Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, April 11, 2016

CHEKHOV: Rothschild’s Fiddle (Preview of Great Books)

Rothschild’s Fiddle may seem like an odd choice to begin a Great Books series covering the best works of Western civilization.  Nevertheless it’s the first reading in the first volume of the series.  Why would the editors start with this reading?  We can only guess but one reason may be that it touches on so many of the great themes covered in the set.  And Jacob the protagonist provides some good opening Great Books questions of his own.  He wonders “Why couldn’t a man live without all that loss and fuss… Why do people always do the wrong things… Why are people generally such a nuisance to each other?”  The Preacher in Ecclesiastes (GB5) pondered those same questions three thousand years ago and concluded “All is vanity.”  This pessimism isn’t limited to the ancient world.  Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) came to the same conclusion when he wrote that “death is the great opportunity to no longer to be I.”  (Indestructibility of Our Inner Nature, GB4)

This vision is too bleak for most people.  We want something a little more positive.  We want to go on living and, if possible, be happy, because as Aristotle wrote (On Happiness, GB1) “happiness is at once the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing.”  Jacob wasn’t able to find happiness in 19th century Russia.  Jews weren’t able to find happiness living in bondage in ancient Egypt either.  So the Lord said to Moses “Come now therefore and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt.” (Exodus GB2)  But it was hard for Jews to find happiness in 19th century Russia too because “For no obvious reason Jacob became more and more obsessed by hatred and contempt for Jews, and for Rothschild in particular.”  Jacob doesn’t understand his own hateful anti-Semitic views and at one point asks himself “what, oh what, was the point of scaring and insulting that Jew (Rothschild) just now?”  He has a change of heart and by the end of the story Jacob leaves Rothschild “that Jew” his beloved fiddle.

Jacob’s wife Martha also found it hard to find happiness in their little Russian village.  Living with a husband like Jacob made it nearly impossible for her to be happy.  Chaucer presents an interesting contrast of marriage in two of his Canterbury Tales (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and The Clerk’s Tale GB3).  The Wife of Bath wouldn’t have put up with Jacob for a single day.  She says “I didn’t give a hen for all his proverbs and his wise old men.  I wouldn’t be rebuked at any price; I hate a man who points me out my vice, and so, God knows, do many more than I.”  At the opposite end of the spectrum is Griselda in The Clerk’s Tale.  Griselda says “I for one was never worth, never in my life, to be your chambermaid, much less your wife.”  Martha resembled Griselda more than she resembled the Wife of Bath.  Of course Griselda’s husband was a marquis and Jacob was a poor coffin maker.  But in the Clerk’s Tale marriage isn’t supposed to be a constant battle of the sexes the way the Wife of Bath portrays it.  The Clerk says “O bow your neck under that blessed yoke!  It is a kingdom, not a slavery.”  Only after Martha dies does Jacob finally realize how tyrannical he had been as a husband.  He wasted his only chance for happiness because “never in his life had he been kind to Martha or shown her affection.”  
This story touches on happiness, the nature of marriage, and many other themes covered in the Great Books: money, government and bureaucracy, the role of the arts, death and taxes.  That’s a lot to pack into such a short story.  Americans today face these same problems and Rothschild’s Fiddle still seems fresh.  We’ll explore its main themes in future GB readings.


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