Liz Murray grows up in extreme poverty. Often, she has no idea when her next meal is going to come, or where she’s going to sleep. Poverty shapes her behavior and her character in many ways, and over the course of her memoir, Liz discusses the influence that extreme poverty has had on her life. At the same time, she acknowledges that different people respond to poverty differently and, furthermore, that she’s an outlier in many respects.
One of the more noticeable effects that poverty has on Liz’s life is to force her to act spontaneously and take risks. Without reliable parents, reliable sources of food, or even reliable knowledge of where she’s going to stay at night, Liz often finds herself in a desperate position. Because she needs food and shelter, she’s sometimes forced to break the law or do somewhat ethically questionable things. For example, she shoplifts from grocery stores on more than one occasion. She also learns how to “guilt” drivers into giving her money, pumping their gas for them without asking, and then standing by their cars until they pay her something. At other times, she’s forced to rely too heavily on (or sometimes, by her own admission, take advantage of) other people’s generosity, sleeping on their couches and accepting their food for a far longer time than even she feels comfortable with. There’s a famous philosophical problem about whether it’s right for a starving person to steal a loaf of bread. Liz is that starving person: even at a young age, she senses that she’s doing something wrong by shoplifting, but her need for food—a product of her extreme poverty—wins out. Put another way, her own moral compass, and the risk of being arrested for her actions, are trivial concerns in comparison to the need to survive. In a similar sense, Breaking Night takes a compassionate view of crime, suggesting that in many cases, it’s motivated by genuine need rather than malice.
Poverty also has a subtler, more abstract influence on Liz’s personality. From an early age, it trains her to be self-controlled and at times emotionally detached. As Liz explains, she quickly learns not to expect food every day, even if her parents have promised it to her. She’s so used to disappointments, and going hungry as a result, that she learns to expect nothing—this way, any food, shelter, or kindness from her family will come as a pleasant surprise. It’s illuminating to contrast Liz’s behavior with that of her older sister, Lisa Murray, who briefly lived in a wealthy foster home before returning to her biological parents. Even a few months spent outside of poverty, Liz suggests, are enough to make a lasting impact on her sister’s personality. In situations where Liz is calm, Lisa is often furious: as Liz puts it, she raises a fuss when she doesn’t receive what she believes is due to her. Liz further suggests that Lisa, having lived in a house where there’s always plenty of food (i.e., beyond the grips of poverty), is wounded by short-term setbacks in a way that Liz, never having experienced anything better, is not. The experience of receiving abundant food, shelter, and love creates the expectation of more food, shelter, and love, and discourages the hard work that’s sometimes necessary to earn those things oneself. Of course, in an ideal world those things should be expected, and children shouldn’t have to work hard to receive basic necessities—but a life of poverty is the reality for Liz and many others like her.
Somewhat counterintuitively, Liz suggests that her calmness and self-control—brought on by poverty—actually encourage her to escape from poverty rather than simply accepting it. Liz grows up understanding how to swallow her pride and accept what she’s given. But she also seems to be born with an innate ambition to succeed. When put together, these two qualities prove to be an effective combination. Because she knows how to move past adversity, she’s adept at staying focused on her long-term goals: finding employment, completing high school, and going to an elite college.
It’s worth emphasizing that Liz never suggests that this is everyone’s experience with poverty. She speaks for herself, but for the most part doesn’t presume to say how poverty has shaped others—put another way, she’s writing a memoir, not a treatise on the psychology of poverty. However, Liz does acknowledge that, in some cases, poverty renders other people incapable of focusing on any long-term goals: living day-to-day is all they can afford to do. (And this isn’t simply because Liz is more talented or superior to her peers in any way. Rather, it’s because Liz has different ambitions and ideas of happiness—for example, getting accepted to Harvard.) Ultimately, Breaking Night’s portrayal of poverty is limited in scope but still incisive: it shows how one person, Liz herself, rises to the challenges of poverty by learning to be hard-working and self-controlled, achieving her goals in the process.
Poverty Quotes in Breaking Night
I force my thoughts to fade until the details of her face blur. I need to push them away if I am ever to get some sleep. I need sleep; it will be only a few more hours before I'm outside on the street again, with nowhere to go.
Lisa and I dined on Happy Meals in front of the black-and-white TV, to the sound of spoons clanking on the nearby table, chairs being pulled in—and those elongated moments of silence when we knew what they were concentrating on. Daddy had to do it for Ma because with her bad eyesight she could never find a vein.
I told Ma all but one detail—the fact that I knew it was wrong. I knew that all I had to do to end it was to call out for her. But I didn't, because Ron made things better for Ma, for Lisa and me. I didn't want to ruin that, so I failed to call out.
Though he wasn't my friend, I admired how Kevin had found a way to do things on his own, how he looked at not having money—a situation that most people would see as fixed—as something he could overcome. What else wasn't set in stone? I wondered what other opportunities were out there for me.
There were countless times I still gave Ma my tips from packing bags or the dollars taped inside my birthday cards sent from Long Island. It hit me then, like a hammer to my chest, that maybe I'd driven her crazy and paid for the needle that infected her with AIDS, too.
"Idiot," I said out loud. "Moron."
I hurled a pillow across the room, smashing the pieces of my diorama. The Popsicle stick fence, still glued together, clacked onto the floor, snapping in half.
Turns out people could just vanish. I couldn't help but sit there and think about the woman who'd been murdered a few feet from my room. How had she gotten there, in a seedy motel room with a violent man who claimed he loved her? And was I really any different?
Covertly, I zipped open my book bag—full of dingy clothes and the wad of rubber-banded hundred-dollar bills I'd saved up over the summer—and I began stuffing muffins, bagels, bananas, and oranges into my bag. I threw in a whole loaf of bread, too. Why not? These things would be mine to keep.