Online Texts for Craig White's Literature Courses

Soap and Water

(short story, 1920)


Anzia Yezierska


example of immigrant narrative

Questions for discussion

1. How is the immigrant narrative or American Dream identifiable in this story? What are the challenges or tests for the immigrant, and how does the immigrant manage, resolve, or overcome them?

2. How are stages or characters in the immigrant / American Dream story identifiable as symbols? What symbolic contrasts between the immigrant identity and that of the American dominant culture?

3. The story's title and much of its subject—"soap and water"—are perennial themes in American immigrant literature (also minority literature). May this emphasis be rationalized or justified as well as criticized? (Welcome to do both.)

4. What and where are the pressures to assimilate, and what and where are the counter-pressures?

Soap and Water

[1] What I so greatly feared, happened! Miss Whiteside, the dean of our college, withheld my diploma. When I came to her office, and asked her why she did not pass me, she said that she could not recommend me as a teacher because of my personal appearance.

[2] She told me that my skin looked oily, my hair unkempt, and my finger-nails sadly neglected. She told me that I was utterly unmindful of the little niceties of the well-groomed lady. She pointed out that my collar did not set evenly; my belt was awry, and there was a lack of freshness in my dress. And she ended with: "Soap and water are cheap. Any one can be clean.”

[3] In those four years while I was under her supervision, I was always timid and diffident. I shrank and trembled when I had to come near her. When I had to say something to her, I mumbled and stuttered, and grew red and white in the face with fear.

[4] Every time I had to come to the dean’s office for a private conference*, I prepared for the ordeal of her cold scrutiny*, as a patient prepares for a surgical operation*. I watched her gimlet eyes searching for a stray pin, for a spot on my dress, for my unpolished shoes, for my uncared-for finger-nails, as one strapped on the operating table watches the surgeon approaching with his tray of sterilized knives. [*dominant culture associated w/ privacy + cool impersonality & science & technology / antiseptic cleanliness]

[5] She never looked into my eyes. She never perceived that I had a soul. She did not see how I longed for beauty and cleanliness. How I strained and struggled to lift myself from the dead toil and exhaustion* that weighed me down. She could see nothing in people like me, except the dirt and the stains on the outside. [*work ethic = essential dynamic of immigrant narrative, but new immigrants do dirty work from which previous immigrants graduate]

[6] But this last time when she threatened to withhold my diploma, because of my appearance, this last time when she reminded me that “Soap and water are cheap. Any one can be clean,” this last time, something burst within me. I felt the suppressed wrath of all the unwashed of the earth break loose within me. My eyes blazed fire*. I didn’t care for myself, nor the dean, nor the whole laundered world. I had suffered the cruelty of their cleanliness and the tyranny of their culture to the breaking point. I was too frenzied to know what I said or did. But I saw clean, immaculate, spotless Miss Whiteside shrivel and tremble and cower before me, as I had shriveled and trembled and cowered before her for so many years. [*"fire" of immigrant desire and identity contra cool impersonality of dominant-culture identity]

[7] Why did she give me my diploma? Was it pity? Or can it be that in my outburst of fury, at the climax of indignities that I had suffered, the barriers broke, and she saw into the world below from where I came?

[8] Miss Whiteside had no particular reason for hounding and persecuting me. Personally, she didn’t give a hang if I was clean or dirty. She was merely one of the agents of clean society, delegated to judge who is fit and who is unfit to teach. [Education as enabler + gatekeeper of immigrant advancement; dominant culture asl impersonal system devoid of emotion, operating instead by reason and market values.]

[9] While they condemned me as unfit to be a teacher, because of my appearance, I was slaving to keep them clean. I was slaving* in a laundry from five to eight in the morning, before going to college, and from six to eleven at night, after coming from college. Eight hours of work a day, outside my studies. Where was the time and the strength for the “little niceties of the well-groomed lady”? [*"slaving" = identification w/ stage 3 of immigrant narrative, where immigrants may be temporarily treated as "minorities" like African Americans]

[10] At the time when they rose and took their morning bath, and put on their fresh-laundered linen that somebody had made ready for them, when they were being served with their breakfast, I had already toiled for three hours in a laundry. When college hours were over, they went for a walk in the fresh air. They had time to rest, and bathe again, and put on fresh clothes for dinner. But I, after college hours, had only time to bolt a soggy meal, and rush back to the grind of the laundry till eleven at night.

[11] At the hour when they came from the theater or musicale [private concert], I came from the laundry. But I was so bathed in the sweat of exhaustion that I could not think of a bath of soap and water. I had only strength to drag myself home, and fall down on the bed and sleep. Even if I had had the desire and the energy to take a bath, there were no such things as bathtubs in the house where I lived.

[12] Often as I stood at my board at the laundry, I thought of Miss Whiteside, and her clean world, clothed in the snowy shirt-waists* I had ironed. I was thinking—I, soaking in the foul vapors of the steaming laundry, I, with my dirty, tired hands, I am ironing the clean, immaculate shirt-waists of clean, immaculate society. I, the unclean one, am actually fashioning the pedestal of their cleanliness, from which they reach down, hoping to lift me to the height that I have created for them. [*shirtwaist = woman's blouse like man's shirt, or dress w/ upper portion styled like man's shirt]

[13] I look back at my sweatshop childhood. One day, when I was about sixteen, some one gave me Rosenfeld’s poem, “The Machine,” to read. Like a spark thrown among oily rags, it set my whole being aflame with longing for self-expression. But I was dumb. I had nothing but blind, aching feeling. For days I went about with agonies of feeling, yet utterly at sea how to fathom and voice* those feelings—birth-throes of infinite worlds, and yet dumb. [*challenge to "voice" immigrant narrative foreshadows final paragraph 39]

[14] Suddenly, there came upon me this inspiration. I can go to college! There I shall learn to express myself, to voice my thoughts. But I was not prepared to go to college. The girl in the cigar factory, in the next block, had gone first to a preparatory school*. Why shouldn’t I find a way, too? [*preparatory school = secondary school, public or private, designed to prepare students for college or university studies]

[15] Going to college seemed as impossible for me, at that time, as for an ignorant Russian shop-girl to attempt to write poetry in English. But I was sixteen then, and the impossible was a magnet to draw the dreams* that had no outlet. Besides, the actual was so barren, so narrow, so strangling, that the dream* of the unattainable was the only air in which the soul could survive. [*"dreams," "dream": cf. American Dream]

[16] The ideal of going to college was like the birth of a new religion in my soul. It put new fire in my eyes, and new strength in my tired arms and fingers. For six years I worked daytimes and went at night to a preparatory school. For six years I went about nursing the illusion that college was a place where I should find self-expression, and vague, pent-up feelings could live as thoughts and grow as ideas.

[17] At last I came to college. I rushed for it with the outstretched arms of youth’s aching hunger to give and take of life’s deepest and highest, and I came against the solid wall of the well-fed, well-dressed world—the frigid whitewashed wall of cleanliness. ["frigid whitewashed wall" as symbol of USA dominant culture's coldness and exclusion]

[18] Until I came to college I had been unconscious of my clothes. Suddenly I felt people looking at me at arm’s length, as if I were crooked or crippled, as if I had come to a place where I didn’t belong, and would never be taken in. [dominant-culture institutions may themselves resist assimilation by new outsiders]

[19] How I pinched, and scraped, and starved myself, to save enough to come to college! Every cent of the tuition fee I paid was drops of sweat and blood from underpaid laundry work. And what did I get for it? A crushed spirit, a broken heart, a stinging sense of poverty that I never felt before.

[20] The courses of study I had to swallow to get my diploma were utterly barren of interest to me. I didn’t come to college to get dull learning from dead books. I didn’t come for that dry, inanimate stuff that can be hammered out in lectures. I came because I longed for the larger life, for the stimulus of intellectual associations. I came because my whole being clamored for more vision, more light. But everywhere I went I saw big fences put up against me, with the brutal signs: “No trespassing. Get off the grass.”

[21] I experienced at college the same feeling of years ago when I came to this country, when after months of shut-in-ness, in dark tenements and stifling sweatshops, I had come to Central Park for the first time. Like a bird just out from a cage, I stretched out my arms, and then flung myself in ecstatic abandon on the grass. Just as I began to breathe in the fresh-smelling earth, and lift up my eyes to the sky, a big, fat policeman with a club in his hand, seized me, with: “Can’t you read the sign? Get off the grass!” Miss Whiteside, the dean of the college, the representative of the clean, the educated world, for all her external refinement, was to me like that big, brutal policeman, with the club in his hand, that drove me off the grass.

[22] The death-blows to all aspiration began when I graduated from college and tried to get a start at the work for which I had struggled so hard to fit myself. I soon found other agents of clean society, who had the power of giving or withholding the positions I sought, judging me as Miss Whiteside judged me. One glance at my shabby clothes, the desperate anguish that glazed and dulled my eyes and I felt myself condemned by them before I opened my lips to speak.

[23] Starvation forced me to accept the lowest-paid substitute position. And because my wages were so low and so unsteady, I could never get the money for the clothes to make an appearance to secure a position with better pay. I was tricked and foiled. I was considered unfit to get decent pay for my work because of my appearance, and it was to the advantage of those who used me that my appearance should damn me, so as to get me to work for the low wages I was forced to accept. It seemed to me the whole vicious circle of society’s injustices was thrust like a noose around my neck to strangle me.

[24] The insults and injuries I had suffered at college had so eaten into my flesh that I could not bear to get near it. I shuddered with horror whenever I had to pass the place blocks away. The hate which I felt for Miss Whiteside spread like poison inside my soul, into hate for all clean society. The whole clean world was massed against me. Whenever I met a well-dressed person, I felt the secret stab of a hidden enemy.

[25] I was so obsessed and consumed with my grievances that I could not get away from myself and think things out in the light. I was in the grip of that blinding, destructive, terrible thing—righteous indignation. I could not rest. I wanted the whole world to know that the college was against democracy in education, that clothes form the basis of class distinctions, that after graduation the opportunities for the best positions are passed out to those who are best-dressed, and the students too poor to put up a front are pigeon-holed and marked unfit and abandoned to the mercy of the wind.

[26] A wild desire raged in the corner of my brain. I knew that the dean gave dinners to the faculty at regular intervals. I longed to burst in at one of those feasts, in the midst of their grand speech-making, and tear down the fine clothes from these well-groomed ladies and gentlemen, and trample them under my feet, and scream like a lunatic. "Soap and water are cheap! Soap and water are cheap! Look at me! See how cheap it is!”

[27] There seemed but three avenues of escape to the torments of my wasted life, madness, suicide, or a heart-to-heart confession to some one who understood. I had not energy enough for suicide. Besides, in my darkest moments of despair, hope clamored loudest. Oh, I longed so to live, to dream my way up on the heights, above the unreal realities that ground me and dragged me down to earth.

[28] Inside the ruin of my thwarted life, the unlived visionary* immigrant hungered and thirsted for America. I had come a refugee from the Russian pogroms**, aflame with dreams of America. I did not find America in the sweatshops, much less in the schools and colleges. But for hundreds of years the persecuted races all over the world were nurtured on hopes of America. When a little baby in my mother’s arms, before I was old enough to speak, I saw all around me weary faces light up with thrilling tales of the far-off “golden country.” And so, though my faith* in this so-called America was shattered, yet underneath, in the sap and roots of my soul, burned the deathless faith* that America is, must be, somehow, somewhere. In the midst of my bitterest hates and rebellions, visions* of America rose over me, like songs of freedom of an oppressed people. [*"visionary," "faith," "visions": mystical side of American "dream"; **"pogrom" = mob attack on minority group, particularly on Jews in 19c Russian Empire]

[29] My body was worn to the bone from overwork, my footsteps dragged with exhaustion, but my eyes still sought the sky, praying, ceaselessly praying, the dumb, inarticulate prayer of the lost immigrant: “America! Ach*, America! Where is America?” [*"Ach": Yiddish / German for "Oh"]

[30] It seemed to me if I could only find some human being to whom I could unburden my heart, I would have new strength to begin again my insatiable search for America.

[31] But to whom could I speak? The people in the laundry? They never understood me. They had a grudge against me because I left them when I tried to work myself up. Could I speak to the college people? What did these icebergs of convention know about the vital things of the heart?

[32] And yet, I remembered, in the freshman year, in one of the courses in chemistry, there was an instructor, a woman, who drew me strangely. I felt she was the only real teacher among all the teachers and professors I met. I didn’t care for the chemistry, but I liked to look at her. She gave me life, air, the unconscious emanation of her beautiful spirit. I had not spoken a word to her, outside the experiments in chemistry, but I knew her more than the people around her who were of her own class. I felt in the throb of her voice, in the subtle shading around the corner of her eyes, the color and texture of her dreams.

[33] Often in the midst of our work in chemistry I felt like crying out to her: “Oh, please be my friend. I’m so lonely.” But something choked me. I couldn’t speak. The very intensity of my longing for her friendship made me run away from her in confusion the minute she approached me. I was so conscious of my shabbiness that I was afraid maybe she was only trying to be kind. I couldn’t bear kindness. I wanted from her love, understanding, or nothing.

[34] About ten years after I left college, as I walked the streets bowed and beaten with the shame of having to go around begging for work, I met Miss Van Ness*. She not only recognized me, but stopped to ask how I was, and what I was doing. [*"Van Ness": name signifies earlier phase of European immigration (here Dutch) that constitutes USA's dominant culture; contrast "Anzia Yezierska"]

[35] I had begun to think that my only comrades in this world were the homeless and abandoned cats and dogs of the street, whom everybody gives another kick, as they slam the door on them. And here was one from the clean world human enough to be friendly. Here was one of the well-dressed, with a look in her eyes and a sound in her voice that was like healing oil over the bruises of my soul. The mere touch of that woman’s hand in mine so overwhelmed me, that I burst out crying in the street.

[36] The next morning I came to Miss Van Ness at her office. In those ten years she had risen to a professorship. But I was not in the least intimidated by her high office. I felt as natural in her presence as if she were my own sister. I heard myself telling her the whole story of my life, but I felt that even if I had not said a word she would have understood all I had to say as if I had spoken. It was all so unutterable, to find one from the other side of the world who was so simply and naturally that miraculous thing—a friend. Just as contact with Miss Whiteside had tied and bound all my thinking processes, so Miss Van Ness unbound and freed me and suffused me with light.

[37] I felt the joy of one breathing on the mountaintops for the first time. I looked down at the world below. I was changed and the world was changed.

[38] My past was the forgotten night. Sunrise was all around me.

[39] I went out from Miss Van Ness’s office, singing a song of new life: “America! I found America.”