"Pride and Prejudice" and "Fiddler on the Roof"
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March 29, 2010, 05:45 AM
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Have you ever noticed how the musical Fiddler of the Roof has the same basic set-up as Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice: man has five unmarried daughters without doweries? Fiddler is Pride, with Elizabeth's father Mr. Bennett turned into the main character, Tevye.

Over the last decade, Pride and Prejudice has become the most cited literary work for illustrating evolutionary psychology. It seems to me that Fiddler could serve a similar role, perhaps an even broader one extending beyond the rather narrow limits set by evolutionary psychology. Having recently watched a high school production of Fiddler, I was surprised by how so much of the plot and dialogue revolves around the kind of human sciences questions that interest me. Yuri Slezkine's The Jewish Century uses Sholem Aleichem’s source material Tevye stories as a central metaphor, and I suspect that many other theories could find something colorful and well-known in Fiddler to use as examples.

I mentioned this recently, and an anthropologist friend replied:

Some thoughts on Pride and Prejudice and Fiddler on the Roof:

On the one hand, comparing the two shows how traditional Eurasian societies are broadly similar in some respects, compared to societies in Africa or New Guinea, say. Having lots of daughters in Africa or New Guinea isn’t really a problem: you might be worried about not having sons around to protect the family, and carry on the patrilineage, but marrying off daughters is hardly a problem. In polygynous settings, women are in short supply, and daughters are often welcome as a source of bridewealth. By contrast. in Eurasia, where polygyny is not very frequent, finding a “single man in possession of a good fortune” for a daughter (let alone five daughters) is a real problem. (The alternatives – having them marry a man with no prospects, or become a rich man’s mistress or a prostitute, are pretty unsatisfactory). Some Eurasian societies – classical Greece and Rome, India, and China – dealt with the problem ruthlessly by killing baby girls. But this is (officially) not allowed for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

On the other hand, the big difference between P&P and FotR (apart from social class) is that marriage in the latter case was arranged. Arguably this is one area where Christianity made a difference (ref below). The guys who adapted Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories as a musical and movie were Americans, and probably shaded things somewhat in a pro-marriage-choice direction, compared to the original. They even make Mr. Tradition unbend just a little at the end about his third daughter’s intermarriage (in the movie at least; I haven’t seen the stage musical). In the original stories, she’s socially dead, never seen again.

One note about love marriages versus arranged: societies with love marriages have a greater frequency and importance of dances (ref below). This shows up in both cases: Austen’s young ladies are constantly looking forward to the next ball, which is a major arena for mate choice. And Tevye (at least in the movie) shows a shocking progressive streak by actually dancing with his wife. The lines of guys dancing with guys, women with women, that you see in the earlier part of the movie, before Tevye mixes it up, is what you generally get in societies with arranged marriages. Something for all you h-bd-ers to think about as you try and figure out which folk-dancing class to take.


Unilineal Descent Organization and Deep Christianization: A Cross-Cultural Comparison Andrey V. Korotayev Cross-Cultural Research, Vol. 37, No. 1, 133-157 (2003)

Courtship Patterns Associated with Freedom of Choice of Spouse Paul C. Rosenblatt and Paul C. Cozby Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Nov., 1972), pp. 689-695