Tevye the Dairyman
by Sholem Aleichem
Realism; Philosophical Literature; Comedy
Oh, realism. So much ink has been spilled for what seems like such an obvious word. Basically, realism describes writing in which an author tries to reproduce real life on the page, warts and all. And where do you go for that gritty version of real life? Usually, to a place where people can't afford to have those warts removed: the wrong side of the tracks.
That's one reason a lot of realist fiction tends to be about the poor, the lower classes, or, barring that, about some violent or otherwise miserable people. Plus, the more unpleasant the situation, the more you can really rub your reader's nose in your awesome, no-nonsense integrity.
All of this means that usually, realism features lots of really long and detailed descriptions of the sights and sounds of the world the author is showing us. The upshot of this approach tends to be that the reader feels like a nineteenth-century anthropologist studying some backward tribe with curiosity and condescension: "Oh look, they have feelings just like we do! How quaint and surprising!"
But although Tevye the Dairyman is for sure in the realist tradition (Attempt to portray real life? Check. Poor/marginalized people? Check. Violence? Check plus.), Sholem Aleichem pretty much throws out the whole descriptive aspect of the genre.
For example, instead of being described from head to toe, here characters are introduced with just the barest hint of what they might look like. Hodl is "beautiful," says Tevye (5.3). Okay, but is she tall? Short? Big-eyed? Small-faced? There's just no description there. So why do it this way?
Well, if you think about it, not having lots of description is actually way more realistic with a first-person narrator. After all, when you're telling a story about someone, you don't usually pause the narrative to go into a detailed description of his bone structure. (We hope.)
So, Tevye is written as a piece of realism. At the same time, all the things that happen to Tevye's family in the plot are a way of pondering the big questions about Jewish identity in early 20th-century Russia. None of the characters are really in the realist tradition of detailed psychological character studies, not even Tevye himself.
Yeah, we learn some things, like Hodl's "shining" face and "glowing" eyes when she talks about Pershik's cause (5.106), or Shprintze's quiet despair after Ahronchik deserts her. But their feelings really aren't the point of their characters. The point of their characters is to be symbols of the various options open to Jews in early 20th-century Russia—and the options aren't good. It's basically either poverty, exile, or despair. Check it out:
- Tzeitl: stay Jewish, stay poor, and end up exiled anyway
- Hodl: join the revolution, end up imprisoned and exiled
- Chava: join the oppressors, cause a complete familial breakdown, and end up... yeah, exiled
- Shprintze: try to marry up, end up dead
- Beilke: be sensible, marry for your family, and end up with your spirit broken in an American factory
What's left? The only solution seems to be for the Jews to find a country of their own—and so maybe, just maybe, exile will turn into homecoming.
Okay, so, we're not really talking about the classic kind of comedy here, where the girl gets the boy and they live happily ever after even though for a while there we just didn't know if they would actually get together, those crazy kids!
No, here we mean comedy of the ha-ha, that's funny, we're laughing because otherwise we'd be crying variety. Everything that makes you crack a smile in these stories is just as likely to make you dab at your eyes with a tissue. Take the very last story—a variant on the plot line of how Ivan Poperilo and the village mob come to beat up Tevye and destroy his house.
Here, instead of just pointing out that maybe everyone should worry about what God is going to say when He finds out what they've been up to, Tevye comes up with a trick. If the Gentile can correctly pronounce the long Hebrew words he throws out at them at random, that means the destruction is on. If not, not. Of course the Hebrew words are way too hard, and we get a good chuckle going when instead of saying "vachalaklokos" they bust out with "haidamaki," "lomaki," and "chaykolia" (10.20).
And then of course, Ivan tells Tevye to cut the nonsense out, and the destruction proceeds as scheduled. Hardy-har-har. Good one, Sholem Aleichem.
So, the cool thing about this book is that it's not a very long line from Sholem Aleichem to the vaudeville of early 20th-century America, to the comedians of the Borscht Belt, and the Jewish humor that followed. So if you've ever wondered where Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, and Mel Brooks got their inspiration—now you know.