The Wings of the Phoenix: Yezierska’s “Wings”
Anzia Yezierska’s 1920 short story “Wings” features a cross-class relationship between a young immigrant woman and a young sociology professor. This relationship highlights how these two people, unlikely to meet, share some intimate moments, and effect one another. Though, John Barnes, the professor seems to leave the interaction unchanged and unenlightened.
Whereas the experience changes the life of Shenah Pessah, a Russian Jewish immigrant, completely and in the next story in the story collection Hungry Hearts puts Shenah’s new understanding of the world into practice. She dramatically turns her back on the world she knew and the obligations that she had in order to be her own woman, making money and eschewing marriage.
Shenah Pessah lives in a dreary basement flat in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, works as a janitor and takes care of her demanding and cruel uncle. Yet all the while she longs for something to release the emotions that she feels are trapped inside her. This story describes how that happens, but Shenah pays a dear price for her liberation.
The story begins with her longing for love as she is surrounded by young lovers and married folks with children all crowding the street outside her street-level window. It is interesting that Yezierska begins her story this way because her much of her writing reveals a particularly negative view of marriage. This is most clearly described in Louise Levitas Henriksen’s biography of her mother when she describes a manuscript that Yezierska was working on entitled “The Supported Wife” in which she rails against marriage as disempowering; moreover, in “Hunger” which is a continuation of Shenah Pessah’s story, she takes a job at a sweatshop specifically to avoid marriage. However, in “Wings” the longing for romantic love functions in two ways. First it heightens the horror for the reader when in the end the educated college professor who has captivated Shenah simply dismisses her. Second it stands in for liberation from the darkness of the world in which she lives.
In her role as the janitor of a tenement building, Shenah meets an exciting young man who inquires about a room that is for let. She observes that he is as if “the god of her innermost longings had suddenly taken shape in human form and lifted her in mid-air” (3). She asks him if he is a teacher or a writer and when he acknowledges that he is indeed a teacher she exclaims with “wistful worship in her eyes” that she knew immediately that he was “some kind of somebody” (5). This is an interesting encounter because in it Yezierska is highlighting Shenah’s recognition and valorization of the young professor’s high class standing. The young man, university professor John Barnes is not unaffected by this meeting, in fact he is “drawn by the struggling soul of her that cried aloud to him from her eyes” (4). This is another moment in the story where Yezierska cultivates the “tragic immigrant” identity for Shenah. When Shenah explains to John that she does not have a home here or in Russia, that she is more or less without family or any familial roots in the community, he has a physical reaction to her confession:
‘Russia?’ he repeated with quickened attention. So he was in their midst, the people he had come to study. The girl with her hungry eyes and intense eagerness now held a new interest for him.
John Barnes, the youngest instructor of sociology in his university, congratulated himself at his good fortune in encountering such a splendid type for his research. He was preparing his thesis on the ‘Educational Problems of the Russian Jews,’ and in order to get into closer touch with his subject, he had determined to live on the East Side during his spring and summer vacation (5).
This passage is so rich because his immediate reaction is like a scientist-explorer searching for some elusive species and he has finally found her. Moreover, Yezierska’s description makes it sound rather calculating and even ominous. However his scientific objectivity is tested by her sad story. “‘You poor child!’ broke from the heart of the man, the scientific inquisition of the sociologist momentarily swept away by his human sympathy” (6-7). Key to this passage is that he only loses his distant, emotionless demeanor momentarily. He has no realization about Shenah’s humanity beyond the recognition that she is representative of the “social type” that struggles with problems like getting an education.
At this point Shenah is touched by his sympathy. She willingly describes her own road to literacy and waxes romantically about how she is transported by reading the one book she possesses. This again reinforces the tragic immigrant stereotype: the young person who strives against all odds to become educated and successful, but is locked in a community of squalor, poverty and gross negativity. John is impressed that, “even in the midst of these sordid surroundings were ‘wings and high thoughts” (7). He finds these human longings and appreciations to be noble and surprising, but upon reflection on his knowledge of ethnic types and behaviors he concludes: “Again the gleam of the visionary — the eternal desire to reach out and up, which was the predominant racial trait of the Russian immigrant” (7). Yezierska casts John in the role of the scientist as he is identifying characteristics in Shenah that fit her neatly into an established taxonomy. Thus, Yezierska interweaves eugenic discourse into her depiction of the social scientist and shows the reader how this discourse plays out in the realm of human relationships. It is striking that this cross-class interaction rife with prejudiced scientific practices is also a romance.
Though it is a romance in which John indulges in paternalistic fantasies, like a twentieth century Pygmalion:
“What an opportunity for a psychological test-case, and at the same time I could help her by pointing the way out of her nebulous emotionalism and place her feet firmly on earth. He made a quick mental note of certain books that he would place in her hands and wondered how she would respond to them.
‘Do you belong to a library?’
‘Library? How? Where?’
Her lack of contact with Americanizing agencies appalled him” (8).
This unadulterated immigrant identity that she possesses, which is a central observation about Shenah Pessah in “Hunger” as well, is not just appalling to him, it excites him. He pulses with the possibility that he can mold her into someone new, while simultaneously studying her: “He became suddenly enthusiastic. But it was the enthusiasm of the scientist for the specimen of his experimentation — of the sculptor for the clay that would take form under his touch” (9). In keeping with his excitement about molding her like clay, he promises her that he will teach her “to read sensible books” (9). In response Shenah believes that he is the answer to her prayers. He is the one who will help her free herself. She is so overcome with excitement, that she springs forward and grabs him with both hands and entreats him to help her improve her English. Such a demonstrative outburst flusters John and he again regards her as truly representative of the Russian Jew: “‘There it is,’ he thought to himself on his way out. ‘The whole gamut of the Russian Jew–the pendulum swinging from abject servility to boldest aggressiveness'” (10).
In this story, like in many of her stories Yezierska cultivates a trope of the staid, WASP-y American firmly planted on the ground and the emotional, effusive immigrant “whirling in space, millions of miles beyond the earth. The god of dreams had arrived and nothing on earth could any longer hold her down” (10). This trope is well enacted by the immigrant-student and her educated native-born teacher in Yezierska’s story “The Miracle.”
The moments of transformation in this story are condensed to three key points: first, John takes Shenah to the library to join during which she both gains access to the books and observes the women who work at the library; second, Shenah and John walk home, enjoying the carnival atmosphere of the city and the moment, which culminates in an intimate moment at the end of the pier enveloped in the night; and third, they meet again after their point of romantic connection and John apologizes, decides that it is important that Shenah not “run away with herself,” thereupon he packs up and leaves. Despite being desolate, Shenah becomes determined to work with the “strength of a million bodies and a million brains” until she can work herself up to a place where she can look John in the eye (34).
By taking Shenah to the library John begins to enact his fantasy of shaping her, Americanizing her. However, from this trip to the library one might hope to see that free access to books would offer Shenah agency, but the trip to the library is more of an instructional field-trip into the world of the educated middle-class. Instead of regaling the reader about Shenah’s reaction to the books, one reads about John’s furtive glances at Shenah’s colorful new outfit and her subsequent observations about the plain dress and clean fingernails of the librarians. While John fills out Shenah’s application form her, she notices that John and the librarian are similar, and she is different. She tries to hide her dirty nails when she signs her application with her work-worn hands. Afterwords as they walk home in a festive mood talking intimately, John exclaims: “‘And you mean to tell me that in all this time, no one has taken you by the hand and shown you the ways of our country? The pity of it!’ (. . .) ‘Poor little immigrant!’ murmured John Barnes. ‘How lonely, how barren your life must have been till –‘” (29-30).
This intimate exchange leaves her smitten and content, except for the occasional niggling discomfort at his description of her as a “poor little immigrant.” This intuition about his regard for her and for the cultural and class gulf that stands between them is borne out when he disabuses her of the notion that their moment on the pier might evolve into anything more. She is understandably devastated by being dismissed by the person who is the answer to her prayers. However, she quickly turns her emotion into a commitment to make something of herself and prove that she is a “person” (34). On the one hand this outcome is despicable because it presupposes that she is no one, not even a person, while on the other hand her anger gives her “why to live” and motivates her to pursue her dreams in the face of so many voices telling her that she is nothing and has few, if any, options in her life. Her anger inexplicably (and immediately) turns to gratitude when, while still looking out the window as he leaves, she reflects: “‘After all, he done for you more for you could do for him. You owe it to him the deepest, the highest he waked up in you. He opened the wings of your soul'” (34).
From this story Shenah reemerges in “Hunger” now liberated from her uncle’s oppressive control. The reader is lead to believe that Shenah will make good on her commitment to make something of herself. This story responds to the Cinderella story of hard-working immigrant girl marrying the powerful prince charming in some very important ways. Yezierska uses this story to critique the intentions and understanding of the reform minded social scientist. However, she still crafts a truly heroic main character, which is something she finally breaks from a few years later when she write Salome of the Tenements.