Fiddler on the Roof Summary

Joseph Stein

Fiddler on the Roof

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Fiddler on the Roof Summary

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Joseph Stein won best book of a musical for Fiddler on the Roof (1964), which went on to win nine Tony’s. It was adapted into a popular film in 1971, and continues to run on Broadway, as well as in local theater communities around the world. Fiddler on the Roof is based on the short stories of Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem who wrote Tevye the Dairyman from 1894 to 1914. There are several contrasts between the musical and original source. Unlike the musical, in the short stories, the protagonist’s wife dies, he is separated from all his daughters, and there are no cordial Russian officials.

Set in 1905 Russia, the story follows a milk merchant whose daughters marry outside of traditional mores, and the eventual expulsion of Jews from certain provinces in Imperial Russia. Themes include self-determination, ethnic discrimination, loyalty to family, and romantic love.

Tevye, an affable, if rotund and conservative, man is committed to maintaining his Jewish traditions even as the Russian Tzar increasingly discriminates against Jews. He sees his five daughters as batons to carry on the tradition he grew up with.

The play opens with Tevye explaining the workings of provincial life in Anatevka (modern Ukraine). He feels that survival is as uncertain as the ledge on which an idiosyncratic man plays a fiddle around town (this man is the fiddler on the roof).

Tevye goes home to see everyone preparing for the Sabbath dinner. Golde, his caustic, but loving, wife orders his five daughters around the house. Their names are Tzeitel, Hodel, Chava, Shprintze, and Bielke.

The village matchmaker, Yente, visits the house to inform them all that a wealthy butcher named Lazar Wolf wants to marry the eldest daughter, Tzeitel. All of the women are thrilled but Tzeitel; she wants to marry Motel the Tailor, who is her childhood friend and current amour.

Tevye, who has to wheel his milkcart himself after his horse goes lame, launches into the famous song, “If I Were a Rich Man.”

In town, Avram, the bookseller, tells everyone about forced expulsions of Jews around Russia. Some people take him seriously, some do not, and a stranger to the town, Perchik, scolds them for gossiping about the world rather than acting to change it. Most of the men call Perchik a radical and ignore him, but Tevye likes his education, and invites him to his house for the Sabbath; he offers to give him room and board if Perchik will tutor his two youngest daughters.

Knowing that Tevye dislikes Lazar Wolf, Goldie tells Tevye to meet the butcher after Sabbath; she does not say what for. Tzeitel tells Motel about the match and pleas with him to ask Tevye for her hand. But Motel is afraid. He is poor and fears Tevye’s infamous temper; he tells Tzeitel he will ask once he has enough money for a sewing machine so he can support her as his wife.

After thinking that Lazar Wolf wanted to buy a cow, Tevye agrees that Lazar should marry Tzeitel. On the way home, a Russian constable, who is sympathetic towards Jews, says there will be a riot in the coming weeks to scare the Jewish population.

Perchik and Hodel, the second eldest daughter, flirt over Marxist interpretations of the Bible and start to fall in love.

Hungover, Tevye announces that Tzeitel will marry Lazar Wolf. Golde claps her hands in joy, but Tzeitel falls on her knees to entreat her father not to make her marry him. Motel appears to ask for Tzeitel’s hand, saying they already pledged to wed each other despite his permission. Tevye is initially outraged at this breaking of tradition, but eventually consents.

Tevye breaks the news to Goldie by pretending to wake up from a nightmare where Lazar Wolf’s dead wife, Fruma-Sarah, says she will kill Tzeitel within three weeks of the marriage. A spooked Goldie tells Tevye that Motel is the better match.

Chava, the third daughter and big reader, meets Fyedka, a Christian youth who stands up for her against some other Russians and loans her a book.

Tzeitel and Motel are married, but the wedding is anything but peaceful: Lazar yells at Tevye for breaking his promise, Perchik crosses a line to dance with Hodel, and the wedding ends when Russian vandals destroy the wedding gifts and wound Perchik, who tries to fight back. In the defeated silence, Tevye tells everyone to clean up the mess.

Act two beings months later. Perchik plans to go to Kiev to join the revolution, but first proposes to Hodel. The two tell Tevye they are engaged. As with Tzeitel and Motel, Tevye is flabbergasted at first, but eventually gives them his blessing and permission.

When Tevye explains to Golde that they married for love, she is perturbed and confused. He asks her if she has loved him through their twenty-five-year arranged marriage; she admits that she does and has.

Hodel hears that Perchik has been exiled to Siberia, and she bids farewell to her family, saying she must be with him. Motel eventually buys his sewing machine, and Tzeitel gives birth.

Chava asks Tevye if she may marry Fyedka. He decides that marrying outside the Jewish faith is impossible and he will not allow it. Goldie soon hears that Chava and Fyedka have eloped. Eventually, Chava returns to reason with her father, but Tevye ignores her and tells all of his family to think of her as dead.

One day, the Constable announces in the village square that they all have three days to leave town on order of the Tzar. The villagers are shocked that they have to leave the land they’ve called home for so long.

Chava and Fyedka, Motel and Tzeitel travel to Poland. Tevye, Golde and their two youngest daughters leave for America. The fiddler begins to play, and Tevye waves to him to follow them all out of Anatevka.