The Devil's Arithmetic Summary and Analysis
by Jane Yolen
Chapters 1 to 3
Hannah Stern is on her way from New Rochelle, New York to see her grandparents for Passover Seder in the Bronx with her mother, father, and brother Aaron. Hannah complains that she does not want to go. Her Mother reminds her that it is Passover. Hannah continues to complain that she does not want to go to her grandparents’ home. She is sure that she and Aaron will be the only children there and all the adults will only joke in Yiddish and tell them how much they've grown.
Hannah’s mother tries to reason with her, telling her that Passover is about more than just eating. She reminds Hannah that both Grandma Belle and Grandpa Will lost most of their families to the Nazis. Family is very important to them.
Aaron begins to complain that he is feeling sick. He does not want to go either. He is supposed to recite the Four Questions from the Haggadah and feels nervous. Hannah tells him that it isn't that hard and that she will help him if he forgets. She then begins tickling him mercilessly, for which her parents admonish her.
As they arrive they are greeted by Aunt Rose who comments on how beautiful Hannah has grown. She kisses Hannah, leaving a smear of lipstick. Hannah escapes to the bathroom and tries to remove the lipstick but is unsuccessful. She feels guilty for trying to remove it, since Aunt Rose is her favorite aunt. She is even named after one of Aunt Rose's deceased friends. Hannah leaves the bathroom dreading to see who else she will run into at her grandparents’ house.
Hannah enters the living room but no one in the family notices. They are gathered around Grandpa Will, who is seated in front of the television. He raises and waves his fist at the TV, which displays images of the Nazi regime and concentration camp victims. He has rolled up his sleeve on his left arm, revealing a number tattooed on it. Uncle Sam turns off the TV as Aunt Eva apologizes. "He's starting again,” whispers Hannah to Aaron.
Hannah cannot remember any time when Grandpa Will had not had such outbursts. When she was younger she had been fascinated by the five-digit number tattooed on his arm. After Aaron's bris, she had taken a blue ballpoint pen and written five digits on her own arm, thinking it would please him. When she showed it to him he had become irate screamed, "Malach ha-mavis" at her, frightening her. She still has nightmares about the incident and has not been able to forgive him for it.
Hannah asks her mother why Grandpa Will behaves like that about something from the past. She is embarrassed by him and for him. “Grandpa Dan doesn't do that,” she says. Her mother explains that Grandpa Dan wasn't in the camps. Hannah can see that her mother is about to begin speaking about family history again. She tells her mother she will go and help Aunt Eva in the kitchen and thus escapes the conversation.
It is generally Grandma Belle's place to light the candles but Aunt Eva is allowed to do it as compensation for not having a home of her own. Hannah wonders why Aunt Eva has never settled down and married, choosing instead to live with her brother Will and his wife and raise Hannah's father. When she was younger Hannah looked up to Aunt Eva, but now Aunt Eva's life seems ordinary, even dull.
When Aunt Eva lights the candles, however, she seems different, strangely beautiful. This is the most special part of the night for Hannah and she recites the prayer with Aunt Eva. "A yahrzeit for all the beloved dead, a grace for all the beloved living,” Aunt Eva whispers. Aaron tries to join them but is always a beat behind in his recital. Hannah pinches him on his arm and he lets out a scream; her father scolds her. Hannah's face turns red as she looks down at her plate.
Hannah is bored by the seemingly endless Seder dinner and by the Haggadah. She finds herself staring out the window at the moon, which visible between the project buildings. Grandpa Will goes on and on in a voice that sounds like the buzz of locusts around the Exodus from Egypt. The Haggadah isn't even told in the correct order. When Hannah protests, Uncle Sam shushes her, telling her it is her grandfather's way.
Hannah thinks about the next day, when they will go to Grandpa Dan's. There at least there would be other children, Hannah's cousins, and they could sit at their own table away from the grown-ups and listen to Grandpa Dan's silly stories.
Aaron begins to become restless, getting ready to ask the Second Question. He pronounces the Yiddish words correctly, having memorized them, but stumbles over the word herbs, mistakenly pronouncing the h. Hannah corrects him and guides him through the embarrassment he feels. Aaron asks the question again. "Why on this night do we eat bitter 'erbs especially?"
"It isn't fair!", thinks Hannah to herself. She realizes suddenly that she has said this aloud and that everyone at the table has heard her. Aunt Eva responds, "Of course it isn't fair. What does fair have to do with it?" To break the tension she begins to sing "Dayenu" in her musical voice.
Hannah suddenly remembers the wine. Grandpa Will argues that Hannah should be allowed to drink the watered wine with the adults. Her mother protests but no one can withstand Grandpa Will's masterful use of guilt. Hannah is allowed to partake.
Aaron tells her that it is time for the afikoman, the matzo wrapped in embroidered blue cloth. She tells him to go ahead and look for it while she keeps watch there. She is getting too old to take part in this game. The afikoman is always hidden under Grandpa Will's chair for easy discovery. Aaron will be the next one to hide it; he runs off to the next room though no one follows. Hannah comments that he always hides it in the bathroom anyway. Aunt Eva reminds her that Hannah always used to hide it under Grandma Belle's pillow. Grandma Belle remarks that the game is for the children, so they can have fun and remember their history.
Hannah’s mother and the other adults look noisily about in the kitchen, commenting on how well Aaron has hidden the afikoman this year. Aaron tells Hannah that he has hidden it in the laundry in the bathroom. Hannah tells him that is disgusting. Grandpa Will will offer Aaron money in exchange for the afikoman as part of the game, but Hannah tells Aaron to hold out for the gift he really wants: a baseball glove.
At dinner the food is tempting, but Hannah is already full from eating at her friend Rosemary's house. The wine is also making her head feel funny. As Elijah's cup is passed around, everyone pours a little of their wine into the goblet. Hannah empties her whole glass, stating that Elijah can have all of it. She doesn't really want anymore anyway. Grandpa Will commends her for her unselfishness and tells Hannah that she should open the door for Elijah. Aaron complains, saying he wanted to do that. Grandpa Will tells him that Hannah's sacrifice was not asked for and is therefore much greater.
Hannah stands. She feels fraudulent. She didn't sacrifice the wine; she simply didn't want it. She also doesn't believe in any of these superstitions. To her, they are stories for babies like Aaron. She opens the door angrily. Instead of the row of apartment doors in the hallway, Hannah sees an open field under a night sky. In the distance a single figure moves forward, a cap on his head and a hoe over his shoulder. He is singing: “Who asked you to be buried alive? You know that no one forced you. You took this madness upon yourself.”
Yolen begins the novel by setting up the basic premise: Hannah finds herself caught between what is old, or in the past, and what is in the present. Hannah equates the ritual customs of her Jewish heritage with a bygone era. She demonstrates no interest in worshipping the past or being forced to pay homage to something to which she herself feels little connection. Yolen draws upon this cultural disconnection to literally transport Hannah to this murky past. Yolen also implies that Hannah is embarrassed by her cultural upbringing. As the novel begins we learn that Hannah has spent the day with a friend of hers, Rosemary, who is not of Jewish heritage. While this point is visited again later in the novel to demonstrate the modernity with which Hannah is familiar, specifically her freedom to pursue friendships with people of any cultural background, it also implies that Hannah is more comfortable around those who do not remind her of her own family. She is caught between cultures, a common characteristic of second- or later-generation immigrants. An adherence to the customs of the past begins to feel like a constraint rather than a proud badge of one's identity.
Additionally, Yolen decides to make Hannah a young teenager rather than an adult woman. This heightens the alienation she feels from her culture as she struggles to assert herself more as a young adult. She is embarrassed by the games played at dinner and feels especially put upon when she is asked to open the door symbolically to let in the prophet Elijah. To her, this is a child's task. This is quickly juxtaposed against her experiences as Chaya in the following chapters. This contrast allows Hannah to fully appreciate just how good and free of fear and turmoil her life has been thus far.
However, we see that Hannah takes her role as older sister seriously. While she teases Aaron, she reminds him not to be nervous about the Four Questions and tells him that she will be there to help if he forgets and loses his way. She also appreciates her Aunt Eva, despite feeling some pity for her. Hannah even feels fraudulent at the notion of having sacrificed her wine. Hannah is struggling to find her way in the world and she finds herself too young to be an adult and too old to be a child. While this characterization does portray Hannah as the misunderstood teenager we can all relate to, it also demonstrates that she is not purely callous or selfish. Instead she does care for others, though she does not always demonstrate it.
Part of the purpose of the Passover Seder itself is to relay the story of the Exodus to the children. This, again, reiterates the importance of the past and its transmission to future generations. To keep children interested, questions are encouraged and the youngest child at the table is generally expected to ask the Four Questions. Hannah looks upon this ritual as one designed solely for a child. It is because these questions, and the interest in the past they represent, have become so ritualized that their effectiveness begins to wane. They become four simple questions to memorize or read. She thinks about the jelly beans that Rosemary gets to eat in contrast to the bitter herbs she is expected to eat. Once again she sees a certain freedom in escaping her own heritage.
Part of this heritage is embodied in Grandpa Will, who is presented as a frightening figure. Hannah, as a young child, made the mistake of writing a prisoner number on her arm with a pen in the hopes that her grandfather would appreciate it. Instead he became irate and frightened her. Now when she visits her grandparents' home, Hannah is weary of his ranting about the Nazi regime and the atrocities it committed. While she is aware of what happened, her awkward relationship to her grandfather has distanced her from the realities he faced.
The theme of sacrifice is introduced in this part of the novel. As Hannah willingly disposes of all her wine, pouring out her whole glass for the prophet Elijah, her grandfather comments that Hannah's sacrifice is great because it was not asked for. Toward the end of the novel Hannah sacrifices herself, without being asked, to save Rivka's life. This sacrifice is also symbolically an act of faith, another theme in the novel. Sacrifice requires faith that it will both benefit those intended and prove to be the right course of action.
It is also noteworthy that Yolen decides to set the story on the night of the Passover Seder. The Torah, the foundational narrative of the Jewish people, describes Passover as a guarded night, or a night of vigil. It is on this night that God is believed to have protected the Jewish people from the plague that took the first-born son from Egyptian families. Opening the door is a symbolic gesture to welcome the prophet Elijah and to display faith in God's protection. This theme of faith will continue throughout the novel and Hannah's faith will indeed be tested.
The Devil's Arithmetic Essays and Related Content
- The Devil's Arithmetic: Major Themes
- The Devil's Arithmetic: Questions
- The Devil's Arithmetic: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Jane Yolen: Biography
- The Devil's Arithmetic Summary
- About The Devil's Arithmetic
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Quotes and Analysis
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1 to 3
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 4 to 6
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 7 to 9
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 10 to 12
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 13 to 15
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 16 to 18
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 19 and Epilogue
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