Study Guide

Tevye the Dairyman Wealth

By Sholem Aleichem


As they say, 'If the money comes, the schemes follow, and if you are rich, you're certainly clever.' (2.112)

There's always this sense in the book that money just brings a new set of problems. No one is ever content to just let it pile up in savings, but always needs to have some new scheme going.

Did the world show any interest in me when I was, may it never happen to a Jew, buried deep in poverty […but then when I got rich] Every person came with his own advice. This one said a dry-goods store, that one a grocery, another one said a house, a good lasting investment. […] God sent me a relative, Menachem-Mendl was his name—a fly-by-night, a who knows what, a wheeler-dealer, a manipulator, may he never find a resting place! He roped me in and spun my head around with dreams of things that never were and never could be. (3.2-3)

Tevye also just got an email from the son of the deposed king of Nigeria that he'd like to show you.

"And who is to blame [for the fact that the money was lost in a bad investment] if not myself, who let you talk me into striking it rich, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, empty dreams? Money, my friend, one has to earn by the sweat of one's brow. One must toil over it, slave over it. […] Wisdom and regret—always they come too late. It wasn't fated that Tevye become rich." (3.78)

This is actually one of the standard dealies about money in most of nineteenth-century literature—the weird panic that any money earned through stock trading is not morally sound because it didn't come from any actual goods and services being exchanged.

"May the rich not live to see the day when I compare myself to them! Let them all go to hell!"

"You seem all worked up about the rich folks. Have they divided up your father's inheritance amongst themselves?"

"You should know," he said, "that you and I and all of us have a large share in their inheritance." (5.35-37)

A nice comparison of Tevye's sort of passive and accepting jealousy of the rich—he envies them but also hopes to become one of them someday—and Perchik's much more militant views. Also, check out how Tevye doesn't really get Perchik's global outrage about the idea of wealth disparity. Tevye is all, why would you be so mad at them—it's not like they did something to you personally. Meanwhile, Perchik is all about the bigger picture (which, for him, is Marxism all the way, baby).

As it is said: "God Himself must hate a poor man, because if God loved a poor man, the poor man wouldn't be poor." (5.58)

So, yeah, this pretty much puts in a nutshell why people are cool beans living in societies with gigantic wealth gaps between the rich and the poor. We like to call this blame the victim.

The power of millions! Even my Golde, when she sniffs out money, becomes another person. That's the kind of world it is—what can you do? As it is written in the Hallel: Gold and silver, the work of man's hands—wealth ruins a person. (7.31)

Whoa, seriously. This is a joke, right? Tevye isn't seriously making fun of Golde's total about-face on the whole who-are-these-jerks-you-invited-over situation once she finds out Ahronchik is rolling in dough... because he's the exact same way. Right?

[The rich widow] confided in me her problem, her pain, her sorrow—Ahronchik! This young man of twenty was interested only in horses, bicycles, and fishing, and beyond that he cared for nothing—not for business or for making money. His father had left him a fine inheritance, almost a million, but he didn't bother to look after it! (7.7)

There's something so super-modern about this lazy young man and his bro-tastic existence of sponging off his inheritance rather than thinking about the future. Change the clothes, add a hip soundtrack, and you've got yourself an indie movie classic.

I realized that my Beilke had never seen such a spread on her father's table. […] I drank and looked at Beilke. I'd lived to see the day when God helped the poor and lifteth the needy out of the dunghill. But my Beilke was not to be recognized. She looked something like Beilke, but not really. I compared the Beilke of long ago with the Beilke I was seeing now, and it gave me a terrible feeling of regret, as if I had made a big mistake […] Ach, Beilke, Beilke, I thought. What has become of you? (8.71-72)

Again, wealth has a totally transformative power (just like when Golde is changed into a less crabby person in its presence earlier). So why does Tevye regret the decision to let Beilke marry this dude? It might be significant that when he's complaining, Tevye calls the mistake "his" and not "Beilke's"—like he's the one being left behind and unaltered by all the big changes in life.

In the end, besides losing everything, Podhotsur went bankrupt, had to sell all he had—the mirrors and clocks and his wife's jewelry. He had to flee his creditors at great risk to himself and become a fugitive, may it not happen to any Jew, and escape to where the beloved Holy Shabbes goes west—to America. That's where unhappy souls go, and that's where Beilke and Podhotsur also went. […] Now she writes that it's not so bad, praise God. They have jobs in a stocking factory and are "making a living." That's what they call it in America. In our language it's called "scraping for a piece of bread." (9.9-10)

So, yeah, obviously not too cool. But the reason we're throwing this quotation into the mix is to contrast the stories with the Broadway hit musical that these stories became. Sure, they nix a few of the adventures to make a leaner plot, but the real craziness is that the musical ends with Tevye and the gang deciding to go to America as the land of great hope and whatever. Um, as if! In reality, of course, turn-of-the-century America was not such a super awesome place to go for Russian Jewry—as evidenced here, where it's clear that only the most horrible of extreme circumstances could force anyone to end up there. So yeah. Might as well be going to Mars, as far as any of these people were concerned.