Study Guide

Tevye the Dairyman Analysis

By Sholem Aleichem

  • Tone

    Confessional, Rueful, Funny, Self-Deprecating, Boastful

    You know what Tevye the Dairyman totally sounds like? Like one of those talking head to-the-camera confessionals on reality TV shows. You know, where they take a cast member and sit him/her down in front of the camera to comment on the action that's happening in a funny or mean or revealing way. Think about it.

    First, Tevye is telling us what has happened to him pretty much right after as it's happening. That's why he doesn't always seem to get the connection between, say, telling a story about a girl drowning herself after her fiancé deserts her and what happens to his very own daughter.

    Second, so much of what he says is a big old confession about the feelings he usually is desperate to conceal. Check out the difference between what actually happened when he saw his daughter Chava after she has married Chvedka, and the feelings he lets us in on:

    I lifted my eyes and looked—Chava! She was the same Chava as before, not changed by a hair, even wearing the same clothes! My first impulse was to jump off the wagon, take her in my arms, and kiss her, but a thought held me back: Tevye, what are you, a woman? So I pulled on the reins […] something tore at my insides and tugged at my heart. I was about to jump off the wagon, but I restrained myself and pulled the horse to the left. […] you must know how much I wanted to turn and look back at the spot where she was standing. But no, Tevye is not a woman. Tevye knows how to conduct himself before Satan the Tempter. (6.103-105)

    Outwardly, this is totally harsh. Just picture him riding away from a crying, screaming daughter without even acknowledging her existence. Seriously cold behavior, right?

    But here, because of the way he tells the story, we get to see that he's ripped apart on the inside by feelings that are struggling against his sense of pride and betrayal. It's a private confession that—oops!—the whole world now gets to read.

  • Genre

    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.)

    Philosophical Literature

    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.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    As a title, Tevye is pretty standard as far as the anvil-like books of realistic literature go: Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Anna Karenina. You get the point. Sholem Aleichem is not rocking the realist author boat here.

    But check it out. The title isn't actually just Tevye. It's Tevye the Dairyman. Now, "dairyman" is only one of Tevye's roles. Why not Tevye the Father, or Tevye, Golde's Husband? Or what about Tevye the Learned, say, or Super-Unlucky-God-Sure-Has-It-in-for-You Tevye?

    Here's one theory, and we think it's a pretty good one: the main difference between just saying Tevye's name and saying his name and his line of work is that the title puts him in the economic structure of his village. He's not just some dude named Tevye. He is an integral part of the way that little microcosm functions. You want to drink some milk? He's the guy you want. Fancy a grilled cheese sandwich? Go see Tevye.

    The upshot of the stories is that regardless of how deeply rooted and embedded Tevye is in his community, his neighbors have no problem at all going along with the forced resettlements ordered by the government. So, it's key to right off the bat point out just how much a part of normal everyday life Tevye's stories are at first—so it's an extra kicker when it turns out that they're really about the destruction of Jewish life.

  • 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.

  • Setting

    Tevye's village is the main setting here, but you can't figure out much about it without knowing a little more about the major historical and political shifts happening way off in big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg at the same time.

    Early 20th-Century Shtetl Life in Russia

    Let us count the ways in which life for Jews in the shtetl of the early 20th-century Russian Empire was not awesome:

    First, Russia's government was under some major stress. Although Russia was still an absolute monarchy under a tsar, some hot-headed revolutionaries were really starting to get agitated about the whole autocratic thing.

    Quick sidebar: "tsar" is just the Russian word for king, brought to us all the way from Latin's Caesar. (That makes more sense if we spell it the old-fashioned way: "czar.") A monarchy is a system of government where the king/tsar/emperor is in charge, and where that power is passed down a family line. And an absolute monarchy? That's when the king has all the power (he's autocratic). In other words, no parliament, no vice-king, no voting, no Supreme Court, nothing but that one dude on a throne calling all the shots.

    Back to the brewing revolution. Freaking out that the power party was about to end, Nicholas II passed the Constitution of 1906, which established a parliament and said, okay, fine, you can all vote.

    Of course, this still didn't do much for the people at the bottom of the Russian totem pole. At that bottom was the Jewish population of Russia. Oppressed by laws about where they could and couldn't live, professions they could and couldn't practice, and generally victimized through both official gub'mint ordered persecution as well as the ordinary off-the-books kind: good times all around.

    Jews mostly lived in villages and town called shtetls, which had large Jewish populations. When the 1906 Constitution passed, a crazy wave of anti-Jewish violence followed. In a bunch of pogroms on Jewish communities, Russians killed Jews, burned down businesses and houses, and rained terror on that minority population.

    Of course, the government was totally mad and stepped in right away to point out that it was totally uncivilized to do that sort of thing. Not! It was basically just happy that people weren't attacking something else. In fact, officials even encouraged anti-Semitic violence, because it kept the proles busy doing something other than plotting revolution.

    Boiberik & Yehupetz vs. Tevye's Village

    Tevye makes a really big deal about being the best dairyman in Boiberik and Yehupetz. Check it out:

    I sold out my merchandise completely, nothing at all was left even if my life depended on it. I was so busy, I had no time to chat with my summer customers, the Boiberik dacha owners, who wait for me as if I were the Messiah because the Yehupetz merchants' produce can't hold a candle to Tevye's. I needn't tell you, as the prophet said: Let other men praise thee—good products praise themselves. (3.4)

    This whole deliveryman-to-the-stars act that he has makes it seem like these important people value him so much that they end up waiting for him, not vice versa. That level of excitement really sells us on the idea that where he lives is one thing, but where he sells his goods is totally different. You don't see Tevye bragging about how important he is in his village, after all. Who cares if everyone knows who you are in Buford, Wyoming?

    The little village where Tevye and his family is so crazy small it doesn't ever even get a name. Yeah, yeah, we know, Fiddler on the Roof calls the place Anatevka—but if you read the text closely, you'll see that Anatevka is actually another little shtetl right nearby. Tevye's village is just home, so why would it need any other name?

    On the other hand, there's Yehupetz, the nearby town where there is a university of some sort (since Perchik studies something there), a stock exchange office (since Menachem-Mendl and his fellow traders operate there), and a large population of wealthy Jews whom Tevye gets to know. We don't get too many physical descriptions of what the place looks like, but we certainly get a feeling that it's a bustling and busy kind of place.

    And finally, there's Boiberik, the resort community where all the Yehupetz rich people have their dachas. (Don't freak out—dacha is just a Russian word for a summerhouse.) Basically, this is where Yehupetz big-wigs come on the weekends to unwind. You know, like Wall-Street hotshots heading to their mountain cabins to commune with nature, that sort of thing.

    Here, the feeling is calmer and more chill. Although again, we don't really get any physical descriptions of the place itself, it seems to be the site of family get-togethers and celebrations more than business, like the big family vacation Tevye encounters when he delivers the two lost women in the second story.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    Sure, there are some Yiddish words and maybe the names are a little complicated to say out loud, and you should probably at least have a sense that it wasn't so super-awesome for Jews in turn-of-the-century Russia, but honestly? It's a totally straightforward narrative with reasonably modern values and ideas.

    Like, check out this sentence that we plucked out pretty much at random: "With a little help from God, there I was penniless, poor as a beggar, with a wife and kids, starving to death three times a day, not counting suppers, may it not happen to any Jew" (2.3). Depressing? Yes. Difficult? Not so much. No problem just reading this thing straight through and figuring out some context as you go.

  • Writing Style

    Conversational, Aphoristic, Allusive

    To really make the framing narrative of the thing work, Sholem Aleichem has to work hard to keep the text sounding all talk-y.

    (Oh, quick brain snack, Shmoopsters: a framing narrative is what you call the outer shell when you get a story within a story, like here. The story within a story is all the stuff that Tevye is telling us. The framing narrative is the whole setup where we all agree to pretend like Tevye is saying everything to a guy named Sholem Aleichem that he keeps meeting up with.)

    So how does he make it sound like speech? Well, he keeps the sentences short, not too complex, throws in a lot of colloquial language, makes Tevye actually address Sholem Aleichem by name, and pulls out the old trick of giving Tevye a verbal tic—in this case, the constant quotations. You can really see this at the beginning of each story. Check out this intro to "The Great Windfall":

    If you are meant to receive a great windfall, do you hear, Pani Sholem Aleichem, it will fall right into your lap. As they say, it never rains but it pours. A stroke of good luck doesn't take brains or ability. But should it be the other way around—God forbid, you can talk until you are blue in the face, and it will do as much good as last winter's snow. The Talmud says: Without wisdom and a good idea—you might as well ride a dead horse. […] it's really worth your while to hear the whole story from beginning to end. Let's sit down here on the grass a bit. (2.1)

    Okay, let's see what's going on here.

    First, we've got all the details that make the text sound like it's an ongoing conversation. Tevye addresses "Pani Sholem Aleichem" and says that "it's worth your while to hear the story" to his interlocutor (ten dollar word alert! An interlocutor is the person you're talking to). Not only that, but he even gives the two of them stage directions in his speech, saying "let's sit down on the grass."

    Second, we've got Tevye's very particular way of speaking—he's like a walking book of proverbs, aphorisms that use folk wisdom to make him sound, like, totally deep. Almost every sentence has some folk saying in it: "it never rain but it pours," "as good as last winter's snow," "ride a dead horse." And of course it wouldn't be our favorite dairyman without an allusion to the Bible—here, it's the italicized bit from the Talmud.

  • Tevye's Horse

    That poor, sad horse. It's basically the symbol of Tevye's sad-sack qualities. Tevye is always talking to or about the horse like it's the most bedraggled and miserably underappreciated creature. No matter how well fed and how underworked that animal is, Tevye just sees himself in it and can't help but identify with the way the horse is just forced to accept whatever happens to it.

    So, why the horse? Why not his dairy cans, or his cows, or his wagon?

    Well, the horse does almost the exact same job that Tevye himself does, delivering the dairy products to nearby towns. The horse is literally a beast of burden—exactly the archetype Tevye sees himself as. And without the horse, Tevye couldn't do his job. The two of them are a team, just as much as Tevye and Golde are.

    And when does he most tend to bust out the horse-related references? Either when he's just been given some super disappointing news, or conversely when he's just experienced something awesome and so is obviously due for another setback any second now. Here's a great example, right when Tevye finds out that Tzeitl refuses to marry Lazer-Wolf, the rich butcher:

    I sat and drank it all in as I was thinking how cleverly the Creator of the universe had made His little world so that every creature, from a man to a cow, forgive the comparison, should earn its keep—nothing comes free! […] You, horse, do you want to chew? Then run back and forth day in and day out with pots to Boiberik. And the same goes for you, O man. Do you want a crust of bread? Then go toil […] and drag yourself every morning to the Boiberik dachas, bow and scrape to the Yehupetz rich folks, smile for them, charm each one, and be sure they are satisfied and that their pride hasn't been hurt! (4.95)

    See how you could easily switch the words "horse" and "man" in that passage, and come out with pretty much the same meaning? It's a neat trick.

    Of course it gets a lot more serious in the final story, when Tevye finds himself having to sell his horse because the Russians are kicking him out of town. Selling his horse—selling himself. Exile isn't just leaving behind your home. It's also leaving behind a crucial part of your identity.

    Yeah, major bummer.

  • Tevye's House

    So, the horse symbolizes Tevye at his most beaten down. At home, though, he's king of his castle (at least in theory). Tevye's house symbolizes his accomplishments, his place in the world, and his family.

    Of course, Tevye being Tevye—and Sholem Aleichem being Sholem Aleichem—you know that it's not going to be good for long. The end of the stories brings wave after wave of threats to this house.

    First, Tevye sells off his dairy stuff (and with it, memories of the dead Golde) to go on his trip to Israel.

    Second, the village mayor and a mob of Gentiles destroy it for the sake of looking good in front of government officials.

    Finally, Tevye has to short-sell it to the mayor before he's evicted, along with the rest of the Jews. He comes back to find Tzeitl packing up and the house in a sad state, and this is when Sholem Aleichem really lays out the symbolism:

    I came home to find, not a house, but a wreck, the poor walls bare, as if they were shedding tears for all that was happening to them! On the floor were piles, bundles everywhere! On the hearth the cat perched, sorrowful as a poor orphan. […] Here was where I had grown up, here I had struggled all my life, and suddenly—Lech l'cho—get thee gone! Say what you will, it's a terrible loss! (9.54)

    Here, the house is personified as "shedding tears"—the tears that Tevye thinks he's too manly to shed, maybe. Not only that, but it's pretty much lost its identity as a home—the floor is no longer a walking surface; the hearth (a.k.a. the fireplace), which would usually be where everyone would gather to get warm and eat food, is now occupied by an "orphan."

    As the house dissolves, so does Tevye's identity. He's literally homeless, because his house has been packed up and sold. Know who else is homeless? (At least until 1948.)

    The Jews.

  • The Torah

    If Tevye's saying something, chances are it's a quotation from the Torah or midrash (what a bunch of rabbis wrote to explain Torah verses).

    He relies on his quotations for everything: they show that he's a smart and educated guy, they make even his most wrong-headed advice sound wise, they help take him away from heavy-duty emotional stuff, and—most importantly—they let him lord it over other people.

    For example, check him out here, as he stops himself from crying at his wife's deathbed:

    [Golde] didn't understand a word I was saying, and spoke in a whisper. "I am dying, Tevye. Who will cook supper for you?" Her eyes would have moved a stone to tears.

    But Tevye is not a woman, and so I answered her with a saying and a commentary and a chapter and another midrash. (8.7-8)

    Boy, that's a lot of Biblical words to cram into the conversation when all Golde wants to do is have her husband say that he loves her, or something. Way to totally misread the scene, Tevye.

  • The Book of Job

    Okay, so before we get launch into this one, let's do a little summary of the whole Job dealie. In the Biblical Book of Job, we get the story of a totally upstanding and super religious guy that God really loves to brag about. One day, Satan is all, "Dude, of course he totally believes in You—You've given him everything! I bet I can make him doubt."

    So They make a bet, and Satan makes Job's life a living hell. He loses his wealth, his family, and finally his health, all in crazy excruciating and totally meaningless ways that (obviously) involve boils.

    Finally, at the very end of his rope, Job looks up at the sky and is like, "Um, hello? WTF?" To which a really angry God replies that basically, Job doesn't have the faintest idea of God's plan and has no right to question Him about anything that happens, like it or lump it. And so from that, we get the more colloquial sense of Job as the guy to whom all sorts of horrible things happen for no reason.

    And you know who really—really—loves to cast himself in the role of a modern-day Job? Okay, it's not a hard one. It's obviously Tevye. In his long, ongoing dialogues with God (um… maybe monologues to God? It's not like an actual convo or anything, obviously), Tevye always plays the part of the beleaguered and put upon creature who is just having crap dumped on him with no end in sight.

    There aren't any explicit references to Job, but scholars agree that the Book of Job is, like, totally all over the stories. (Only they use fancier language.) What is the Book of Job doing for Tevye? Does this give him a sense of comfort from feeling like he is not in control and is stepped on? Is it an excuse for bad behavior?

    Or is it just a selfish trick to make sure that everything is all about him, all the time?

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Central Narrator)

    This one's easy: every story is told to Sholem Aleichem (and, so, to us) by Tevye himself and about himself. Other characters show up, sure, but only to illustrate some point that Tevye's making. Bo-ring.

    Or is it? We tend to associate first-person narratives with autobiography, but this one is a little different. It's not a work like Great Expectations or The Good Soldier, where the person is telling a story after the events are over.

    Instead, Tevye is more like a journalist reporting on himself. He doesn't really make the connections between stories or craft a meaningful narrative to explain his life. One super-duper crazy example? This little passage from the "Hodl" story, when Hodl tells Tevye that she is going away to be with Perchik in his exile:

    I will never forget the way she looked at me. I thought she meant she was going to drown herself. Why? Recently, may it not happen to anyone, a girl living not far from us fell in love with a village Gentile, and because of him—well, you know what happened. […] The village Gentile thought it over and decided to go off with someone else. The girl then went to the river, threw herself in, and drowned herself. (5.124)

    Why is this so majorly freaky? Well, friends, it's because these are the very same things that will happen to Tevye's other daughters! Chava will indeed ruin her life by running off with a village Gentile, and Shprintze will drown herself when her love affair doesn't work out. The first time you read this, whatevs, no big deal. But in hindsight?... Chills.

    So why are the stories written like this? Well, for one thing, Sholem Aleichem writes as though Tevye hasn't really had time to reflect on the most recent events, and he tells them to us in the breathless, can-you-believe-this way of someone who is still experiencing the emotions he's describing.

    For another, because he doesn't really have a lot of distance from the events he's talking about, Tevye tends to react to them all the same way—by doing that thing where he acts like a big martyr and wonders why God is just always out to get him.

    Or—try this out. Remember that Sholem Aleichem kept getting confused about how many kids Tevye was supposed to have? (Check out the plot summary of "Hodl" for a quick refresher.) Maybe he really didn't know what was going to happen to Chava and Shprintze yet.

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

    Yoohoo! Tevye!

    We start with "wretchedness at home and the 'Call'" to go out into the wider world. Check and check. Tevye begins the story as a hand-to-mouth woodcutter with a large and hungry family that—even worse—is all girls. After a lucky break, he ends up with enough money to start a dairy business. After some rocky business with a bad investment, things are really looking up for the Tevyes.

    Dairyman to the Stars

    Next comes "initial success out in the world." As a big-time dairy delivery man, Tevye's got a shot at finding some good (as in, respectable) homes for his expanding stable of horses—we mean, daughters.

    So obviously Tevye is totally shocked when when his two oldest girls decide to marry for love, and even more surprised when they seem to end up happy and fulfilled despite some little hurdles involving poverty and exile. Modernity. What are you going to do?

    Bye-Bye, Chava

    Things start to go south with "the central crisis" when "everything suddenly goes wrong." Tevye's third daughter Chava falls in love with a Gentile, and decides to abandon her family entirely in order to be with him. Tevye ups the states by disowning her and forcing the family to act as though she were dead.

    And then the stakes get even higher with the fourth daughter Shprintze. She gets engaged to a wealthy young man whose family has moved nearby because of the ongoing anti-Jewish pogrom. His family thinks this is not too cool, so they break the engagement. Shprintze does a game-changer and drowns herself.

    Taking One for the Team

    And now comes the "independence and the final ordeal." Beilke, the youngest of Tevye's daughters decides no drowning for her, thanks, and chooses a traditional arranged marriage. She marries a rich and basically decent guy expressly for his cold, hard cash.

    The final ordeal, meanwhile, is a double whammy: the village mayor and a mob of Gentiles demand to beat up Tevye and destroy his house as a nod to the government-approved pogrom. And then, just as he talks his way out of some of their violence, a government decree turns the village into a town. All the Jews have to get out and, oh yeah, leave all their property behind in the hands of an angry, but richer, mob.

    More Like Riches to Rags

    At last, "final union, completion, and fulfillment." What's left of Tevye's family is reunited (besides the Siberia-bound daughter). Tzeitl and her children come to live with him after her husband dies. Chava abandons her non-Jewish life to come with them into exile, and Tevye forgives her.

    Yeah, not much of a happy ending. The fulfillment is more of the philosophical nature, as Tevye speculates that Jews would be happier if they had a country of their own instead.

  • Plot Analysis

    Initial Situation

    Dairyman, Make Me a Match ("The Great Windfall")

    After a particularly lucky break where he rescues two lost women who happens to be quite wealthy, Tevye collects enough money to stop wood cutting and open a dairy business. Cue a whole new set of worries. Now he's less concerned with feeding his daughters and more worried about getting them suitably married off.


    Here, take my two goats, my second-best bed, and my daughter ("The Roof Falls In")

    With the dairy business, Tevye feels like "a wealthy man [who goes out] every morning to the market" (2.2). Now that Tevye has risen (slightly) in the world, he needs to collect enough money to provide dowries for his daughters. His idea? To invest in the stock market with his cousin, which, not surprisingly, does not work out well. This means that it'll be hard for the girls to marry anyone in their socio-economic bracket, leaving only husbands too rich to care or husbands who don't mind staying poor.


    Love Conquers All… ("Today's Children")

    Despite Tevye's best-laid plans to get her married to a wealthy but "somewhat common" (4.34) butcher (ooh, burn), Tzeitl marries a poor tailor and she ends up very happy. This sets up the family precedent for love-based rather than arranged marriages. Hodl's marriage is similar to Tzeitl's: she marries a member of a revolutionary group who promptly gets himself imprisoned and exiled. She chooses to go with him and sends back happy-sounding letters. Overall, we get the sense that Tevye is okay with breaking the arranged-marriage tradition.


    … Until It Doesn't. ("Chava," "Shprintze," "Tevye Is Going to Eretz Yisroel")

    Love turns out not to be all you need, when Chava falls in love with a non-Jew, runs away from home, and hides out at a priest's house. In response, Tevye disowns her and refuses to even acknowledge her in the street. Meanwhile, during a wave of pogroms against Jewish villages, Shprintze gets engaged to a wealthy young man. His family is not so thrilled, and she drowns herself.

    Learning from these examples, Beilke agrees to an arranged marriage with a wealthy contractor, with the practical if somewhat depressing idea that this will help her family financially. Hey, we said dark, didn't we?


    Okay, Well, Maybe Next Year in Jerusalem ("Get Thee Gone")

    Beilke's husband goes bust, Tzeitl's husband dies, and just like that, the non-Jews of Tevye's village are at his door demanding to beat him up and wreck his house, as per government instructions. This sets up what will be the final philosophical idea of the stories—that Jews can't count on being accepted even in a place where they've seemingly acclimated and assimilated.


    I'm Gittin' ("Get Thee Gone")

    Although he uses his smarts to convince the villagers to only break his house enough to make it look good to the authorities, Tevye has no ammunition to use against the government itself. Which is too bad, because the government has just made the village into a town and ordered out all Jews. (Oh, yeah, and seized their property.) Packing to make their escape, Tzeitl tells Tevye that they can't leave Chava… who turns out to be in the next room, bags packed and ready to go.


    Exiled. Again. ("'Get Thee Gone'")

    Tevye forgives Chava, since she's returned willingly. As they head out, he thinks about the fact that assimilation is not a valid solution for Jews, since they remain unaccepted by others. Instead, he throws out the suggestion of a geographical location where all Jews could live and belong.

  • Three-Act Plot Analysis

    Act I:

    Cash Cow

    Tevye is an "ordinary man" (1.2) until he comes into a little money and sets himself up as a dairyman. Well, he's still ordinary. But at least he's not dirt-poor anymore.

    Act II:

    Making Their Own Matches

    Tevye's daughters try to marry according to their wishes, rejecting their village's system of arranging marriages. Surprisingly, Tevye is mostly okay with this radical behavior. He might want to rethink his permissiveness, though, because it ends badly when one daughter runs off with a Gentile and another kills herself after a broken engagement.

    Act III:

    Movin' Out

    The gub'mint forcibly removes Tevye and his family from the village. He leaves thinking that there must be a place where Jews can feel like they belong. Sure there is, Tevye. It's called the Upper West Side.

  • Allusions

    Literary and Philosophical References

    • The Torah—every page of each story
    • The Midrash (rabbinical commentaries on verses from the Torah)—every page of each story

    Historical References

    • Russian Constitution of 1906—7.1
    • The Bialystok Pogrom of 1906—7.2
    • Turn of the 20th Century Revolutionary Movement in Russia—(5.98-99)