The critical discourse on Abraham Cahan’s Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896) has given most of its attention to Yekl/Jake Podkovnik, the novel’s explicit hero, leaving the character of his wife, Gitl, mostly overlooked. This trend is unfortunate because Gitl is a central and complex character whose role throughout the narrative is essential not only to its plot development, but also to the formation of its meaning as an immigrant novel. As my close reading of the novel demonstrates, by the story’s end, the pious Lithuanian “greenhorn” undergoes a process of unexpected and empowering growth, as a woman and as a Jew, which presents a competing alternative to Jake’s view of assimilation. While partially observable on the textual surface, this process unfolds most forcefully through the various mechanisms—dress and speech, semiotic components, dialogues of gazes, manipulation of readers’ sympathy—that Cahan employs in portraying Gitl’s emergence (and Jake’s demise). Examining these mechanisms and synthesizing their effects in telling Gitl’s story comprise the focus of my discussion, which is framed within Cahan’s overall portrayal of women and pays special attention to his craft of characterization, another aspect of Yekl that critics have ignored far too long.

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