Literature Study GuidesBread GiversBook 1 Chapter 4 Summary

Bread Givers | Study Guide

Anzia Yezierska

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Bread Givers | Book 1, Chapter 4 : Hester Street (The "Empty-head") | Summary



Mashah Smolinsky becomes interested in a young pianist named Jacob Novak, and she starts paying more attention to what is going on around her. Mashah improves even further upon Bessie Smolinsky's additions to the kitchen. She joins a class to learn American-style cooking because she hears that Jacob prefers this type of cooking. Reb Smolinsky doesn't disapprove of Jacob, as he is rich and Mashah doesn't bring wages to the family anyway. Jacob's father comes to town from Chicago to help prepare a big concert and to meet Mashah. He dislikes the poverty he sees in the Smolinsky house, and he leaves with Jacob soon after stopping by.

Jacob's concert comes and goes, and no messages come from him. Mashah becomes increasingly despondent, and finally writes Jacob a letter telling him that he has killed her belief in love and truth. Sara delivers the letter and watches Jacob become overcome with remorse. Jacob admits that his father disapproved and was keeping Jacob from Mashah. When he comes to visit, Mashah acts "frozen" and responds "coldly" to Jacob. Reb Smolinsky yells at Jacob and throws him out, but he keeps returning to the house. Mashah eventually gives in to her father, who refuses to let Jacob into the house and threatens to throw Mashah out if she sees him again. After this incident, Mashah seems to lose her glow.


The "empty-head" of this chapter is Mashah, who seems not so much empty-headed as she is self-centered and focused on self-preservation in a family that demands her to give up all individualism for their sake. When Mashah does finally fall in love, she chooses a sensitive artist who also happens to be wealthy. However, Jacob's one apparent major flaw—that he is easily influenced by his father—proves to be the couple's undoing. Mashah appears to share this flaw in the end, as she is cowed into not seeing Jacob anymore by her father. Like Bessie, after this experience Sara describes Mashah as losing some of her beauty and glow, and she observes that "something deep down in [Mashah] had broken and it would never again be fixed." Throughout the course of her journey, Sara makes this type of observation of women's loss of beauty or spirit frequently. Sara watches as the women around her are disillusioned by marriage and family life, and as they are dragged down by the weight of unrealistic expectations set upon them by their husbands and family. Sara also notes the role that poverty takes in the dampening of the spirit and the loss of youth that her sisters and mother experience, and these observations harden her determination to not end up like them.

This is also the chapter in which Sara begins to be more aware of her dislike of her father. Until this point, her feelings about her father are an undercurrent to her description of him, but with his treatment of Mashah they come to the surface. She describes an almost physical nervous reaction to her father returning home. From watching what her sisters experience under her father's tyranny, Sara begins to understand what is likely in store for her future and any future suitors. But unlike her sisters, who "suffer to listen" to their father even though they dislike his preaching, Sara cannot bear to bend to her father's will. She understands that it is her nature to "feel what [she] felt even if it killed [her]."

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