illustration of main character Hannah opening a door which leads to a barbed wire fence

The Devil's Arithmetic

by Jane Yolen

Start Free Trial

What are some allusions in The Devil's Arithmetic?

Some allusions in The Devil's Arithmetic include the title. "Arithmetic" alludes to the numbers tattooed on prisoners' arms. "Devil" is an allusion to the Nazis. Hannah's creating a tattoo on her arm is an allusion to her becoming Chaya in the dream. Her Hebrew name Chaya is an allusion to life and the survival of the Jewish people despite the Nazis efforts to eradicate them.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Some allusions in The Devil's Arithmetic include one that is introduced in the very title of the book and is repeated throughout the story. It is the allusion to the Nazi’s arithmetic—or systematic extinguishment of the Jewish people. The Nazis try to strip people of their individuality and humanity and convert them to numbers tattooed on their arms. Hence the word "Arithmetic" in the book's title. The "Devil" in the title is an allusion to the Nazis.

This allusion is repeated in several places. The first time is when Hannah recalls something that occurred years earlier with Grandpa Will who has "strange fits, showing off the tattoo on his left arm and screaming in both English and Yiddish." When Hannah uses a ballpoint pen to create a tattoo on her own arm, it is also an allusion to the dream when Hannah becomes Chaya. Not surprisingly, Hannah's tattoo causes Grandpa Will much pain as he recollects his experiences in the death camps.

At the family seder, Grandpa Will's comment about what his sister Eva "would have given for a little glass of watered wine" is an allusion to the terrible conditions the Jews endured in the camps. The Nazis starved them, and they were constantly hungry and thirsty.

In the dream sequence, when Hannah/Chaya meets Fayge, Fayge says,

We are going to be such friends, you and I. Best friends. Life will be good to us forever and ever, I know.

Sadly, this is an allusion to the horrors about to come very shortly. The reader understands that life is not going to be good to them at all. Once they see the Nazis at the shul, the phrase "malach ha-mavis" is repeated, the Angel of Death.

Another important allusion is that of Hannah's Hebrew name: Chaya, life. At the camp, Gitl tells her:

You are a name, not a number. Never forget that name, whatever they tell you here. You will always be Chaya—life—to me. You are my brother's child. You are my blood.

Despite the intention of the Nazis to wipe out her people and the Angel of Death or malach ha-mavis, another allusion used throughout the book, Hannah is alive and represents their continuity. Life is something that she must remember when she remembers the six million. There are allusions to this throughout the book.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

An allusion is a casual reference to a well-known place,story, book, historical event or work of art.  There are many literary and Biblical allusions in The Devil's Arithmetic.

When Hannah first meets Rachel and the girls at the wedding, she tells them stories  and totally entertains them.  The stories she tells them are current day movies, stories, and books. 

"Stories seems to tumble out of Hannah's mouth, reruns of all the movies and  books she could think of.  She told the girls about Yentl and then about Conan the Barbarian with equal vigor; about Star Wars, which confused them; and Fiddler on the Roof , which did not.  She told them...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

the plot ofLittle Women in ten minutes, a miracle of compression, especially since her book report had been seven typed pages." (pg 50)

These are literary allusions since they are about movies and books.  Jane Yolan is alluding to literary works that she feels the reader will know and make a connection.  Another literary allusion is

"'So let me tell you about the Wizard of Oz' she said.  She couldn't remember which was the movie and which was the book.  Shrugging her shoulders. she began a strange mixture of the two, speeding along until the line 'Gosh, Toto, this sure doesn't look like Kansas." (pg 51)

This makes a literary allusion by not only giving the title of the book and movie but also by giving a famous, well-known line from the story.

An illusion that comes from Jewish mythology and deals with God is the story of Lilith's Cave.  According to mythology, when God first made man and woman, he made Adam and Lilith.  Adam wanted to govern Lilith, and she rebelled, leaving Adam and taking residence with the demons. She told the angel that God sent to get her that she was going to kill all the children. The entrance to the gas chambers was called "Lilith's Cave" in the book as an allusion to this myth. God then made Eve for Adam.  Fayge tells Hannah,

"Your words will fly up to heaven and call down the Angel of Death, Lilith's bridegroom, with his poisoned sword." (pg 67)

When Reuven is taken to the gas chamber, Hannah gets upset and feels that all humans are monsters for letting the Holocaust happen, Rivka tells her,

"God is letting it happen....But there is a reason.  We cannot see it yet.  Like the binding of Issac." (pg 142)

This is a Biblical allusion to the story of Abraham and Issac.  God told Abraham to sacrifice his only son to him, and Abraham went as far as binding his son to the sacrificial altar until an Angel of God stops him.  God had a reason for his request, and Rivka believes that God has a reason for what is happening to them. Rivka also says,

"You want to be a hero, like Joshua at Jericho, like Samson against the Philistines." (pg  142)

Again, these are Biblical allusions. Joshua, following God's orders, destroyed the city of Jericho and led his people into the Promised Land.  Samson, to whom God had given unbelievable strength, was betrayed by Delilah and captured by the Philistines, who cut out his eyes and made him work for them.  He pulled down the pillars around the Philistines, killing them and himself.

Finally, there is an allusion to a Yiddish proverb.  I do not know what it means, but it says,

"Afile brenen un bruin.... even if you should be burned and roasted.  Here that is not a proverb to be spoken aloud." (pg 143)

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are some examples of the devil's arithmetic in "The Devil's Arithmetic"?

Certainly it is fascinating question to think about why any novel was given the name that it bears. There are two places in the novel that refer directly to the "devil's arithmetic" which explore why this concept is so important to the novel as a whole. Firstly, at the beginning of Chapter 16, Hannah/Chaya comments on her life in camp, talking about how each day that she remains alive is a cause for triumph:

Part of her revolted against the insanity of the rules. Part of her was grateful. In a world of chaos, any guidelines helped. And she knew that each day she remained alive, she remained alive. One plus one plus one. The Devil's arithmetic, Gitl called it.

Note how the title here is used to reinforce the desperate battle for survival that the Jews were engaged in, where every single day that they survived was a battle won and success.

In Chapter 17, the devil's arithmetic is given a different meaning as Hannah/Chaya desperately awaits for news of the escape plan from Gitl:

The days' routines were as before, the only change being the constant redness of the sky as train-loads of nameless zugangi were shipped along the rails of death. Still the camp seemed curiously lightened because of it, as if everyone knew that as long as others were processed, they would not be. A simple bit of mathematics, like subtraction, where one taken away from the top line becomes one added on to the bottom. The Devil's arithmetic.

Note here how the survival this phrase refers to explores how the deaths of the nameless Jews means life for the Jews working in the camp. It seems harsh that the Jews in the camp are able to be "lighthearted" for such a reason, and yet we must remember that the holocaust was an exceptional situation where the desperate struggle for survival changed the order of ethics and morals.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on