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Written by Micola Magdalena
Reb Smolinsky is the patriarch of the Smolinsky family. Reb is an old man who moved to America with his family but was unable to build a future for himself or his family mainly because he refuses to work. Reb expects the others members of the family to work for him while he stays all day in his room and reads holly texts to become closer to God. Reb is the father of four daughters and his youngest daughter is Sara, the narrator of the story. Reb gets involved excessively in the lives of his daughters and refuses to let them choose for themselves. Instead, he chooses whom they are to marry, where to go and what to do. The daughters usually accept his judgment but Sara is not willing to let her father control her life so she rebels against him. Enraged by this, Reb disowns Sara and stops talking with her. Reb marries another woman after his wife dies but he doesn’t find the support his late wife gave him. Instead, the roles are reversed and he is forced to work to sustain his wife. Alone and neglected, Reb falls ill and he is found by Sara in a gutter selling gum. In the end, Reb ends up living with Sara and Hugo who take care of him.
Sara is the youngest daughter in the family and she is also the narrator of the story. Sara is ten years old when the story begins and despite being the youngest, she is the most hardworking among the girls. Sara doesn’t hesitate to get her hands dirty to help her family and is willing to work anywhere just to make some money. Seeing how her father’s decisions influenced for the worst her sisters’ lives, Sara decided not to let herself be controlled by Reb. Thus, when the abuse becomes unbearable, she leaves her parents and starts a life of her own, learning how to become a teacher and working in a laundry during the night to make enough money to sustain herself. At one point, Sara is tempted to marry a man just because she feels lonely and because her sisters pressure her to find a husband. When she refuses the marriage proposal coming from one of her sister’s friends, Reb disowns Sara. Things work out in the end for Sara as she finds a man who loves her and who respects her wish to learn more. Also, despite her deep hatred for her father’s ways, Sara agrees to take in her father after he is abused by his new wife.
Jacob Novak is a piano player from a rich family who falls in love with Mashah. Just like in the other cases, Reb is against the marriage and he does everything he can to keep Jacob away from his girl. Reb even pays Jacob to keep his distance but after several days Jacob comes back to Mashah begging for forgiveness. Enrages, Mashah refuses to forgive him and Jacob is kicked out by Reb while Mashah watches.
Morris Lipkin is a poor poet Fania falls in love with and with whom she hopes to get married. Because Morris does not have a good financial situation, Reb is against the union between the two and he does everything he can to keep Lipkin away from Fania. Reb manages to drive Lipkin away for good after he shames him for his financial situation.
Berel is a young man Bessie meets with and with whom she falls in love. The feelings are mutual and eventually the two think about getting married. Berel even offers to marry Bessie even though her family can’t pay a dowry but Reb is not so happy to see his daughter get married and leave the house. Berel is then asked to set up a business for Reb but he refuses so Reb refuses to let the two get married. Still, Berel doesn’t let himself get discouraged and tells Bessie that he will marry her in secret. Bessie however refuses and Berel ends up getting engaged with another girl soon after.
The collector lady
The unnamed lady appears briefly when she tries to collect the rent from the house from Reb. Reb however does not have the money and the lady, getting mad, starts insulting Reb. She is slapped by Reb after she slams shut one of his holy books and causing it to fall on the floor. The lady ends up suing Reb but he walks free shortly after being arrested.
Fania is among the oldest daughters Reb has. Just like her sisters, Fania is unable to find stable work to help her parents so she has to support her parents’ poverty. Fania falls in love with a poor poet named Morris but when her father finds out about her infatuation, he is against it because Reb would have had nothing to gain if Fania married a poor man. Fania is destroyed when Reb manages to drive Morris away but despite this she still accepts her father’s choice when he finds for her a husband. Unfortunately, just like her sister, Fania does not have a happy marriage nor does she escape poverty.
Bessie is one of Reb’s daughters who is older than Sara. Bessie is analyzed more than her sisters as the narrator focuses more in Bessie’s relationship with Berel. Bessie is described as being a dreamer who was lucky enough to find a man who loved her despite the fact that her parents could not help her financially. Bessie saw marriage as a way out from the harsh life she lived but her father opposed the union between Bessie and Berel when Berel refused to set up a business for Reb. Bessie remained loyal to her family and she refused to run away with Berel even if that would have meant that she would have had an easier life. In the end, Bessie married a man chose by her father just like her sisters did.
Mrs. Smolinsky Shenah
Mrs. Smolinsky is Reb wife in the novel. Together with Reb, they had four daughters with whom they live in the same house. Mrs. Smolinsky is forced to fill in the place left vacant by her husband and she tries to earn money for her family by renting out a room in their house. Mrs. Smolinsky is calmer than her daughters and she too remains loyal to her husband despite the fact that he abuses her and expects her to be the bread winner in the house. Mrs. Smolinsky devotion for her husband really comes to light when she asks her daughters to take care of Reb when she gets ill and when she realizes that she will die.
Mashah is the oldest daughter in the family and the narrator describes her as being vain and only interested in the way she looks. Mashah spends the little money she earns on making herself more beautiful and refuses to help her family financially. Just like her sisters, Mashah falls in love with a man named Jacob Novak but because of his profession, Reb doesn’t accept him as a proper suitor for his girl. Mashah ends up marring a man chosen by her father and has unfortunately an unhappy marriage with the said man.
Max Goldstein is a business partner with Fania’s husband who comes and visits Sara while she is in New York learning to become a teacher. Max comes to Sara when she is feeling depressed because she feels lonely so Sara feels tempted to marry Max just to escape her loneliness. Max is considered a suitable suitor by Reb so when Sara refuses Max, Reb becomes so angry that he disowns Sara. Max is described as being quite materialistic and Sara refuses to let herself be linked with a man whose only interest in life is earning as much money as possible. In fact, Sara even admits that the reason why the relationship between her and Max could never work out was because they wanted different things from life.
Mrs. Feinstein is the woman Reb married after Mrs. Smolinsky dies suddenly. Mrs. Feinstein is a widow that lived in the same apartment building as the Smolinsky family and she is described as being even more selfish and materialistic than Reb. The only reason why Mrs. Feinstein agreed to marry Reb was because she hoped to get the money left behind by the late Mrs. Smolinsky. When Mrs. Feinstein realizes that Reb doesn’t have money at all, she tries to extort money from her step-children but without being successful.
Hugo is the principal at the school where Sara teaches. The two had little to no interaction before Mrs. Feinstein sent him a letter blaming Sara for not taking care of her father. Instead of judging Sara right away, Hugo talked with Sara and found the truth about her situation. From that point, the two became close and a relationship started between them. Hugo, just like Sara, has a deep respect for education and learning so they both have a love for knowledge in common.
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