Greed and Prejudice

Pushkin’s The Undertaker and Chekhov’s Rothschild’s Fiddle

Two very different stories with at least two common themes. I read these stories for the first time in university and they’ve stayed with me ever since, Pushkin’s story (one of the wonderful Belkin Tales) because of the humour and Chekhov’s story because of the melancholy.

If the undertakers that were created by Shakespeare and Walter Scott were jolly characters, the ones created by Pushkin and Chekhov were anything but. Always grumpy, suspicious and waiting for people to die; that sums up the Russian undertaker.

The Undertaker

The Undertaker* (1831) is about Adrian, an undertaker who has just moved from one area in Moscow to another with his daughters and his business. In the new area there are apparently a lot of German tradesmen. One of them invites Adrian and his daughters over for a party. The party is very jolly, Adrian drinks and eats, his daughters are above such behaviour, and there is one toast after another. The only Russian official at the party, a Finnish watchman called Yourko, suggests that Adrian make a toast to his clients, the dead. Adrian doesn’t think that’s funny at all and goes home in a bad mood. He vows that instead of inviting his new neighbors to a party as he had intended, he shall indeed invite his dead clients. The next day he gets a lucrative job and when he comes home in the evening, he finds a party going on in his house. All the corpses that were once his clients are there. They reproach Adrian for charging too much for the coffins and for ripping off their next of kin. When he wakes up the next day, he realises that he has been asleep since he came home drunk from the neighbor.

Rothschild’s Fiddle

In Rothschild’s Fiddle (1894) there’s a different kind of humour. A melancholic humour. The old undertaker Yakov lives in a small town full of old people who refuse to die. Yakov always counts his losses: people who die elsewhere, holidays when he can’t work, etc. The only thing that makes him happy and comforts him, is his violin. He sometimes gets asked to play in a Jewish wedding orchestra, but only in case of emergency, because he always argues with the Jews, especially with a certain Rothschild. One evening his wife gets ill and she dies the next day. Her sudden death slowly makes Yakov realise that his life has not been about material missed opportunities, but about the immaterial things that he missed out on because of his behaviour. In his own way he makes up with Rothschild and leaves him his violin when he dies.


Greed and prejudice

Both stories deal with misplaced xenophobia and greed. Adrian only seems to befriend his German neighbor because he expects free food and drink. At the party he is quick to make friends with the Finnish watchman, because he can be of use to him. But when they make a joke at his expense, they’re all heathens. While Adrian was sleeping and cursing his new friends, those same friends stop by his house to invite him again. We don’t know if Adrian has learned anything from his nightmare, but judging by the fact that he has tea as if nothing happened when he wakes up, I fear not.


Yakov does realise after the death of his wife and before his own, that he has always been wrong, that it was completely unnecessary to treat his wife and Rothschild badly. His wife is already dead, but he can still make up for it with Rothschild. He leaves Rothschild his most prized possession; his violin and something immaterial: a song. It’s a sad song that makes people cry, but they always ask Rothschild to play it again.


© Elisabeth van der Meer – text and photo (The Fiddler (1913) – by Chagall at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam)


*There’s a scene in the story where “Before the door of the house in which the deceased lay, the police had already taken their stand, and the trades-people were passing backwards and forwards, like ravens that smell a dead body”. Tolstoy apparently borrowed this scene for War and Peace, when Pierre’s father dies: “While he was getting down from the carriage steps two men, who looked like tradespeople, ran hurriedly from the entrance and hid in the shadow of the wall. Pausing for a moment, Pierre noticed several other men of the same kind hiding in the shadow of the house on both sides.”


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34 thoughts on “Greed and Prejudice

  1. Glad to have read this very fine summaries you have written, Lisabeth. They compensate somewhat for my ignorance of both tales; as usually happens when I stop by your blog 🙂 *Regards!!* 💐

    Liked by 1 person

  2. *Hugs* back from the mountains (under a heavy storm!) here, near the border between four nations (Catalunya-France-Andorra-Occitània :))

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a brilliant piece, Elisabeth. There is so much here, in a few words.

    “Her sudden death slowly makes Yakov realise that his life has not been about material missed opportunities, but about the immaterial things that he missed out on because of his behaviour”: What an insight! One that we can all learn and perhaps profit from.

    Rothschild’s fiddle for some reason made me think of the devil and the fiddle in Stravinsky’s L’historie du soldat.

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  4. Thank you so much, Roger! Yes, that is precisely what these stories are about, if you go about life being grumpy, materialistic and suspicious, you’ll miss out on opportunities to really connect with other people. I love that Yakov not only leaves Rothschild something material, a beautiful violin, but also something immaterial, a melancholy song.

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  5. I’ll have to look up Stravinsky’s L’historie du soldat, but it’s of course possible that there was inspiration from Chekhov’s story.

    Like

  6. A brilliant post, Elisabeth, thank you. So interesting to have these perspectives. And I agree with Roger about the Stravinsky tones. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I enjoy how you weave the two stories together. Brilliant. I recall your post on Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. I love this quote on time: “My dreams, my dreams! Wat has become of their sweetness? What indeed has become of my youth?” A wonderful reminder for us all that time is a diminishing currency…

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  8. Elisabeth —

    According to a Wikipedia entry

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%27Histoire_du_soldat

    Igor Stavinsky’s ‘Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) was conceived by Stravinsky and Swiss writer C. F. Ramuz based on a Russian folk tale (The Runaway Soldier and the Devil) drawn from the collection of Alexander Afanasyev. So I was misleading in a way, but I was only thinking of what the Chekhov story brought to mind. What brought it to mind is the character of the devil in the piece and how the devil tries to get the runaway soldier’s fiddle.

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  9. I have listened to it on YouTube, its very beautiful.
    Chekhov must have been familiar with that fairy tale as well, no doubt he was influenced by it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, Roger, as you know, I love to connect these little pieces:-)

    Like

  10. Beste Elisabeth,

    Tot voor kort kreeg ik uw mails ook in het Nederlands. Dat vond ik wel fijn. De Engelse versie stuur ik vaak door aan een Amerikaanse vriend van me. Toch vind ik het ook wel fijn de Nederlandse versie te ontvangen.

    Waar heeft u Russisch gestudeerd?

    Met vriendelijke groeten, Eva van Santen

    Like

  11. Beste Eva,

    Ik vind erg leuk om te horen dat je mijn blogposts leest en zelfs doorstuurt naar een Amerikaanse vriend! De overgrote meerderheid van mijn lezers is tot mijn grote verassing Amerikaans. In eerste instantie schreef ik ook in het Engels zodat mijn Finse partner en andere niet-Nederlandse vrienden mijn blog konden lezen. Maar na een paar jaar heb ik besloten het op te splitsen in twee aparte blogs, om het leesgemak voor de buitenlandse en Nederlandse lezers te vergroten. De Nederlandse versie heet eenrussischeaffaire.wordpress.com. Ik moet toegeven dat ik niet altijd tijd maak om ook een Nederlandse versie te maken, dus de blogs zijn niet helemaal hetzelfde. In de nabije toekomst verwacht ik meer tijd daarvoor te hebben.
    Ik heb Russisch gestudeerd aan de UVA, ik heb mijn studie niet afgemaakt, maar de liefde voor Russische literatuur is gebleven en ik schrijf er met heel veel plezier over.

    Met vriendelijke groet,

    Elisabeth van der Meer

    Liked by 1 person

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