Tevye the Dairyman
by Sholem Aleichem
Tevye the Dairyman Theme of Identity
Poor Tevye. He's a woodcutter then a dairyman; he's got seven daughters, then five daughters, and then—when Chava comes back—he's got six again; he's got a home and a family—and then he's got nothing. No wonder it's so hard to get a read on him. Is he just a modern day version of Job? Or is he defined by being a Jew under an oppressive regime? Or is he defined by his struggle between modernity and tradition in the setting of his family? Tevye never answers directly—unless of course we assume that the answer is (d) All of the above.
Questions About Identity
- Tevye likes to talk about how much he has changed. For example, every time he meets up with Sholem Aleichem, he insists that his friend must be surprised by how dramatically different he looks/sounds/feels. What does this tell us about Tevye? Is he overly concerned with how he looks to others from the outside? Are there other examples where he's more concerned with his image than with his substance?
- Who seems like the most substantial personality in the book besides Tevye? Who is a blank slate?
- Every story Tevye tells ends up coming back to himself. He's the martyr, he's the one that all the bad things keep happening to. Is he really the victim of the universe—a tragic hero? Why or why not? How much of what happens is his own fault?
- Pick a topic—fatherhood, money, village life. How does Tevye's attitude about it change throughout the stories? Is he the same person at the end of the book as at the beginning?
Chew on This
Tevye is a fundamentally misogynist book, because women in the story are basically interchangeable placeholders.
Rather than undergoing realistic, human, motivated change, Tevye is an unstable character whose opinions and thoughts vary wildly depending on the needs of the plot. He has no definable personality, and just reads a random collection of opposite attitudes.