dealing with the hardships of the New World and makes them very unsympathetic in the eyes of the reader. Reb Smolinsky spends his life studying the Torah and ordering his wife and daughters around without ever doing an honest day’s work himself. Whenever his daughters fell in love and brought home their respective suitors he scared them off. Instead, he acted as matchmaker and made them marry the men he selected, blaming his daughters when the marriages turned out to be disastrous. The husbands all share Reb’s traditional view about the place of women in the order of things, without themselves shouldering some of the burdens their wives keep struggling with day after day.

Wilentz offers an explanation for Reb Smolinsky’s behavior when she says that for religious scholars of Reb’s stature, who were respected leaders of the community back in Europe, life in America meant continued struggle for existence, living in abject poverty, but without the status of community leader. As she says, capitalist, consumerist American culture had little use and no respect for someone who dedicated his life to the study of the Torah, had no need for a religious guide (Wilentz 1992, 35). In the scene when Berel Bernstein visits the Smolinsky home to ask for the eldest daughter Bessie’s hand Reb shows little concern for his daughter’s happiness, his only concern is that if his hard-working daughter marries, her wages will no longer go to him. Berstein, a successful, thoroughly Americanized Jew, has no patience for such Old World attitude: he scolds Reb for making his wife and daughters work while he devotes all his time to his studies: “Aint it enough that your daughter kept you in laziness all these years? You want yet her husband to support you for the rest of your days? In America they got no use for Torah learning. In America everybody got to earn his living first.” (48)

2.3. Immigration and Gender in Bread Givers

In her review of Bread Givers, Wendy Stevens notes that Yezierska’s story of an immigrant Jewish girl, who struggles with her identity as a Jew and a girl in an America that values completely different things than what she grew up with, closely mirrors her own experiences and contains many autobiographical elements. Stevens identifies the chief conflict of the book as the struggle of a Jewish girl who strove to be more than a vessel for male sexual needs and a provider for male family members so that they would not need to concern themselves with the daily struggle for survival, and instead had the luxury of devoting themselves to their studies, which was the prevalent attitude toward Jewish women at the time. As Stevens relays Jewish religious tradition, men who devoted their time to the study of the Torah depended entirely on their wives to earn money, take care of the home, and raise the children, yet these men remained the unquestioned authorities in their households. By contrast, women were not expected to be educated, in fact, they were decidedly discouraged (Stevens 1976, 14).

Sara’s mother, Shenah, clearly suffered because of her husband: she was worrying every day about how to feed her family, how to pay the rent. Reb often shouted at his wife and showed a very condescending attitude toward her, even though he was essentially dependent on her financially. In one of their arguments Reb reminded Shenah to be mindful of her place in the family, as Reb was the head of the household, not his wife, the wage earner: “Woman! Stay in your place! You’re smart enough to bargain with the fish-peddler. But I’m the head of this family.” (13)

Husband and wife argued over these things all the time, but it was enough for Reb to start talking about the wisdom of the Torah and Shenah would be swooning with adoration for him. Ultimately, she agreed with Reb’s views, she grew up with them back home. She would not struggle against tradition for herself but she was immensely proud of Sara for doing it in her stead. As Wilentz explains, the family saw Reb as the embodiment of a holy man, someone whose traditional views called back to past generations that survived in the face of religious persecutions precisely because their sense of people-hood was located in these traditions (Wilentz 1992, 35-6): “Mother’s face lost all earthly worries. Forgotten were beds, mattresses, boarders, and dow-ries. Father’s holiness filled her eyes with light” (16)

Tyrone Simpson, in her essay “The Love of Colour Me,” states that Yezierska’s Bread Givers can be used as a textual examination of the ways in which “ethnic whiteness” was reinforced in the 1920s. The reason the novel could provide an accurate depiction of Jewish ghetto life in New York’s Lower East Side is because Yezierska draws on real life experiences of her own, and especially since Yezierska is not interested in presenting a romanticized view of life in the ghetto, as her protagonist, Sara, eventually escapes the ghetto. In fact, Sara’s spatial displacement is exactly what allows us to track her progression toward “whiteness,” and her decreasing Jewishness (Simpson 2009, 93).


3. Becoming One’s Own Subject in Bread Givers

I argue that Sara’s journey is one of subjectivation, i.e., turning herself into a subject. As Butler interpreted the Faucouldian term “assujettissement” or subjectivation, one becomes a subject by being subjected to a form of power. It is important to note that Sara has not become a subject when she became able to pass as white American, because she is a subject at every stage of her development, including her childhood years spent under her father’s roof. Foucault defines the process of subjectivation as one that arises from power relations, in which one action dominates another action, but both participants engage in a course of action. Therefore, when Sara was living with her family and so gave over her wages to her father, the family functioned as an institution of power, in which the two actors, Sara and her father, exercised their respective powers. Reb dominated Sara only to the extent to which Sara subjected herself to that domination. Her passivity was also a course of active action that she took in her relationship with her father.

Identity construction as a performance is made explicit in a number of scenes in Bread Givers. As Simpson asserts, Sara passes from immigrant working class Jewish girl to white middle class American femininity, enabled chiefly by American consumer culture. Commodities such as fashion and cosmetics could effectively mask Eastern-European immigrants’ foreignness, making it possible for them to more easily assimilate into mainstream American society. On the other hand, using commodities to mask one’s race also serves to deceive immigrants, as blood or skin color can no longer be relied on to inform a person of someone’s race. Race, therefore, itself becomes a commodity, something that can be acquired, possessed or discarded (Simpson 2009, 94).

Immigrants, who were otherwise isolated in their ghettos or form of occupations, experienced commodities, as offered by stores, radio or film, as colonizing forces that connected them to mainstream American culture, as well as a path to upward social mobility. However, these immigrants were at a disadvantage in their ability to accurately estimate the true value of certain commodities and of people who possessed those commodities. Sara recounts how her family started to need more and more things as their financial situation improved. She recognizes that while they lived in absolute poverty they needed very little and were grateful for everything they had, while as soon as they had a bit more money to spend, they became virtually insatiable, wanting to buy ever more things that they had not needed before. In effect, their needs changed, evolved, parallel to their growing income (Simpson 2009, 96):

But the more people get, the more they want. We no sooner got used to regular towels than we began to want toothbrushes, each for himself like Mashah. We got the toothbrushes and we began wanting toothpow­der to brush our teeth with, instead of ashes. And more and more we wanted more things, and really needed more things the more we got them. (29)

The Smolinskys began to assign value to these commodities and measure their social life by associating with the kind of people who possessed the kind of commodities they found valuable, instead of measuring a person’s value by his character (Simpson 2009, 96). This is made clear in the scene where 56 years old Zalmon, the newly widowed fish peddler, comes to ask for Bessie Smolinsky’s hand. The first time Zalmon is introduced to the reader Yezierska describes him as a badly dressed old man who smells strongly of fish, with a wart on his nose and a thick beard, whose personal hygiene is decidedly lacking. He is clearly someone Sara would not have wanted for her sister to marry. The second time Zalmon visits the family, however, he is a much changed man: his beard is gone, his clothes are new, every hair is slicked into place, and he is smelling only of perfume. The Smolinskys are blinded by this display of wealth; they associate Zalmon’s refined appearance with success, and, more importantly, with being American. In the Smolinskys’ eyes Zalmon is no longer a poor Jew in a New York ghetto, but a potential American millionaire (Simpson 2009, 97):

With his beard off, his new-bought bridegroom clothes, and his hair barbered short and pasted down with vaseline, and soaked in perfume in place of the old fish smell, Zalmon really shined like a rich Grand Street million­aire. No one could believe how this old fish-peddler could make himself such a dressed-up American man. (99)

Reb called his eldest daughter, Bessie, “the burden-bearer,” because she always thought of others before herself, rushing home after work to help her mother with the chores and giving all her hard-earned money to her father, as befitted a Jewish daughter. When Bessie expected Berel Berstein, an Americanized Jew and businessmen she fell in love with, to call on her, she tried to turn the Smolinsky home into an appealing white: the sisters cleaned the house and put on white tablecloth and curtains. As Simpson observes, Bessie tried to mask her Jewishness with white commodities in order to impress her Americanized suitor (Simpson 2009, 101).

However, Berstein proved to be far too American for Reb’s tastes, and he purposefully wrecked his daughter’s chances of marrying the man. After that Bessie no longer cared about men, marriage or if she would ever be happy, which was how Reb was able to push her to marry the old fish-peddler Zalmon, who, with his new clothes, was American enough to impress her father, but suitably Jewish to share his worldview. What really made her accept the proposal was Zalmon’s young son, who was clearly neglected and badly in need of a mother. Again, Bessie thought of the happiness of others before her own. She continued to live a hard, poor life, with only the little boy bringing her some happiness. Zalmon’s Americanness proved to be only skin deep: the Smolinskys mistook his shiny new attire for actual wealth, whereas Zalmon’s clothes were meant as much to convey American sophistication as Bessie’s earlier attempt of whitening her home was.

Mashah, “the empty-head,” was the beautiful one among the sisters. Yezierska emphasizes that Mashah was so beautiful that men’s eyes followed her around everywhere. Her beauty reflected American femininity, as Simpson observes, Mashah was able to pass as white American due to her doll-like appearance that appealed to American men (Simpson 2009, 101). She was incredibly self-centered, though, only caring about her looks, never about what goes on around her in the family, as evidenced by her spending all the money she earned on herself, and not giving a dime to her family. To Mashah, spending everything on cultivating her looks was akin to investing in her future:

“You heartless thing!” cried Bessie. “No wonder Father named you ‘Empty-head.’ Here you go to look for work, and you come back with pink roses for your doll face.”…
and these pink roses on my hat to match out my pink calico will make me look just like the pic­ture on the magazine cover. (2)

The family’s effort to transform their home into white American is repeated when Mashah’s suitor, Jacob Novak who is the son of a department store owner, comes to visit. Mashah makes her family use cups and utensils they would otherwise use only on special occasions; she uses her lunch money to buy flowers for the table; she insists on flavoring their dishes with salt and pepper, spices that the family considers far too luxurious for their own meals; all to impress the well-to-do Jacob Novak: “The tablecloth and napkins glistened with the fresh­ironed whiteness, as if just out from the store laundry. The steel knife and the tin fork and spoon were pol­ished and polished till they shone bright as silver.” (54)

But, as Simpson observes, Mashah’s efforts to make her family seem wealthier than they really are fail in the presence of real class: their commodities that were supposed to elevate them to middle-class respectability pale in comparison to Novak’s obvious status as an heir to a fortune, as signaled by his well-made clothes and manners. When they enter the Smolinskys’ home, Sara observes that the family’s riches on display diminish in the presence of real wealth. As Simpson writes, the family tried to elevate their social status through their possessions; they tried to change their race into white American in order to become acquainted with the Novaks who had already succeeded in becoming Americanized:

The riches from his grand clothes so much outshined all the little riches that we shined up for him that in a minute it shrank into blackness the white tablecloth and the white napkins. And like a sun in the desert, the glitter of his diamonds withered and faded the poor little flowers on the table. (57)

However, Reb was so insulted by the elder Novak’s condescending glare that he did not allow Mashah to find happiness by the side of the man she chose: he made her marry a man who seemed to be very successful but turned out to be a liar. After her children were born Mashah became like her mother. She lost her beauty just like her mother, worrying about feeding her children and paying the rent while her husband cared only about himself, spending the family’s money on fancy clothes.

Fania, the third sister, fell in love with a gentle poet but ended up marrying a rich man instead. Even though she was richer than anyone in her family, her husband was not generous with allowing her to spend their money so she was forced to manipulate him if she wanted to buy something without an argument. In all three sisters’ cases they subjected themselves to the power of men, and so their subjectivation was the result of choosing passivity as a course of action.

Having learnt from her sisters’ misfortunes Sara was determined to avoid their fate. After she realized that if she stayed under the roof of her father’s house she would not be able to escape ending up like her sisters, she chose to run away from home. Wilentz argues that the reason Sara was able to declare her independence was because she was exactly like her father in temperament. In the novel, Sara’s sisters remark on the fact that Sara’s obsession with education is similar to Reb’s obsession with studying the Torah. When Reb admonishes Sara for wanting to live on her own to educate herself, he does so by preaching Jewish teachings from the Torah, that say that a woman is only worthy of Heaven if she has a father or a husband to look after her. This admonishment is what finally pushes Sara to sever her ties with her father, saying that women in America did not need a man to tell them what to do (Wilentz 1992, 37):

A young girl, along, among strangers? Do you know what’s going on in the world? No girl can live without a father or a husband to look out for her. It says in the Torah, only through a man has a woman an existence. Only through a man can a woman enter Heaven. (136-7)
I’ve got to live my own life. It’s enough that Mother and the others lived for you.” … Thank God, I’m living in America! You made the lives of the other children! I’m going to make my own life! (137-8)

During the above argument between Sara and Reb, in the Foucauldian sense her resistance is an effect of Reb’s power over her, as resistance can only take place within the power relation it opposes. If it were not for that particular power relationship that dominated her actions, Sara might never have taken such a strong, opposing action that started her on her journey.

After sha made her escape, Sara found work as an ironing lady and found a small, dingy room she could call her own. She went to night school and managed to earn a place at a good college. There, she got to know how carefree young Americans acted and went about in the world. She learned not only academics but social behavior as well. Sara’s journey away from her working-class Jewishness toward American femininity follows the pattern we have seen with her sisters: she views her race in terms of commodities and aspires to fix it through material means. She realizes that she looks different from the carefree Americans surrounding her, as Simpson writes, she defines herself in terms of dark colors, which has an underlying racial aspect to it:

Tired eyes. Eyes that gazed far away at nothing. A set sadness about the lips like in old maids who’d given up all hope of happiness. A gray face. A stone face. Turned to stone from not living. A black shirt­waist, high up to the neck. Not a breath of colour. Everything about me was gray, drab, dead. (180)

Her method to fix her appearance and her race takes a materialistic aspect (Simpson 2009, 102); they stay on the surface. Though she buys lively-colored clothes at a department store and uses red lipstick and rouge to liven up her pale skin, these improvements do not penetrate into her world-view, her attitude, her behavior. Sara is self-aware enough to realize this, and just as she tried to change herself through commodities, so she now likens herself to a commodity that is only pretending, “a dolled-up dummy fixed for a part on the stage” (182).

The use of the imagery of the dolled-up stage actor, I would argue, makes explicit the performative nature of Sara’s effectively impersonating the American white woman. Though she has only her reflection in the mirror as her audience at this point, that already signifies the moment of her subjectivation. It also serves as a rehearsal, as Sara does not originate an American white woman performance in isolation, she is reenacting the performance that she herself had observed in her classmates. Her ideas of what a white American female looks like have been formed by society, and in the action of putting on the clothes and the rouge she is bringing those ideas into reality, it is an act of repetition, and we have already seen that gender identity is constructed through repetition.

Simpson notes that because Sara herself felt that she was being dishonest for using commodities to change her race to white American, it made her experiment a failure. Commodities alone could not change her racial makeup, therefore, Simpson argues, a spatial change was needed (Simpson 2009, 104). Additionally, I would contend that the second that Sara wiped off her makeup she proved both the illusory nature of gender construction, and its social temporality, that is, that her version of the stylized white American woman existed only in the moment Sara was performing her.

Sara’s move from the inner city to the suburbs where her college was located is when moving through space is also moving through race. Simpson observes that Sara used to talk about her inner city neighborhood in the New York ghettos in terms of darkness and decay that signaled her immigrant Jewishness, whereas the suburb surrounding the campus is described as a wide open space with neat houses and manicured lawns in which similarly neat, clean, and white people walk around. Sara equates the suburbs with whiteness, and so moving to that white neighborhood becomes her means of acquiring that whiteness (Simpson 2009, 105-6):

Each house had its own green grass in front, its own free space all around, and it faced the street with the calm security of being owned for generations, and not rented by the month from a landlord. In the early twi­light, it was like a picture out of fairyland to see peo­ple sitting on their porches, lazily swinging in their hammocks, or watering their own growing flowers. So these are the real Americans, I thought, thrilled by the lean, straight bearing of the passers-by. (210)
And the spick-and-span cleanliness of these peo­ple! It smelled from them, the soap and the bathing. Their fingernails so white and pink. Their hands and necks white like milk. I wondered how did those girls get their hair so soft, so shiny, and so smooth about their heads. Even their black shoes had a clean look. (212)

At college Sara seems to make a clear distinction between the mind and the body, and the value assigned to each. She regards her education as the means through which she can become a refined American who uses her brains to make her way in the world: “… psychology had opened to me a new world of reason and “objectivity.” Through him, I had learned to think logically for the first time in my life. Till now, I lived only by blind instinct and feeling.” (226) Simpson argues that Sara’s attitude regarding the superiority of the mind over the body recalls the racist attitudes of the time that equated the inferior body with blacks, while the superior mind was reserved for whites. She locates Sara’s intense disdain toward physical education in her association of physical labor with racial inferiority (Simpson 2009, 107-8): “What’s all this physical education non­sense? I came to college to learn something, to get an education with my head, and not monkeyshines with my arms and legs.” (216)

I would also argue that Sara’s reluctance to associate her body with anything remotely refined and American stems from her earlier failure to remake her own body into a site of American femininity. Spatial distancing of race, her Jewishness as opposed to the desired white Americanness, works not only on the level of inner city versus the suburbs, but on the level of body versus mind as well.

In the same vein, Sara’s college diploma endows her with the attributes of a refined white American lady, she feels that she has become a new person, someone who is entitled to sit on the train among the white Americans and would be at home among them, be welcomed by them. As Simpson argues, Sara has acquired the white racial characteristics in college that enable her to pass as white: on the train she is performing the part of the white American lady (Simpson 2009, 108). The fact that Sara explicitly notes that she has an audience in her fellow passengers on the train points to the performative nature of her actions. She feels that she belongs with these people based on her own conception of how the other passengers conceptualize a white American lady: “Sara Smolinsky, from Hester Street, changed into a person! … I took my seat with the quiet still­ness of a college lady, […] how grand it felt to lean back in my chair, a person among people …” (237)

When she moves back to New York city, Simpson observes, she turns to consumer culture again to complete her transformation from poor Jew to middle class white American. Previously, her family could not have walked down Fifth Avenue with their heads held high as she was doing now, their Jewishness, their foreignness, and their lack of money prevented them from mingling with white Americans comfortably. But Sara, with her degree and the money she won at an essay contest, is able to not only gaze at the shop windows, but to buy herself an elegant suit as well, successfully buying the image of the white American woman as a commodity. She has perfected the performance of the well-to-do white American woman to such a degree that when she meets her father in the street he fails to recognize her, calling her a lady (Simpson 2009, 108-9). The performance of constructing the white American woman is repeated in this scene in the street: she has her appropriate costume on and she has her audience who has their own preconceived ideas of white American womanhood that Sara now conforms to.

Sara also learned through her mother’s and sisters’ example that if she wanted to have a happy marriage she needed to find a man that was her equal. After she started to work at a school she found that special man in the principal of the school who was also a Polish Jew. In the end Sara could not escape her heritage, though, not entirely, as she agreed to take care of her old and lonely father after all. Yezierska makes it clear that her Jewish heritage, as represented by her father, weighs heavily on Sara, making her conflicted about where she fits in: “I felt the shadow still there, over me. It wasn’t just my father, but generations who made my father whose weight was still upon me.” (297)

However, the difference was that she was doing it on her own terms, by her own choice. Not only because it was the right thing to do, but because it was what she wanted to do. In this respect Sara can be viewed as the new, Americanized Jew: she kept the old traditions of her people, through her father teaching her Americanized Jew husband about the Torah, but altered them to fit the new society she lived in.

Yet Sara’s success at achieving her goals of being independent and living her life according to white American rules came at a price: the loss of her Jewish cultural heritage. Earlier in the novel, Sara refused to visit her mother while she was at college, thinking that she would have plenty of time to spend with her after she finished her studies, however, she came home to find her mother dying. The loss of her mother, Wilentz suggests, is symbolic of the loss of her culture (Wilentz 1992, 39). The scene of her mother’s funeral emphasizes Sara’s position as an outcast in her own Jewish community when she refuses to tear her clothes as was customary at Jewish burials, because it was her only suit, her claim to her white American identity.

That Sara now conforms to the idea of the white American woman that society accepts makes her situation with her father paradoxical. In the same moment she successfully performs her chosen gender identity she also defies the identity her Jewish culture would find acceptable. When a woman performs her gender role out of turn, she is punished by her audience, and that is exactly what happens to Sara: her punishment is her ambivalence toward her Jewish heritage, her father, and her continued desire for white American womanhood.



This paper aimed to demonstrate how the historical context of nineteenth and early twentieth century immigration to America influenced the process of subjectivation, as defined by Michel Foucault, of a young Jewish immigrant woman as portrayed by Sara Smolinsky, the protagonist of Anzia Yezierska’s novel Bread Givers.

The capitalist consumer culture that permeated every level of society in the United States formed the basis of the particular gender identity, the white middle-class American woman that Sara sought to perform with the help of her education, fashion and cosmetic items that she saw engendering the subjectivation of the American woman.

Her success at performing that gender identity resulted in the approval of the wider American society, but also caused her to lose her Jewish identity as she no longer performed according to Jewish requirements for approved gender construction as represented by her mother’s and her sisters’ relationship with the men in their family. The ambivalent nature of the novel’s ending highlights the unique challenges that immigrant women faced in American society due to the often incompatible nature of the two cultures’ approved gender identity.

We have also seen how Foucault understands power as a relation between two participants, in which one participant’s actions govern the possible actions of the other participant. Judith Butler interprets the Foucauldian term “subjectivation” as a process through which a person turns herself into a subject. Explaining subjectivation in terms of gender construction, Butler argues that a woman constructs her gender identity amid the restrictions of power structures and, in this sense, gender is a “regulatory fiction,” because it only exists in the moment the woman is performing that gender identity.

In Bread Givers immigration provided a unique challenge to the immigrant Jewish girl when it came to her process of subjectivation. The protagonist of Anzia Yezierska’s novel, Sara Smolinsky, distanced herself from her Jewish heritance when she refused to be subjected to her Jewish father’s power and resolved instead to form her gender identity on white American women. To that end, she acquired a college education, during which she internalized white American women’s mode of dress and behavior, then used the products of American consumer culture to complete her performance of the white American woman. The very fact that an immigrant Jewish girl had to go to such lengths to construct a gender identity that was considered appropriate in the dominant American culture brings into sharp relief the illusory nature of the gender identity of the white American woman as not something innate and stable, but dependant on performance, which is by nature temporary. This is what Judith Butler called the “social temporality” and “performative” nature of gender construction. Sara, in performing her gender identity according to the rules of mainstream American society, lost her Jewish gender identity, a result whose impact on Sara’s psyche the novel left in ambiguity, suggesting that when a woman tries to apply the rules of two vastly dissimilar cultures in her process of subjectivation it may result in deeper anguish than either of the two cultures could have caused on their own.


Works Cited

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