The setting of “Rothschild’s Fiddle” is a squalid little village where Yakov Ivanov, a Russian coffin maker, and Rothschild, an equally poor Jewish musician, both live. Yakov lives in a one-room hut, which contains his gloomy wares as well as his humble domestic possessions. Childless, the dour Yakov barely notices Martha, his downtrodden wife of fifty years. Yakov has an unexpected side to his character, for he is a gifted, if rude, violinist who is sometimes invited to join the local Jewish orchestra to play for weddings. Although the coffin maker needs the occasional money, he dislikes the Jewish musicians—especially the flutist Rothschild, who turns even the merriest songs into lugubrious plaints. Yakov abuses Rothschild and is once on the point of beating him. The quarrel ends Yakov’s association with the orchestra, apart from rare occasions when one of the Jews cannot perform.
Yakov sees his life as an endless succession of “losses.” Sundays and holidays when he cannot work represent losses; a wedding without music represents a loss; a rich man who inconsiderately dies and is buried out of town is another loss. Yakov keeps an account book of his losses, even calculating the interest he might have received on his lost opportunities. At night he arises from his sleepless bed and seeks relief by playing his violin.
One morning Martha feels ill but carries on with her chores while her husband plays his fiddle and gloomily calculates ever new and more distressing imaginary losses. That night the wife cries out that she is going to die. Her feverish face gives the impression that she looks forward to deliverance from her hard, loveless lot and Yakov’s endless “losses.” Horrified, the coffin maker takes her to a hospital, where the medical assistant shrugs her off as hopeless, refusing Yakov’s pleas that he bleed her as he would a rich patient. Realizing the worst, Yakov takes his wife’s measurements and begins work on a coffin, duly entering the loss in his account book—two rubles, forty kopecks. Before her death, the wife calls Yakov...
(The entire section is 851 words.)