Tevye the Dairyman
What’s Up With the Ending?
So, for about half of the stories in this book, we get funny and not particularly distressing adventures—you know, just a guy who's living his life, dealing with some uppity wimmins, no bigs. But then, ka-pow, almost out of nowhere, our main character and every other person we've come to know confront a threat to their very existence, without the tools to fight, you know, at all. What's all this about?
First, let's really dissect what actually happens in the ending of Tevye. We actually get two endings—a fake-out, and then the real thing—and the difference between them is our big clue about the point of it all.
The fake ending happens with the village mayor and a mob of local Gentile show up to beat up Tevye and destroy his house. They're not doing it out of malice, they say—it's just a way of showing the authorities that they got the whole persecute-the-Jews memo that's been making the rounds. They seem menacing enough, sure, but Tevye as always is saved by his quick thinking.
He appeals to their better nature, and points out how alike they all are in their belief in a God who is probably going to ask a question or two about this kind of behavior before letting anyone into heaven. The mayor considers this and agrees—they'll just mess up the house a little bit to stay out of trouble, but mostly will leave Tevye alone. Yay for our hero!
Except not really, because here comes the real ending. A constable rides up and announces that Tevye and co. have three days to clear out of Dodge because their village has been officially declared a no-Jew zone. Where are they supposed to go? No answer. Why do this to a man who has been nothing but a model citizen? No answer. Is there any hope of appeal? Absolutely not. And just like that, Tevye's victory over the villagers is revealed to be just a tiny drop in the bucket of defeat when facing a completely and senselessly oppressive government.
Why do we get these two endings? Shmoop's thinking maybe because there's not really any other good way to illustrate just how deeply the official policy of anti-Semitism goes and how totally undefeatable it is. Even Tevye (a dude who is able to keep his wits about him enough to settle down an angry mob!) can't stand against the tide of displacement, violence, and hatred that keeps this minority population in a state of rootlessness.