Stefan Żeromski
Stefan Żeromski, rep. Piotr Mecik / Forum

Stefan Żeromski (pen names Maurycy Zych, Józef Katerla) - writer, playwright, journalist. Born on 14 October 1864 in Strawczyn, died on 20 November 1925 in Warsaw.

Table of contents: The life of the writer and community activist | Early works up to the 1905 revolution | After the Revolution | In free Poland | Major editions

The life of the writer and community activist

His father, an impoverished nobleman, was a leaseholder of manor farms in the Kielce region. Żeromski spent his childhood at one of them, in Ciekoty in the Świętokrzyskie Mountains. His parents died young. His youth was a time of poverty; he contracted tuberculosis for which he was treated with varying degrees of success throughout his life. He attended the Kielce Municipal High School and made a living giving private lessons. At school he met a great teacher who had an impact on the rest of his life. He was Antoni Gustaw Bem, a literary historian, journalist and critic, supporter of positivism, great educationalist. Żeromski mentioned him in his Dzienniki / Journals, and immortalized him in Syzyfowe prace / Labours of Sisyphus as Professor Sztetter. He interrupted his education for lack of money and moved to Warsaw, where he spent two years at the Veterinary School which did not require a high school graduation certificate. From 1888 he found employment as a private tutor of noblemen's children. In 1890 he took a job in Nałęczów, a fashionable spa where famous writers and journalists stayed. (Nałęczów was the model for Cisy which he later described in Ludzie bezdomni / Homeless People).

He went abroad in 1892, to Prague, Munich, Vienna, Zurich, Rapperswil. That same year marked his first visit to Zakopane, the Polish mountain resort which he later often visited, and in whose community he played a major role. He married Oktawia Rodkiewicz nee Radziwiłłowicz, with whom he had a son, Adam (b. 1899, d. 1918). In 1892-97 he was a deputy librarian at the Polish National Museum founded by Władysław Plater in Rapperswil. The museum collected documentation of the history of Polish emigration in the wake of the November [1830] and January [1863] uprisings. He made liberal use of the knowledge gained from this collection in his writing. The people he met in Switzerland included Gabriel Narutowicz{C}, Julian Marchlewski{C}and Edward Abramowski{C}; the latter became a significant ideological teacher for him. He lived in Warsaw in 1897-1903, working at the Zamoyski Library. From 1904, when he gained relative financial stability after the publication of Popioły / Ashes, he stopped looking for jobs, devoting himself to writing and community activity. He lived in Zakopane for a year, then in Nałęczów again, where he built Chata (The Cottage), a highlander-style house designed by Stanisław Witkiewicz. He travelled around Italy in 1907. In 1908 the police forced him to leave the Kingdom of Poland{C}. He lived in Zakopane and Cracow. He was a witness in the famous trial of Stanisław Brzozowski, in whose innocence he firmly believed, seeing the whole affair as a police provocation. He was married a second time in 1913, to the painter Anna Zawadzka, and then went to Florence where his daughter Monika was born. After the outbreak of World War I, he arrived in Cracow with a plan to join the Legions {C}and fight in the front line. He was unsuccessful and therefore returned to Zakopane. He settled in Warsaw in 1919, bought a house in Konstancin, and then moved to an annexe of the Royal Castle{C}. When he discovered the Baltic in 1921, the sea became his second great love after the Tatra Mountains.

Stefan Żeromski, rep. FoKa / Forum

A youth spent in poverty, observing the life of the gentry and the rural poor, contact with the radical views of the Great Emigration{C}and with contemporary socialist thought, all this intensified his natural community-oriented inclinations. Żeromski is the author of works which are possibly the most emotionally committed in the history of Polish literature. His writing was accompanied by equally intensive social welfare activity. In Nałęczów the Żeromskis' home was a hub of patriotic and educational activities. It housed an orphanage for children from poor families as well as an underground Polish school. Żeromski was the honorary chairman of the "Światło" ("Light") Educational Association in Nałęczów. With a group of local radical intelligentsia, he founded the People's University where he also lectured. In Warsaw, he took part in organizing the Public Library Society in 1907. He was a major figure in Zakopane as it flourished culturally. During the war{C}he was involved in the activity of the Zakopane Supreme Committee, a branch of the National Supreme Committee. He was President of the Zakopane Republic in 1918. After Poland regained its independence{C}, he was an active organizer of cultural and literary life in Warsaw. He was president of the Polish Writers' Trade Union. He took part in founding such institutions as the Literature Academy, the Polish Writing Guard, and the Pen Club. After "discovering" the Baltic sea, he initiated the foundation of the Society of Friends of Pomerania. In 1925, he was the first person to receive a Polish state literary award, for his collection of stories about the history of the Polish coastal region, Wiatr od morza / Wind from the sea (1922). He was never nominated for the Nobel Prize, not only due to the hostile attitude of German opinion, but also because of behind-the-scenes activities of Polish rightists who considered him too leftist and thought Władysław Reymont was a more appropriate candidate.

Żeromski died on 20 November 1925. His death caused national mourning, the funeral was a huge rally. Many great writers dedicated farewell pieces to him. His grave is in the Reformed Church cemetery [in Warsaw]. His Chata in Nałęczów was turned into a museum in his memory. Numerous monuments were erected in his honour, including in Nałęczów (1928 - designed by Stanisław Witkiewicz, sculptured by Andrzej Żurawski), Włocławek (1964 - designed by Marian Wnuk), and Iława (1966 - designed by Kalmus-Kubicka).

Early works up to the 1905 revolution

Stefan Żeromski z córką Moniką, rep. Piotr Mecik / Forum
Stefan Żeromski z córką Moniką, rep. Piotr Mecik / Forum


Żeromski was brought up in the patriotic and Romantic tradition. He wrote in contact with the still vibrant positivist thought, during the domination of the Young Poland movement, and after Poland's liberation when new intellectual and artistic trends were emerging. He did not identify with any formation, creating a "separate" literature. However, he drew on various traditions. Romanticism is the source of his ideal of the independence struggle and his concept of the lonely hero. From positivism, he took the call for working at the foundation, among the people, and the myth of social solidarity as well as literary realism with a powerful dose of naturalism, often drastic. His psychological analyses of characters torn between violent emotions, and his descriptions of nature as it harmonizes with their state of mind, are very Young Poland. After Poland's liberation he joined in the stormy dispute with new literary trends over the shape of Poland and the social role of literature.

He started writing in secondary school. At university, he worked with "Głos", a periodical which had pro-social and pro-popular leanings at the time. He published correspondences and short stories. In 1895 he published the volumes Opowiadania / Short stories and Rozdziobią nas kruki, wrony… / Ravens and Crows Will Rend us. Both books received a lively reaction from readers and critics. From then on, almost every subsequent work was a major literary event. The problems covered by his output were outlined in the first books, the dominating themes being the independence struggle, the ignorance of the people and social wrongs, the moral dilemmas of heroes fighting for justice. In his first volumes, readers appreciated his social and moral sensitivity devoid of positivist didacticism as well as the psychological subtlety with which he sketched his characters.

In Opowiadania / Short Stories, two stories in particular stand out. In Doktor Piotr / Doctor Piotr, the writer draws the distinctive characters with a few bold lines. They are Dominik Cedzyna, a nobleman deprived of his estate who has just one true love in his life - his son; Bijakowski the engineer, a railway constructor who comes from a poor urban family, who has a successful career and makes good money; the owner of a run-down estate, from whom the engineer first buys a hill containing valuable clay and rock and then his entire manor farm; Cedzyna's son Piotr, a chemist educated abroad who faces a serious dilemma, but ultimately gives up his job in England because he misses his father and his homeland. The drama unfolds when Piotr discovers that the money for his studies came from savings his father made by reducing farm labourers' wages.

The hero of Siłaczka / Strongwoman is a physician, Piotr Obarecki, an idealist who moves to the provinces to work among the people. A few years later, his ideals and his strength are gone, replaced with sybaritism, egotism, and small-town boredom. His old sensitivity returns for a moment when he is called to the deathbed of a rural teacher and recognizes her as the great love of his student days. The state does not last long, however.

The title short story of the second volume is about the fall of the January Uprising. The commander of the last insurgent unit, who is transporting weapons, has a sense of inevitable and tragic defeat. He is killed in a skirmish with the Muscovites. A poor peasant appears, and sees the corpse's belongings and the bodies of his horses as a gift from heaven. The conscious tragedy of the insurgent and the unconscious tragedy of the peasant for whose future the insurgent fought, illustrate the tragedy of a society bearing the consequences of centuries-long exploitation and ignorance of the people.

The conflict between the gentry and the people returns, in a kind of reversal, in the story O żołnierzu tułaczu / The Soldier-Vagabond, the most important work in the volume Utwory powieściowe / Novellas (1898). Żeromski published it after the novel Promień / The Beam describing the stagnation of a provincial town. In the first part of the story, he reports on a military operation of the French republican army as it forces its way across the Alps to attack the Austrian forces. This army includes Polish peasants, among them Matus Pulut, a valued soldier and good comrade. In the second part, Pulut returns to his home village, owned by the nobleman Opadzki, where - as an escaped serf (and a possible source of social ferment) - he is sentenced to death by a hastily formed court of the squire's factotums.

In 1897 Żeromski published the novel Syzyfowe prace / Labours of Sisyphus, largely based on his own life. This novel, with a compact structure and story line, is popular among readers to this day. The writer describes the childhood and maturing of a nobleman's son, Marcin Borowicz, in the Russian education system. His education begins at a country school in Owczary where the stupid and cowardly teacher's method of educating children is through mindless swotting, destroying any signs of intelligence. At the secondary school in Kleryków (modelled after Kielce), primitive methods of coercive Russification are used next to more subtle means - "seducing" the students by allowing them access to Russian cultural salons, or offering them the possibility of modern education thanks to Western literature translated into Russian. The protagonist matures intellectually and emotionally, succumbing to conflicting pressures. His patriotic feelings are awakened when a new student, expelled from Warsaw schools (for underground activity), helps his schoolmates discover Romantic Polish poetry just as they were almost won over to Russian culture. Russification in schools, though successful in the short term, ultimately turns out to be a labour of Sisyphus.

The novel Ludzie bezdomni / Homeless People was published in 1899 and caused an uproar. Stanisław Brzozowski hailed it as "a book and a great deed". "It left a mark on the lives of the generation of the time", was Jan Wiktor's summary of opinions that the novel shaped the views and life choices of young people. It was seen as a breakthrough work by such writers as Adam Grzymała-Siedlecki, Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński, Stefania Sempołowska, Maria Dąbrowska, Kazimiera Iłłakowiczówna... Żeromski proposed a completely new type of novel: fragmentary, stylistically complex, with variable narrative (including journal, letter, lecture, ideological debate). Beside realistic fragments, there appear pathos, irony, symbolism, lyricism, expressionist and naturalistic images. This poetics dominated Żeromski's subsequent output. The action begins in Paris, moving to Warsaw, then the spa of Cisy, and to Sosnowiec. There are episodes set in Switzerland and an estate near Kielce, and echoes from an exile in Siberia. The main character is Tomasz Judym, a physician who comes from a poor Warsaw family; in fact his family still live in poverty (including his brother Wiktor, an activist of the worker movement who has to flee to Switzerland to avoid persecution). After time spent in Paris, Judym tries - unsuccessfully - to develop a practice in Warsaw, then moves to a spa where the rich come for treatment and a good time. Judym fights for the right to treat the poor in decent conditions. He runs a hospital for the poor, fights for the draining of the ponds which are ruining the spa's climate and poisoning the peasants' water, gives a lecture on the sanitation conditions in which the poor live and on how these can be improved. Ignored, he comes into conflict with the "doctors to the rich", though he is sometimes seduced by the charms of their comfortable and elegant lives. After moving to Silesia, he learns about new areas of deprivation and exploitation, and decides to devote his life to overcoming them. A separate theme of the novel is the love between Judym and Joasia Podborska, a poor teacher who is prepared to work shoulder to shoulder with him to improve the lives of the wronged. However, Judym is terrified at the idyllic thought of a modest little house with plants and net curtains: he is afraid this will blunt his sensitivity and determination. He gives up personal happiness (this motif reappears in other novels, to mention Uroda życia / The Charm of Life). Critics noted the psychologically weak justification of the necessity for such a choice, but appreciated the moral message: the absolute imperative to fight against evil, a heroic humanism.

"In the Napoleonic age the old Polish world was largely reborn into a very different society: into a living and creative organism which, under foreign rule, started to live its own intensive life and accumulate spiritual strength for a whole century to come"- this was the process that Żeromski wanted to present in the great historical novel Popioły / Ashes (1904). Writing it, he used source materials he had found in the Rapperswil library. Beside fictional characters, historical figures were also featured (Napoleon Bonaparte, Prince Józef Poniatowski, General Jan Henryk Dąbrowski) as well as lots of supporting characters from different social classes. The three main characters are the "eyes" through which we observe different fragments of history: Dąbrowski's Legions and the Italian campaign are centred around the story of Prince Gintułt, Krzysztof Cedro takes part in the Spanish expedition, and Rafał Olbromski is a participant in the war of 1809. Popioły / Ashes is a huge panorama of episodes presenting Polish society, its diverse attitudes and views. It contains a great apotheosis of the independence struggle and republican ideals, but also draws a picture of the horrendous evil that war involves. The novel is stylistically complex: it includes extensive descriptions of nature, detailed historical information, meticulously portrayed battle scenes, philosophical discourse. It also features some boldly erotic scenes.

Popioły / Ashes was devised as the beginning of a huge historical epic. Its continuation was Iskry / Sparks which took the characters into the time of the November Uprising. This novel was confiscated and destroyed, however (apart from the fragment Wszystko i nic / Everything and Nothing). Characters from Popioły / Ashes appeared in subsequent works. In Wierna rzeka / The Faithful River (1912), set during the January Uprising in the manor house of Niezdoły, where an impoverished noblewoman is harbouring an insurgent called Józef Odrowąż, emissaries of the National Government appear carrying secret documents. One of them is Hubert Olbromski, Rafał's son, who is running from the Russians and ultimately entrusts the national deposit to the faithful river of the novel's title. The plot of the play Turoń{C} (1923) is set in 1846 at the Cedro family manor, where both Olbromskis arrive in anticipation of a national uprising. The manor is attacked by rebel peasants led by Jakub Szela, who kills Rafał Olbromski and Krzysztof Cedro.

Dom Stefana Żeromskiego, rep. Piotr Mecik / Forum
Dom Stefana Żeromskiego w Konstancinie, rep. Piotr Mecik / Forum

After the Revolution

History and modern times invariably intertwined, social conflicts and the heroes' moral conflicts, the tragedy and charm of life - these are regular themes in Żeromski's works. He was such a prolific writer that it would be hard to list them all. They are characterized by great stylistic diversity: historical legends, epics, manifestos written in poetic prose, poems (Aryman mści się / Aryman Takes Vengeance 1904, Powieść o udałym Walgierzu / The Story of the valiant Waltherius 1905, Słowo o bandosie / A Word on Bandos 1908, Duma o hetmanie / Elegy for a Hetman 1908, Sen o szpadzie / The Dream of the Sword 1905). There were also plays: Róża / The Rose (1909) - Romantic in form, this was a great treaty on revolution; the historical drama Sułkowski (1910); the contemporary social drama Uciekła mi przepióreczka... / My Little Quail has Flown.

The revolution of 1905 brought an important turning point in Żeromski's output. His works now featured even more pessimism, a conviction that social problems could never be resolved, a sense of the futility of noble efforts, of the domination of evil.

The novel Dzieje grzechu / Story of a Sin (1908) is precisely such a study of evil. The tragic story of Ewa Pobratymska and her love for Łukasz Niepołomski was interpreted in terms of penury and social hypocrisy, which is true only in part - a shortage of money does influence the heroes' actions, but their emotional sphere is more important. Ewa is an effusive person, excessive in her emotions - both in her religious raptures and in her passion and hatred, which lead her to infanticide, a relationship with criminals, prostitution, and murder. At some stage, she accepts her own evil and feels that it liberates her from a sense of guilt and moral obligation. Strictly social issues appear in the part that unfolds on Bodzanta's estate, which is not really essential to Ewa's story but is necessary for presenting a certain utopia. Bodzanta turned his estate into a community property, he is "transforming peasants into citizens", organizing a modern economy, an education system, and health care, and restoring fallen women to a normal life. Initially enthralled, Ewa abandons this paradise (which will soon disintegrate anyway) at the first news of her former lover; she takes part in a conspiracy to kill him, and finally dies defending him.

A model social order built by idealist protagonists is also a very important element (next to novel-of-manners and romantic motifs) in the trilogy Walka z Szatanem / Struggle with Satan (1916-1919, Nawracanie Judasza / Converting Judas, Zamieć / Blizzard, Charitas). The plot is set before and during World War I in France, Italy, Galicia and the Congress Kingdom{C}. Numerous reformatory plans are devised by a young architect, Ryszard Nienaski, who is able to start implementing them thanks to an inheritance. Nienaski is killed, however, then his wife dies, and the money is inherited by the wife's father, Granowski, a selfish man and a sybarite with a criminal past who plans to use the fortune for his own suspicious dealings. After many twists and turns, he ends up in a manor under Russian siege and undergoes a psychologically poorly justified moral transformation, deciding to carry out his son-in-law's projects. Following his denunciation by the demonic painter Śnica, he is sentenced to death by hanging.

Thus, any attempts to create a just social order which are based on the goodwill of the propertied class end in a fiasco. Revolution, though justified by centuries of wrongs committed against the ignorant and the poor, brings physical and moral destruction offering no basis for building a new order. The 1905 revolution stood no chance of turning into a nation-wide insurrection because history had placed the patriotic gentry and the people on two sides of the barricade. This is the pessimistic picture of reality painted in Żeromski's works up to 1918.

In free Poland

Poland's regained independence brought a new wave of hope. Now the best forces of the nation could commit themselves not to armed struggle, but to the struggle to build a social order which would eliminate injustice and allow the horror of revolution to be avoided. Żeromski tried to design such a social and cultural programme (though it was rather inconsistent and idealistic) in his journalistic output (including "Początek świata pracy" / "The start of the workers' world" and "Organizacja inteligencji narodowej" / "Organizing the national intelligentsia" 1919, "Snobizm i postęp" / "Snobbery and progress" 1923). His dream political system was to be based on Sorel's syndicalism and Abramowski's concepts for the cooperative movement. The moneyed classes were supposed to voluntarily resign from private ownership and organize industrial and agricultural cooperatives. These would help eradicate penury among the urban and rural proletariat, and prosperity combined with educational activity would fulfil the myth of the Holy Proletarian (Nagi bruk / Bare Cobbles) and the peasant turned into a citizen (Charitas). Żeromski unfolds a vision of popular education built on positivist models, and culture drawing on national tradition but selected carefully and adapted to new needs (lectures, theatre performances, staged legends and folk beliefs). This vision of national culture got Żeromski involved in polemics with avant-garde literature (Bruno Jasieński, Tadeusz Peiper), which was in favour of completely breaking off with tradition and developing programmes compatible with modern civilization.

His vision of social solidarity was based on a universal democratic and community-oriented attitude of the propertied classes and on the goodwill of the people, who would allow themselves to be led and would follow the new rules. It assumed a kind of "angelization", which clashes somewhat with the presence of evil in the world, nature and people which Żeromski portrayed so insightfully in his literary works.

His delusions (if Żeromski actually had them, and wasn't just desperately seeking a way out) quickly came to an end, as proved by the novel Przedwiośnie / The Spring to Come (1924). The protagonist, Cezary Baryka, spends his childhood in Baku where the peaceful co-existence of Armenians, Tatars and Russians is shattered by the revolution, triggering hatred and destruction. After losing his parents Baryka goes to Poland, which he only knows from their stories: Poland is a country of justice, beauty, and "glass houses". As soon as he crosses the border, the myth topples. Baryka takes part in the Polish-Bolshevik war of 1920. He spends some time in Nawłoć, the estate of his friend's family, where he succumbs to the charms of the idyllic world of noble manors, though he does notice the farm labourer quarters nearby. After returning to Warsaw he falls under the influence of a high-ranking politician, Szymon Gajowiec; as his secretary, he is witness to the reality of the Polish parliament: egotism, self-interest, quarrelsomeness, and a lack of political vision. As for the socialists, he finds their demagogy and ideological pigheadedness offensive. He quotes Gajowiec's reformatory arguments at them, and the arguments of the worker movement at Gajowiec. In the conclusion, he joins a socialist rally. This doesn't mean, though, as some rightist critics interpreted the novel, that the writer supported revolution. It was a warning that if the organic work of Gajowiec, additionally hindered by other politicians, continued bringing such meagre results, then the terrible spectre of revolution might indeed become reality.

Żeromski did not find clear answers because no such answers existed. However, the questions he asked had a fundamental importance for his generation. He was a writer who was demanding towards his readers, getting them emotionally involved in the greatest dilemmas of his era. He created a new type of hero in a new form of novel. In his books people are firmly rooted in history and society; entangled - but not determined. The area of freedom is in their moral choices. The boundary between good and evil is clearly marked, and a choice considered good requires absolute commitment. This kind of moral rigorism was convincing for the generation which had regained independence and felt responsible for the shape of the new country. It was convincing not only to the intelligentsia, as confirmed by readership surveys of the time. For example: a poll was conducted at the Railway Workers' Union in 1926, asking who was their favourite writer. Żeromski came an unrivalled first with 60 votes out of 114 respondents. (Sienkiewicz came second with 32 votes.) In the same year the well-known Mortkowicz printing house started publishing the complete works of Żeromski in a cheap pocketbook edition priced at 1.50 zlotys per volume, and they sold very well. Żeromski's works have been translated into a number of languages, many have been staged. Films based on them include Syzyfowe Prace / Labours of Sisyphus (2000 dir. Paweł Komorowski), Popioły / Ashes (1965 dir. Andrzej Wajda), Wierna rzeka / The Faithful River (1923 dir. Edward Puchalski - entitled Rok 1863 / The Year 1863, 1936 dir. Leonard Buczkowski), Dzieje grzechu / Story of a Sin (1918 dir. Antoni Bednarczyk, 1933 dir. Henryk Szaro, 1975 dir. Walerian Borowczyk), Przedwiośnie / The Spring to Come (1929 dir. Henryk Szaro, 2000 dir. Filip Bajon).

Major editions:

  • "Pisma" / "Writings" vol. 1-26 (vol. 24, 25 are lacking) ed. Stanisław Pigoń, Warszawa 1947-56;
  • "Dzieła" / "Works", series I-V, ed. Stanisław Pigoń, introduction by Henryk Markiewicz, Warszawa 1955-1970;
  • "Pisma zebrane" / "Collected Writings" vol. 1 - 37, ed. Zbigniew Goliński, Warszawa 1981-2006.


Author: Halina Floryńska-Lalewicz, December 2006