The Story 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 to her bedside and asks whether he remembers the baby with curly golden hair that God had given them fifty years before. The couple would take the child down to the river bank, sit under the willow, and sing.
Yakov has no recollection of the dead child or the willow. That night, Martha dies, and Yakov arranges a miserly funeral, admiring the coffin as he takes final leave of his wife. Yakov, feeling unwell as he walks home from the cemetery, reflects on his lifelong neglect of his wife in spite of her uncomplaining labor and help. At this point, a nervously bowing and scraping Rothschild approaches with a message from the Jewish orchestra leader, inviting Yakov to play for a wedding. The coffin maker once again abuses and threatens the cowering flute player, who flees pursued by a horde of small boys screaming “Jew, Jew! Yakov now walks down by the river for the first time in many years, where he, too, is heckled by the village boys who address him by his nickname, “Old Man Bronze. ” Suddenly he comes on the willow and recalls the dead child. Yakov now falls into regretful reflection of his lost opportunities. Nothing waits ahead of him, and there are only losses behind. Now, however, Yakov’s distress over his losses takes a new turn: “Why shouldn’t men live so as to avoid all this waste and these losses? ” He belatedly regrets his harsh treatment of his wife and the Jew: “If it were not for envy and anger [men] would get great profit from one another. In the morning, seriously ill, Yakov returns to the “doctor. ” As the sick man walks home, he bitterly thinks that after his death he will “no longer have to eat and drink and pay taxes, neither would he offend people any more, and, as a man lies in his grave for hundreds of thousands of years, the sum of his profits would be immense. ” He concludes that life is a loss; death, a profit. Yakov is not sorry to die but regrets leaving behind his violin. At home he sits on the threshold and plays his violin with tears streaming down his face.
Once again, a quivering Rothschild approaches Yakov on behalf of the orchestra director. This time, however, the Jew is greeted kindly. Yakov tells him that he is ill and continues to play. So plaintive is his song that Rothschild also begins to weep as he leaves. Later that day, when the village priest asks the dying man if there is any particular sin of which he wishes to repent, Yakov asks that his violin be given to Rothschild. Time passes, and the townsfolk begin to wonder where Rothschild obtained the violin that he now plays instead of the flute.
An even greater mystery is the source of the song he plays, which is so entrancingly sorrowful that wealthy merchants vie in having him come to their homes to play it over and over again. Themes and Meanings Anton Chekhov’s major theme in this, as in many others of his works, is the isolation of the individual within himself and his often vain attempts to break out of his shell and establish meaningful contact with others. Yakov’s anti-Semitism is but a particular example of this more general malaise.
Yakov finally succeeds in reaching out to others and does so in the form of his music: first to his archenemy Rothschild through his death song and the gift of his violin, and then through Rothschild, who brings Yakov’s harrowing melody to many others. Art is the means by which the two men, both deeply unattractive characters, surmount their isolation and manifest their shared humanity. The theme of Yakov’s losses is also important. “Losses” is the most frequently used word in the story, and through repetition it assumes symbolic meaning, referring to far more than Yakov’s hypothetical financial setbacks.
He is obsessed with his so-called losses. They have poisoned his life, and he has lost the capacity for love and simple pleasures (apart from his music). In fact, the death of his wife is the sole real loss that Yakov suffers, and it is only with this that he begins to reflect on his profitless, ill-spent life and his ill-treatment of his wife and Rothschild. This realization, especially in the face of his own imminent death, leads to his remorse and his final haunting melody. The final irony is that it is the Jew Rothschild rather than Yakov himself who profits and recoups the coffin maker’s “losses. Style and Technique The story is told by an omniscient narrator the year after Yakov’s death. Its formal structure is tripartite: the brief introduction that establishes the setting and the hero; the story itself, that is, the relationship between Yakov and Rothschild and the deaths of the wife and husband; and the ironic, bittersweet ending in which Rothschild plays Yakov’s song. As in many Chekhov stories, a key event (Yakov’s interaction with Rothschild) is repeated three times. The first two encounters are hostile, while the third depicts a reversal of the earlier ones.
The last carries the story’s message—the breaking down of the isolation of the two men through art and the establishment of their shared humanity. The narrative technique through which Chekhov makes his thematic statement should be noticed. Superficially, Yakov and Rothschild seem very different: The coffin maker is big, strong, and aggressive, while Rothschild is gaunt, frail, and cowering; Yakov prefers merry songs, Rothschild, mournful ones; the Christian Yakov despises Rothschild the Jew. The narrative, however, poses a series of parallels that point to their essential sameness.
Yakov is obsequious to the “educated” medical assistant, just as Rothschild is to Yakov. Also noteworthy are the parallel scenes in which the Jew fleeing from Yakov’s fists is jeered by the village boys, who moments later jeer the bereaved Yakov. Both are “outsiders. ” The most important parallel scene, the one demonstrating their common humanity, is that in which the two men cry together as Yakov improvises his own death dirge. This evolving pattern ends in the identification of the former enemies, each of whom had lived in his own profitless prison of the self.
Chekhov’s language is sometimes considered rather “flat,” a feature of much realistic prose. On close inspection, however, Chekhov’s language is not, in fact, “realistic” but rather evocative and impressionistic. The reader comes to know characters and their lives not through accumulated description but through the carefully chosen, evocative detail that suggests far more than it says. Similarly, the carefully elaborated formal structure contributes to the reader’s sense of a meaning that goes far beyond the limits of the brief tale.