Sholom Aleichem Essay - Critical Essays

Sholom Aleichem Short Fiction Analysis

It is nearly impossible to summarize the plot of a Sholom Aleichem story. There is no linear, causally enchained sequence in his fiction. The type of plot to which readers have become accustomed in Western fiction—that which moves through clearly defined stages to a predetermined end—is not readily found in Aleichem’s work. The reason for this lies in the milieu which is embodied there. Logic and the laws of cause and effect require a stable, orderly world to function. The world of the Russian pale at the close of the nineteenth century was a turbulent chaos of pogroms, revolution, wars, cholera epidemics, starvation, overcrowding, and perpetual hunger.

Except for the few years when he was able to be a patron of letters and to pay his fellow Yiddish writers well for their contributions to his annual, in which he attempted to establish a canon, Aleichem himself was continually in debt. His prodigious output was due to his need to provide for his many dependents. These pressures, the outward instability, and the haste in which he was forced to compose contributed to the absurdist, surrealistic situations he depicted. His plots, rather than moving from explication to complication to resolution, begin in complication and accumulate further complications with ever-increasing momentum to the pitch of madness and then abruptly stop without having been resolved; the story is simply interrupted. One can say that a typical Aleichem plot is a succession of calamities and misfortune, followed by disaster, followed by tragedy.

Aleichem’s reputation is nevertheless that of one of the world’s greatest humorists. In England, he was compared to Charles Dickens; in America, to Mark Twain. How could he fashion comedy from such dark materials? The answer lies in the authorial stratagems he evolved. He invented a persona, Sholom Aleichem, who is present not as a speaker but only as a listener, to whom others tell their stories. Thus, the act of speech itself is foregrounded, not the events that are related. The linguistic surface predominates. Its exuberance and charm, its wit, its pleasure in homely proverbs and folk wisdom, and its eccentric digressions shield the pain and provide a compensatory pleasure.

Tevye Stories

This Tevye stories quality is exemplified in the nine Tevye stories. The first published in 1894 and the last in 1914, they appeared separately over the period of twenty years. They have, however, enough structural similarity to be read as a family chronicle. What gives them their coherence is the voice of Tevye. Each episode begins with Tevye meeting Sholom Aleichem somewhere. After greeting him, he recapitulates what has happened to him since their last encounter and then relates his most recent catastrophe. Each story closes with farewells and the promise of more stories to come at future meetings.

The events related are a series of disasters: loss, early death, revolution, apostasy, suicide, pogroms, and exile. These are so successfully distanced by the mode of narration that they are perceived as comedy. It is Tevye’s humane, sardonic voice we hear, quarreling with God about how He runs the universe, using His Own Word against Him with such vigorous audacity and such mangling of the texts that one cannot help laughing. The monologue form focuses our attention on Tevye’s moral resiliency and on his defiant debate with an invisible antagonist. It subordinates the tragic fates of the seven dowryless daughters by keeping these at the periphery. In the foreground is the poor milkman who is their father, with his rickety wagon drawn by a starving horse, punctuating his speech with lines from the prayer book. For example, when he wishes to indicate that no more need be said on any subject, he announces: “Here ends the service for the first Sabbath before Passover.” It is his way of saying, “period.” He tells how Tzeitl has refused a match with the rich butcher, not because he is widowed and has several children her own age, but because she is already engaged, secretly, to a poor tailor. So she marries Motel and is...

(The entire section is 1673 words.)