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

The Devil's Arithmetic

by Jane Yolen
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What do the characters look like in The Devil's Arithmetic?

In The Devil's Arithmetic, Hannah is described as beautiful but considers herself plain with her mousy brown hair and braces. Gitl looks like she clearly works hard, while Shmuel has thick black hair and a beard. Yitzchak has red hair and a beard, and his children, Reuven and Tzipporah, both have blond hair. Fayge, Shmuel's bride-to-be, is described as being movie-star gorgeous. Rivka is "plain-faced" and friendly with brown eyes.

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In this poignant novel, Yolen describes her characters' physical appearance in specific, concrete detail. I would argue that this is to help us picture them, feel that we know them, and empathize with their suffering.

Hannah is described by her Aunt Rose as a "beautiful young lady." Hannah personally disagrees with this description, as she has plain brown hair and wears braces on her teeth. When Hannah first gets taken back in time, she clearly has a frail appearance, and Chaya, as she becomes known, is described by Gitl as a "grave little whimpering bird."

Her brother, Aaron, is described as having fair hair, and Hannah points out that he has a great smile and will certainly not need braces.

When Hannah is transported back in time, she meets Gitl, who is described as a woman who clearly works hard. She is wearing "a smudged apron" and has flour on her arms. The second person she meets is Gitl's brother, Shmuel. The first thing Chaya notices is that he has "a thick black beard and a full head of black hair." She also notices that he has great boots. We learn that Shmuel has a genuine smile and bright blue eyes.

When someone knocks at the door door just as Chaya sits down to breakfast, she is hoping it's someone from her old life, when she was Hannah. However, it is Yitzchak the butcher, who is described as being broad-shouldered, with red hair and, like Shmuel, a thick beard.

The next people we meet are Yitzchak's children, Reuven and Tzipporah. They are described as having blond hair and being "no more than three or four years old."

Chaya then meets a group of girls around her age: Rachel, Shifre, Esther, and Yente. The first thing Chaya notices about Rachel is her "great, startled green eyes." Shifre is described as having a pale complexion, freckles, and exceptionally pale eyelashes that "made her eyes look shifty." Esther is a larger girl with rosy cheeks, while Yente is described as having a sharp chin and nose that create a "ferrety face."

Gitl introduces Chaya to her aunt-to-be, Fayge. Chaya is blown away by her beauty, describing her as looking "like a movie star." She has jet-black hair and a "strong nose" and is wearing plenty of gold jewelry.

The final character I will mention is Rivka, who is handing out bowls at the barracks on Chaya's first morning there. She is described as "plain-faced" and friendly, with her helpful advice being arguably the most memorable thing about her. She has a "broad forehead" and "deep-set brown eyes."

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