How is the language in the novel Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska used to portray ethnicity and culture?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Anzia Yezierska uses language in Bread Givers to effectively draw her readers a picture of the Jewish ethnicity and culture. This is a story about an impoverished Jewish family, the Smolinskys, living in New York in the early nineteen hundreds. Sarah, the youngest of four daughters, is the protagonist of the story, and her conflict is trying to reconcile her desire to be something more than the traditional Jewish woman--one whose job it is to to what she is told and ensure her husband's happiness. In her father's Jewish theology, 

“women get into heaven because they were the wives and daughters of men. Women had no brains for the study of God’s Torah, but they could be the servants of men who studied the Torah.”

The author uses a certain language, full of rhythm and imagery, to reveal the culture and ethnicity of the Smolinsky family. One way to create rhythm is through syntax. Syntax is how language is arranged in a sentence, and the Smolinskys--especially the parents--have a distinctly Jewish immigrant syntax. 

"In your house shall I got"

What he means here is "I shall go to your house." He asks his wife "What for will you need old feather beds?", and when he asks Hugo what he does for a living, he asks it this way:

"By what do you work?"

It is also common to hear statements in the form of rhetorical questions (questions asked without expecting an answer but making a point), as well, which is another way to add an ethnic rhythm to the dialogue spoken by this Jewish family.

One other version of Jewish cadence in this novel is Mr. Smolinsky's consistent quoting from Scripture (or speaking his own words as if they were God's own words) in a kind of rhythmical chant, like the following:

“The God that feeds the worms under the stone, and the fishes in the sea, will he not feed us?”

Most significantly, all of the Smolinskys use imagery when they speak, and this imagery reflects their culture. Simple, everyday things are magnified and overly dramatized by the use of imagery. For example, when Mrs. Smolinsky has been to the grocer's and has had to ask for credit--again--and then comes home to find that her daughters have been wasteful, she says:

"I eat out my heart, running from pushcart to pushcart...and you cut away my flesh like a murderer."

When Sarah's mother talks about the landlady asking her for the rent (a justifiable request, by the way), she describes it this way:

"And the landlady is tearing from me my flesh, hollering for the rent."

This dramatic imagery of flesh being torn and cut is not limited to Mrs. Smolinsky. Her husband also uses the image when, as usual, he is wielding Scripture as a weapon to his daughters, and particularly Sarah:

"You painted piece of flesh!" cried Father. "I'll teach you respect for the Holy Torah!"

Even Sarah, the most progressive/modern one on the family in most respects, uses this flesh imagery:

I wanted to tear the roots of my father out of my flesh and bones, force my heart and brain to blot him out of my soul.

The use of imagery is not reserved solely for dialogue. When she is happy, Sarah writes many times about her heart:

All the secret places of my heart opened at the moment...my heart sang with the gladness of sunshine.

It lifted me in the air, my happiness. I couldn't help it. It began dancing under my feet.

In short, there is a familiar sound of Jewishness in both the dialogue and the narration of this novel, enhanced by the use of rhythm and imagery. 

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