Where The Timid Fail: An Analysis of Abraham Cahan’s “A Sweatshop Romance”
Cahan’s “A Sweatshop Romance” is a tale that addresses the need to stand up for one’s morals, the need to speak what is in your heart, and the need to be motivated, even driven. In this magnificent piece of American Literature, written by a man considered (at that time, at least) to be of an ethnic minority, we see a pivotal moment in the lives of three young people; two of these are destined to be together, singing the praises of sweet freedom as one, while the last of the three will be left behind, a victim to the idealistic passions of his competitor and a slave to his own misguided sense of duty. It brings to light some very profound social problems, problems that affect the lives of people even today, in our modern society, and in every nation of the world.
Perhaps the most apparent and critical social problem brought to light by Cahan in the story is the reluctance to seize the moment, to act on impulse, guided by the heart or the passions an individual feels, regardless of the dangers or the worries that hover about at the periphery of the mind, making our actions sluggish, even killing them outright in the womb of our thoughts, before they are even given the chance to be born, much less come to fruition. We see this most readily in the character of Heyman, who Cahan describes as having the reputation of “being a niggardly fellow, who overworked himself, denied himself every pleasure, and grew fat by feasting his eyes on his savings-bank book.” In short, he is a man who is utterly in control of his own passions, and yet a slave to his bank account. That is not to say that he is simply a greedy, wishfully ambitious money-hound whose only desire is the acquisition of more cold hard cash, no! He hoards every cent for a great and wonderful cause; he saves every scrap of cash he can squeeze out of the working hours of his life so that one day he might marry the beautiful and vivacious young woman of the story, Beile. His plan is simple; he adores her, though not publicly, and it is certain that she does not know how he feels for sure, and yet she also adores him. He need only wait, and not much longer even, for the right opportunity to properly propose to Beile, his morale undoubtedly boosted in this endeavor by the wonderful little roll of cash he’s saved for just such an occasion. It’s a beautiful plan, and near flawless, but as it often does in stories of this sort, fate takes a wicked turn and she is swept away from Heyman by the ambitious and idealistic young David who, unlike his poor “competitor,” manages to win the young woman’s heart, seemingly overnight, leaving Heyman “out in the cold.” In this, Cahan seems to be showing us that we can in fact be over prepared for a situation and that the stalling of one’s actions for fear of rejection can often lead to more sorrow and heartache than if one had simply “given it a shot,” if you’ll excuse the expression, and seized the moment, as David did, while Heyman was left to murmur his sorrows into his work, falling “to at his machine to smother his misery.” For that, one cannot help but feel at least some contempt for the man, but it also calls out our pity, as every one of us has been there before, unable or unwilling to do what should be done, for fear that we may be unready and fail, despite our greatest efforts to succeed.
“A Sweatshop Romance” also addresses the need to stand up for oneself, to stay firm and not yield when our beliefs are trampled upon. Cahan’s theme of taking pride in our ideologies, of defending our morals and believing whole heartedly in what we know is right while guarding ourselves against mistreatment is a key aspect of this piece. When he brings to light the notion of letting oneself be cowed by inexcusable behavior in an attempt to keep things smooth and to keep from putting any proverbial “ripples in the water,” he presents it in such a way that makes his message of the need for personal pride crystal clear. It grabs at the heart, making the reader feel how important it is for a person to stand up for what they believe in, to not allow oneself to be crushed in the name of a paycheck; ideals reach beyond the needs of the flesh, and those who have stood at the forefront, unwilling to sacrifice their morals to the enemy have been idolized and made into martyrs, while those who grumble in the dark while they are trampled upon blend into the grey background of the dismal and forgotten bulk of society. To this degree, when David encourages Beile to stand up for herself and for what she knows is right, Cahan forces us to see how things are meant to be, how they should be, lest we cease to be vigilant in protecting our very moral fiber and end up like poor Heyman, who, when push inevitably came to shove, “nervously grated his teeth and shut his eyes, awaiting still more painful developments.”) This is amplified and made solid by the story’s happy ending (for David and Beile, at least,) which seems to show that no matter how bad things may seem to get, as long as we stay true to ourselves, we will prevail in the end.
In all, it’s a magnificent piece, one that, while short, conveys some very important solutions for social problems that even members of modern society have difficulty dealing with. Cahan skillfully communicates the need to act, to “strike while the iron is hot,” and not to wait while it cools for fear that sparks may fly into our faces or that the steel may crack. He shows us how important it is to stand up for our beliefs, no matter the cost or the insurmountable odds stacked against us; pride in oneself and in one’s ideals forms an important part of this piece, and it’s pages contain the basic tools for overcoming two of society’s most common and devious problems. It is a work that contains a powerful message, one that was valuable at the time, is valuable now, and will likely be valuable for generations to come.