I compared Fiddler on the Roof and Pride and Prejudice a little while back, and I found them to be surprisingly similar in their stories and characters. Two characters, in particular, kept coming to my mind and I decided that they deserve special attention. The characters are the fathers of their respective families: Tevye and Mr. Bennet.
Tevye wishes he was rich. He spends so much time yearning for what he doesn’t have that he misses the fact that he is so happy simply being a poor milkman. Mr. Bennet has everything that Tevye dreams of. He is fabulously wealthy, he never has to work for his money, and he can live in comfort all his days. And yet he is hopelessly miserable. It turns out that Tevye would be better off where he is and he shouldn’t bother envying the rich because money wouldn’t solve his problems.
There’s a whole song dedicated to Tevye’s wish to be wealthy, “If I Were a Rich Man.” And I’m going to go through it basically line by line and show how everything Tevye wants, Mr. Bennet has received and it hasn’t made him happy at all. At the start, Tevye asks “What would have been so terrible if I had a small fortune?” I’m here to explain exactly how terrible it would have been.
And there might just be a lesson in this for all of us.
I’ll share the lyrics of the song in italics and then give my commentary on each verse beneath them.
All Play and No Work
If I were a rich man,
All day long I’d biddy-biddy-bum
If I were a wealthy man.
I wouldn’t have to work hard.
If I were a biddy, biddy rich,
Daidle deedle daidle daidle man.
Tevye believes he’ll hardly have to lift a finger if he gets rich, and that will make him happy.
Mr. Bennet failed to fill the void in his life that was left from not having any hard work to do. Thus, he just idles away his time, and the only joy (if you can call it that) that he gets out of life is from mocking people’s stupid choices and character flaws.
Staircase to Nowhere
I’d build a big tall house with rooms by the dozen
Right in the middle of the town.
A fine tin roof with real wooden floors below.
There would be one long staircase just going up
And one even longer coming down
And one more leading nowhere, just for show.
Ah, dreaming of building one’s dream house is fun. But the impracticality of bringing such a structure into existence is clearly demonstrated by Tevye’s desire to have three staircases, each more outlandish than the last and the final one comically serving no purpose except to show off his massive wealth.
Mr. Bennet owns the impressive estate called Longbourn. But despite its stately appearance and extravagant comforts, it pales in comparison to other estates, especially Rosings and Pemberley. If a person wants to have the biggest and best house possible, they’ll almost certainly resent those who have something better than they have. Also, Longbourn is entailed away to Mr. Bennet’s cousin, Mr. Collins. So as soon as Mr. Bennet dies his wife and daughters will be forced out of their home to make way for its new owner. Mr. Bennet’s home won’t be in his immediate family much longer, and he won’t leave behind much of a legacy when he passes on.
I’d fill my yard with chicks and turkeys and geese
And ducks for the town to see and hear,
Squawking just as noisily as they can,
And each loud, “Pa-pa-geeee! Pa-pa-gaack! Pa-pa-geeee! Pa-pa-gaack!”
Would land like a trumpet on the ear,
As if to say, “Here lives a wealthy man.”
Actually, I don’t have anything negative to say about this one. Mr. Bennet takes a bit of pride in the pheasants on his property, which he encourages one of his future sons-in-law to shoot with him. It’s certainly not a bad thing to invest in things with growth potential. It might not be particularly glamorous, but wise investments are the way you increase your wealth and stay rich.
Useless Wife, Useless Life
I see my wife, my Golde, looking like a rich man’s wife
With a proper double chin,
Supervising meals to her heart’s delight.
I see her putting on airs and strutting like a peacock.
Oh, what a happy mood she’s in,
Screaming at her servants day and night.
Tevye didn’t even know his wife before he married her. It was an arranged marriage. But, as he later learns, they both grew to love each other, despite their seemingly antithetical personalities.
Mr. Bennet, on the other hand, married a pretty face, and he soon learned to regret it. His wife is a simpleton, and she has nothing in common with her husband. He’s resigned to his fate of an unhappy marriage. He teases her constantly and can’t help but laugh at her ridiculousness as she screams at her servants to prepare for the approach of potential suitors.
The most important men in town will come to fawn on me
They will ask me to advise them like a Solomon the Wise.
“If you please, Reb Tevye?” “Pardon me, Reb Tevye?”
Posing problems that would cross a rabbi’s eyes.
And it won’t make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong.
When you’re rich they think you really know.
Tevye thinks that money will make him wise, but he is confusing the effect with the cause. Wealth is caused by intelligence. That’s why people who win the lottery usually don’t remain rich for long. Wealth without the work required to obtain it is a curse, not a blessing. Anyway, Tevye thinks his newfound wisdom will endow him with the power to solve everyone else’s problems.
No one goes to Mr. Bennet looking for advice. Elizabeth offers advice to her father once, but he doesn’t listen to her, to his eternal shame. Even when he adamantly puts his foot down and decrees that his disgraced daughter and son-in-law will never set foot in his house again, he eventually pulls a one-eighty and lets them visit. He’s frequently wrong in his assessments, and so his two intelligent daughters don’t go to him for advice. They only speak plainly to each other about their thoughts and feelings. Mr. Bennet has effectively alienated himself from even those who should be closest to him by believing himself to be above everyone else.
If I were rich I’d have the time that I lack
To sit in the synagogue and pray,
And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall,
And I’d discuss the Holy Books with the learned men
Seven hours every day,
And that would be the sweetest thing of all.
Tevye sure does think sitting down surrounded by tomes of books and wise men is the life. Of course, he’s speaking to God, so he says he would spend a lot of his time praying in a synagogue.
Mr. Bennet is a church-going man, but he’s not terribly devout in his belief. And he spends the majority of his time sitting in his study reading books. But it’s obvious that his study and books are an escape from his dreary life, not an uplifting addition to an already-meaningful existence.
Spoiled Men Spoil Eternal Plans
Lord who made the lion and the lamb,
You decreed I should be what I am.
Would it spoil some vast, eternal plan
If I were a wealthy man?
The answer is yes, Tevye. It most certainly would. Unearned wealth leads to misery. God does not throw down money from heaven on anyone who asks for it. It takes discipline and hard work to become rich, and then it takes even more discipline and hard work to maintain a fortune.
Mr. Bennet had everything handed to him on a silver platter and look how he ended up. Unhappy, but hopeful that his daughters will avoid his fate. Tevye, on the other hand, is born into poverty and at the end of the film he loses his home and many of his possessions. But he still has his loving family, his traditions, and the promise of the rags-to-riches American dream to look forward to. Not bad for a poor milkman.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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