Study Guide

Tevye the Dairyman Themes

By Sholem Aleichem

  • Family

    Life in Tevye is a family affair. Loyalty to the family, concern about how the family is functioning in the world, and securing the future of family members: these are all way more important concerns than backpacking through Europe to find yourself. Images of family protection are all over the place—the uncle who cancels Shprintze's engagement, Beilke's practical decision to marry the rich dude who can float her sisters. People who reject their family identity—Chava, primarily—are the worst kind of traitors. A comforting source of stability in an unstable world? Sure. Deeply oppressive, even if not quite as oppressive as the Russian government? We'll let you decide that one.

    Questions About Family

    1. Why don't we see any of the in-laws that must come with at least some of the husbands Tevye's daughters find? (The only ones we encounter are the potential in-laws that devastate Shprintze.) Whose family do you most want to check out? Perchik's? Podhotsur's? Whose wouldn't matter?
    2. Which of the daughters is most like Tevye? Which is least like him? How can you tell?
    3. We get a sense that Golde is very tied to the family she grew up in, referencing their professions, personalities, and even superstitiously holding her Grandma Tzeitl up as some kind of prophet figure. Why don't we ever hear about Tevye's mother or father?

    Chew on This

    Sholem Aleichem depicts Tevye's sense of family as having more to do with its external appearance to the rest of the world than an internal emotional connection.

    In Tevye, the daughters rebel because they have almost no example of what a husband and a wife are like. Golde and Tevye's marriage is barely a relationship at all.

  • 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

    1. 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?
    2. Who seems like the most substantial personality in the book besides Tevye? Who is a blank slate?
    3. 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?
    4. 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.

  • Tradition and Customs

    In Tevye, a big red line (drawn by Tevye of course) separates Tradition with a capital T, which can never be disobeyed or disrespected; and things that are open to interpretation or even change: custom. See? It doesn't even get a capital letter. On the small-time custom side? Marriage practices, old-school values about money being the only indicator of success. On the Tradition side? Anything that takes you out of the Jewish culture and over to the side of the oppressive majority population.

    Questions About Tradition and Customs

    1. Why does Tevye not show Golde his feelings? Why does he persist in treating her with that "a woman remains a woman" style of disdain, despite the fact that he clearly relies on her judgment quite a bit?
    2. Do we see the way any other family or household handles questions of tradition? How does Podhotsur, or Lazer-Wolf, for example, compare to Tevye in terms of concern for the old ways?
    3. Who is the most traditional character? Who seems the most radical?

    Chew on This

    Sholem Aleichem suggests that Tevye's reliance on Biblical quotations provides a sense of permanence and tradition in the face of constant and unpredictable change.

    In Tevye, some of the village's traditions exist only in Tevye's mind.

  • Religion

    In Tevye the Dairyman, God is just one more person to argue with. And it's also the source of Tevye's most long-lasting and emotional relationship—full of ongoing conversations, deep philosophical contemplation, and even some psychological healing. On the other hand, Tevye is also really into looking like a deeply devout man, impressing everyone with his knowledge of the Torah and the Talmud and cramming as many of his own interpretations of scripture down the throats of everyone he meets as possible. So, which is it? Is religion something you put on with your Sunday (er, Saturday) clothes, or is it something much more essential?

    Questions About Religion

    1. Is Tevye a religious man? Sure, he obviously believes in God, but what does that belief mean to him? Does he see God as more of a mentor? As a friend? As an enemy?
    2. How is the village priest portrayed in the book? Is he a sympathetic figure? A horrible one? Why?
    3. Why does Tevye pray? Do other characters pray?
    4. What do you make of Perchik's dual ideas that he "is God's" as he tells Tevye, and also his atheism? Can he believe both?

    Chew on This

    Tevye depicts its protagonist as a modern-day Job, with the oppressive tsarist regime in early 20th-century Russia playing the part of Satan.

    Sholem Aleichem suggests that Tevye's disbelief in free will leads to most of the book's catastrophes.

  • Wealth

    Money makes the world go 'round—until it doesn't. There isn't much of an overall narrative in Tevye the Dairyman, but there is a big shift in the way Tevye thinks about money. He starts off working hand-to-mouth, so of course becoming rich is his favorite daydream. But as he sees two of his daughters being happy with poor husbands, and even more so after another daughter's life is destroyed by a family obsessed with status, Tevye reconsiders his ideas about the importance of having a lot of money. He even ends up counseling his last daughter to avoid marrying for money and instead to hold out for a more love-based relationship. Like, way to show some character growth there, Tevye.

    Questions About Wealth

    1. How does the celebration at the Boiberik dacha in the first story compare to the one at Tevye's house when he invites Ahronchik and his friends over?
    2. How do the details of Lazer-Wolf's house and Podhotsur's house help define the characters for us?
    3. What does Tevye want to do with money? Why does he want to be wealthy? What problems does he imagine money will solve?
    4. What is the relationship between the rich and the poor in the book? How does Tevye's relationship with his Yehupetz and Boiberik customers compare to Shprintze's relationship with Ahronchik and his family?

    Chew on This

    Although at first Tevye is in awe of the rich people around him, by the end of the book he comes to disdain them and what their financial success stands for.

    Tevye presents Beilke's decision to marry for money as a positive choice, even though it also seems to approve of Tzeitl and Hodl's decision to marry for love.

  • Language and Communication

    Well, Woody Allen got his material from somewhere. Tevye's strongest weapon is his quick wit against whatever horrible things happen in his life, and it's his storytelling ability and his gallows humor about being a victim that get him the immortal life he leads as the protagonist of this book. If he were boring, you can guarantee that the book would not be called Tevye the Dairyman.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. How much can we trust Tevye as a narrator? Do his stories read like he's telling the whole truth? Is he self-serving? Self-aggrandizing?
    2. There are only a few times when Tevye is at a loss for words—the most significant being after Ahronchik's uncle accuses him of somehow luring Ahronchik in to marry Shprintze and offers to buy him off. Why can't Tevye throw out some kind of comeback here like usual? Is there a specific kind of insult that shuts him down like this?
    3. Lots of the book's jokes are based around verbal misunderstandings (most famously, that scene between Tevye and Lazer-Wolf where one thinks he's talking about a cow and the other about Tzeitl). Why is this a source of so much humor? Do the various misunderstandings tell us something about Tevye's world?

    Chew on This

    Tevye's jokes are actually much too sad to be funny.

    Tevye's one-sided conversations with God are just like his one-sided conversations with Sholem Aleichem. They're his only source of emotional relief and the only way he can express his true self to anyone.

  • Power

    Tevye's way with words is nothing against the big iron fist of Russian Imperial power that's about to slam down on his village. Although a lot of Tevye the Dairyman is taken up with minor jockeying for position—Tevye with the various potential matches for his daughters, with other dairy suppliers, with his customers, with God—in reality, the true raw power in the book comes late, in the form of official anti-Semitic government policy. This isn't really even a contest, since Tevye has no way to resist being dispossessed and forcibly removed from his village except a vague hope that maybe in the future there will be a somewhere for him to go.

    Questions About Power

    1. How does the book present those in positions of official authority—the priest, say, or the mayor? Does this presentation give us a hint of what is to come from the government? Or do we sympathize with them?
    2. As the book continues, there's more evidence that the pogrom are coming closer and closer to our protagonists. Why isn't this info highlighted in some way? Is Tevye in denial about it? Is he prevented from seeing what's coming by assuming that someone who is as good a neighbor as he is will be okay?
    3. Who is the most powerful of the daughters? The least powerful? Would Tevye have a different answer?

    Chew on This

    Tevye refuses to recognize how much power he has over the events of his life because it is easier to just be passive and blame everything on God.

    Sholem Aleichem would disagree with Tevye that those who are able to hide their emotions seem the most powerful, strongest people.

  • Wisdom and Knowledge

    No one likes a know-it-all—except Tevye. One of the reasons that Tevye is obsessed with his knowledge of and ability to recall the many samples of midrash that he treats everyone he knows to is that he wants always to look like the smartest, wisest guy in the room. Because he's not the most anything else—not the most successful, not the richest, not the most well-connected—he settles for the superlative "most knowledgeable." The only problem is that Tevye the Dairyman hints that maybe, just maybe, being fixated with appearing wise isn't really the same thing as internalizing and learning from all the midrash that you can quote. Plus, it's really annoying to watch a movie with someone who's just quoting the whole thing.

    Questions About Wisdom and Knowledge

    1. How would the stories be different if Tevye were telling them not as they happen, but from the distant future looking back on events? Would he tell them in the same order? Reflect more on the events?
    2. Who is the wisest character? Least wise? (And are they maybe the same person?)
    3. What do we know about Sholem Aleichem as a character in the stories? Does his identity change how Tevye talks to him and how he tells his stories? Why does Tevye constantly tell him not to write them down or publish them?

    Chew on This

    Tevye willfully misreads situations in which he should have known better (like, say, with Menachem-Mendl, or with Ahronchik's family) because he'd rather be lucky than wise.

    Tevye is insecure about his level of knowledge or understanding, and so feels most comfortable in the company of those who cannot talk back to him—God, Sholem Aleichem, or his horse.