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The Devil's Arithmetic

by Jane Yolen

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What are the character traits of the main characters in The Devil's Arithmetic (Hannah/Chaya, Rivka, Shmuel, Gitl, and others)?

The character traits of the main characters in The Devil’s Arithmetic are as follows. Hannah, the main character, is initially pampered, unconcerned about her faith, and unaware of her heritage, but as Chaya, she becomes self-sacrificing, caring, and strong. Rivka is kind, clever, and gentle. Shmuel is brave, heroic, and faithful, and Gitl is tough, smart, and helpful. Fayge is spoiled and entitled but devoted to Shmuel.

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The Devil's Arithmetic begins with Hannah and her mother and then quickly introduces Hannah's brother and father as well. Hannah's mother is concerned with the preservation of their Jewish traditions, as is Hannah's father; Hannah's little brother, Aaron, is nervous about the role he must play in the Seder. Hannah is entitled and self-absorbed, not wanting to participate or even remember her own family's history and traditions or the people who were lost in the Holocaust. She grows and changes throughout the story after being transported into the past and to Poland.

Once in 1942, Hannah takes on the identity of Chaya, one of her relatives. As Chaya, she experiences the Holocaust firsthand, and through her ordeal, she finds her own inner strength. During her incarceration in a Nazi concentration camp, she relies on her talent for storytelling to comfort herself and others. She learns the meaning of loss and self-sacrifice and experiences the suffering of her family members, so when she reemerges into her own time at the close of the novel, she has an in-depth understanding of the past.

Rivka, a young girl Chaya meets in the camp, is strong and tough. The evening Chaya meets her, Rivka gives a speech:

I play the man's game. I play the Devil's game. I play God's game. And so I stay alive. Alive I can help you. Dead I am no help to you at all.

Rivka has lost six out of eight members of her family, and yet she takes strength from her survival. Even though she is young, she has wisdom beyond her years, and it is her tutelage that provides the groundwork for Chaya’s survival in the camp.

Shmuel, Chaya's uncle, enters the narrative by describing himself:

I have all my teeth and all my hair, two fine workhorses, a four-room house, and twenty acres of land beside. I work hard and I do not smell all that bad.

Shmuel is lighthearted and brave and provides a bit of levity in what becomes a very dark story. He is also faithful in his devotion to his family and his undying love of Fayge, his fiancée.

As the daughter of a rabbi, Fayge is entitled, and she wants nothing more than to be happily married to Shmuel. The fact that she is more concerned over her wedding dress and her spoiled wedding than she is over the threat of death shows her initially shallow character. She remains static throughout the novel and does not grow or change—she is only focused on being with Shmuel and goes to her death by flinging herself at his feet during his execution.

Gitl, Shmuel's sister, is hard-nosed and fierce in her love of family and her desire to survive. She is a fighter through and through. She is one of the only survivors of the camp, and her survival is mainly due to her tenacity and a bit of good luck.

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Hannah is a spoiled Jewish girl with no sense...

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of her own religion. She is self-centered and dislikes many of her family members. Her world abruptly changes when she whisked back in time to experience the Holocaust.

Chaya is the alter ego of Hannah. If not for her, Hannah would remain clueless about her religion and the past. Though she at first is confused about the transition between the future and the past, she soon becomes a strong, caring person. Her sacrifice in the place of Rivka showed her strength. The story-telling at which she excelled entertained the girls in the face of a bleak existence.

Rivka is the most courageous of the characters remaining kind where Gitl is angry and brittle. Rivka helps the newcomers and deals with the Nazis on their terms. Her kindness saved many lives and eased the sufferings of others. She is the one to remind others to keep the memories to share with the future generations. She is strong both mentally and physically to survive the nightmarish concentration camp.

Shmuel is a kind-hearted, loving, generous man whose death at the hands of the Nazis after his escape attempt shows his bravery. He helps Hannah adjust to her new life as Chaya. His love for Fayge never dies as he holds her in his arms at their execution.

Gitl has a hard exterior and a no-nonsense demeanor. They serve her well in the concentration camp. She fights for what she needs and has a sharp tongue for those who do not do things as they should. Beneath her grumpy exterior of "The Bear" she loves Chaya and helps her adjust to camp life. She is distraught at the death of the little girl Tizpporah who was the daughter of her suitor.

Fayge is a spoiled-little-rich girl in the sense that her father was the rabbi in the village. Though not rich by our standards, she expects things to be of a certain standard for her wedding, which never occurs. She refuses to marry Shmuel without a proper ceremony until she is killed with him. The fact that she survives at all until then is surprising.

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