[(essay date 1982) In the following essay, Schoen presents a thematic overview of the stories in Hungry Hearts, including a discussion of autobiographical elements in them.]
The stories and narrative essays included in Hungry Hearts were written over a period of four years and reveal Yezierska's struggle to order the conflicting elements in her life and to find a form through which to voice her sense of the yearnings and the protests of the immigrant in America. The quality is uneven, ranging from the awkwardness of "Soap and Water" to the deft control of the prize-winning "Fat of the Land." Despite their flaws, even the slightest of these stories reveal her growing skill in handling themes and images that would recur in later volumes. They contain narrative episodes that would be reworked continuously throughout her life and characters who would reappear in later fiction. Above all, these stories are valuable for the creation of the compelling figure of the young Jewish immigrant woman, a personality so vividly drawn that she would dominate Yezierska's fiction for years to come.
The Problem of Autobiography
The intensity with which Yezierska conceived this character has led many readers to assume that she was identical to the author, and that the stories were, in fact, autobiography. Since Yezierska frequently used the first-person narrator form for her fiction or, alternatively, used the young woman as the sensibility and voice through which the events are recounted, the confusion of author and character is understandable. Certainly, too, Yezierska drew to a large extent on experiences she herself had had, and in many cases her identification with her leading lady was so strong that the sense of autorial detachment is lacking. But to see these stories only as autobiography is to ignore the significant differences between Yezierska and her main character at the time she was created and to miss the achievement that creation represents. Both Yezierska and the woman she created were dynamic, energetic, and passionately involved in whatever they undertook, but while the character was young, uneducated, spoke in broken English, and had little experience with the world outside the ghetto, it must be remembered that Yezierska was at least in her thirties, had been to college, had taught both in New York and California, and was closely involved with John Dewey professionally and personally. Yet it would be equally wrong to draw too definite a line between character and author, for Yezierska's own struggle and personality are mirrored in the fictional woman and the confusion between the two, for Yezierska as well as for the public, would soon lead to numerous problems.