Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Anzia Yezierska’s short story deals with the ongoing social phenomenon of impoverished immigrants struggling to become a part of the American success story. In this story, one family from the Jewish ghetto in New York City achieves that dream, only to discover that there is a price to be paid for this success.

On a superficial level, the story depicts the hazards to be found in the extremes of both poverty and wealth. On another level, though, it indicts the hypocrisy of a society in which children grow up to be ashamed of their parents. The price for “Americanization,” for success, that Hanneh’s children, particularly Fanny, must pay is the denial of their Old World streetwise mother. The price that Hanneh must pay for achieving her desire to live “off the fat of the land” is loneliness and bewilderment. The driving purpose of her life—to survive under difficult circumstances and to ensure the survival of her family—has been removed by wealth, and by a society that places a higher value on social etiquette than it does on familial love and respect. Hanneh’s children are Americanized and, in the process, dehumanized.

In particular, Fanny’s adoption of the social code of the status-oriented and the success-seeking virtually severs the mother-daughter bond of love and respect. This tragedy leads the mother to recognize that in many ways the affluent are less free than the tenement-dwellers. She is bound by the rules of a rigid social code that she does not understand. The author leaves Hanneh with the dilemma of despising her newly acquired social position and acquaintances while realizing that she cannot return to the degradation of poverty. The reader is also left with a dilemma, or more accurately, an opportunity to draw his or her own conclusion: Does Yezierska simply illustrate one of life’s paradoxes, or does the author point out the need for moderation and tolerance?