10 Real-Life Prototypes of Classic Polish Literary Characters
#language & literature
default, Still from the film ‘The Wedding’ by Andrzej Wajda, based on Wyspiański’s same-titled play, 1972, photo: Renata Pajchel / Studio Filmowe Zebra / Filmo, center, #000000, wesele_wajda_2_fn_3.jpg
Writers often draw on actual events to create their narratives and model fictitious characters on real-life people. Let’s take a look at the real-life inspirations for ten characters from classic Polish works of fiction. Find out how a pair of quarrelling neighbours, a famous actress, a patriotic rabbi and others inspired important Polish writers over centuries!
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Making of the film ‘Revenge’ by Andrzej Wajda, based on Fredro’s same-titled play, 2002, in the image: actors Janusz Gajos (as Cześnik) and Katarzyna Figura (as Podstolina), photo: Jan Bogacz / TVP / PAP
1834 saw the premiere of one of Poland’s most beloved comedies, Zemsta (Revenge) by Aleksander Fredro. In this story, set in late 18th-century Poland, two families inhabit a castle which is divided between them. The heads of the two clans are the hot-tempered Cześnik and the cunning Rejent. The two thoroughly dislike each other and keep having neighbourly disagreements, which lead to some funny situations. Eventually the two patriarchs reconcile when Cześnik’s niece Klara and Rejent’s son Wacław, who are in love with each other, get married.
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What many don’t know, is that Fredro based his play on real-life events. In 1828, he married Zofia Jabłonowska, who owned the Kamieniec castle in Odrzykoń and, among her estate, he found a document describing the story of the building’s previous owners who had lived at the castle as neighbours:
In the early 17th century, this old castle, (…) was divided and purchased by two pettifoggers and brawlers, Piotr Firlej and Jan Skotnicki, who quarrelled with one another for thirty years. One time they argued over the shared well, another time over the border wall, or the castle chapel, and the ferocity of the adversaries was so strong, that their court trials were often interspersed with fights and the inflicting of material damages.
From ‘Aleksander Fredro: "Zemsta": Geneza Utworu, Charakterystyka Osób, Dokładne Streszczenie’ a 1932 booklet by Edward Marwicki
Fredro modelled the characters of Cześnik and Rejent on Piotr Firlej and Jan Skotnicki respectively. Interestingly, the real-life feud that became the basis for Revenge was also resolved – like the fictional one – with a marriage. In 1630, Piotr Firlej’s son Mikołaj married Zofia Skotnicka, Jan Skotnicki’s younger relative. The marriage is said to have put an end to the conflict of the Firlej and Skotnicki families. Therefore Mikołaj and Zofia are also considered prototypes of characters in Fredro’s said play, namely of Wacław and Klara.
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A patriotic rabbi
1834 was clearly a good one for Polish literature, as Pan Tadeusz (Sir Thaddeus) by Adam Mickiewicz was also published that year. This narrative poem is among Poland’s most important literary works – it enjoys the status of a ‘national epic.’ Sir Thaddeus is a story of Polish gentry life in the early 1810s.
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One of the poem’s most distinctive supporting characters is Jankiel, a Jewish innkeeper and master dulcimer player. Toward the end of the book, Jankiel plays his famous concert, which makes musical references to important moments in Polish history, such as the passing of the Constitution of 3rd May. Mickiewicz portrays Jankiel as a Polish patriot, one who holds Polish culture and independence dear.
It’s believed that Mickiewicz modelled the character of Jankiel on Rabbi Jakub Natan, a Polish Jew whom the poet met in 1831 at the manor of Józef Taczanowski, in the village of Choryń. Natan, who was the rabbi of Będzin, helped raise funds for 1794’s Kościuszko Uprising (a failed Polish military insurgence against the partitions of Poland), and was later jailed by the Prussians for pro-Polish sympathies. After he was freed, he encountered Mickiewicz. At first the poet wasn’t sure what to make of Natan, but eventually he became very fond of the rabbi:
Rabbi Jakub Natan of Będzin is the prototype of Jankiel. (…) Initially [Mickiewicz] treated him with reserve, but when the poet decided that Jakub Natan is a devoted patriot and a true erudite, he began to talk to him as a partner. Later, such conversations occurred often. Mickiewicz’s chats with Jakub Natan, which took place at Taczanowski’s manor, would frequently last until midnight.
From ‘O Rabinie Jakubie i Świętej Pani z Zagórza’, an 1996 article in Kurier Miejski, trans. MK
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A valiant military man
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Actor Daniel Olbrychski as Kmicic in the film ‘The Deluge’ by Jerzy Hoffman, based on Sienkiewicz’s same-titled novel, 1974, photo: Archiwum Filmu / Forum
In 1886, the Nobel Prize-winner Henryk Sienkiewicz published his celebrated novel Potop (The Deluge). This work – part of The Trilogy – describes the Swedish invasion of Poland which took place in the middle of the 17th century. The Deluge features a broad range of fictitious characters, but also includes historical ones, like the king of Poland Jan Kazimierz.
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The hero of The Deluge is the fictitious Andrzej Kmicic, an impulsive military man. Initially, he fights for Bogusław Radziwiłł, a real-life Polish duke, who sided with the Swedes. This is why, at the beginning, Kmicic is seen as a traitor. However, he later decides to fight for Poland, and performs many brave deeds to redeem himself, including protecting King Jan Kazimierz himself from Swedish troops in a dramatic skirmish.
Sienkiewicz, who meticulously researched the history of the Polish-Swedish conflict before writing The Deluge, modelled the Andrzej Kmicic’s character on a real-life nobleman named Samuel Kmicic:
Sienkiewicz’s Andrzej Kmicic has a historical prototype – the Lithuanian nobleman Samuel. In the mid-17th century he became the leader of a unit of Cossacks. His troops were part of a regiment led by duke Bogusław Radziwiłł. In 1655, Kmicic joined an alliance of soldiers who mutinied against the duke. (…) Sir Samuel [later] fought valiantly against the Swedes.
From ‘Przygody Pana Samuela Kmicica’ (The Adventures of Mr Samuel Kmicic), an article on www.wilanow-palac.pl, trans. MK
Aside from Andrzej Kmicic in The Deluge, one can find other fictitious characters with real-life prototypes in the novel. Expert swordsman Michał Wołodyjowski was modelled after Colonel Jerzy Wołodyjowski and the character of soldier Jan Skrzetuski was based on Colonel Mikołaj Skrzetuski.
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A successful tradesman
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Still from the film ‘The Doll’ by Wojciech Jerzy Has, based on Prus’ same-titled novel, 1968, in the image: actors Mariusz Dmochowski (as Stanisław Wokulski) and Beata Tyszkiewicz (as Izabela Łęcka), photo: Archiwum Filmu / Forum
The year 1890 saw the publication of Bolesław Prus’ outstanding novel of manners, Lalka (The Doll). The hero of this story is the prospering Warsaw shop owner and businessman Stanisław Wokulski. After participating in 1863’s January Uprising (an armed insurgency which unsuccessfully tried to restore Poland’s independence lost in the partitions), Wokulski is exiled to Siberia. He eventually returns to Warsaw and opens a shop. Later, he travels to Bulgaria, where he earns a large sum of money doing military-related business. He hopes his industriousness will impress the aloof aristocrat Izabela Łęcka with whom he is, unhappily, in love.
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The character of Wokulski is, in part, reminiscent of Jakub Lange, a Swiss-born patisserie owner and businessman who moved to Warsaw in the mid-19th century. Like Wokulski, Lange owned a private business and made plenty of money in Bulgaria through military contacts:
Jakub Lange is likely to be the model for the main character of [The Doll]. At the beginning of his stay in Warsaw, Lange probably took up smithery, and later made his living working at a patisserie. After 1873, he owned a patisserie in Warsaw at 10 Chłodna Street. In 1868, as a shareholder of the Kantor partnership that supplied bread to the Russian army, he went to Bulgaria, where – like Wokulski – he came into a fortune within just nine months.
From ‘Czy Wokulski Był Szwajcarem?’ (Was Wokulski Swiss?), an article by Zbigniew Klejn published by Pamiętnik Literacki
Prus is known to have been interested in grain trade – he often wrote about it as a journalist. It’s through these interests that he could’ve easily encountered the story of Jakub Lange, whose bread business was dependent on flour, and therefore on grain. In view of this, it seems probable that the Swiss-born businessman served as inspiration for certain – important – episodes in the tale of Stanisław Wokulski.
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A married couple
1901 saw the premiere of one of Poland’s most important dramas, Stanisław Wyspiański’s Wesele (The Wedding). The play is set at a post-wedding celebration. The bride and groom are an unusual pair, considering the time at which the play was written, as the former is a peasant and the latter is a poet from the Kraków intelligentsia. Their celebration brings together two very different social circles.
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It’s a well-known fact that Wyspiański based his play at on a real wedding, which took place in 1900. He attended the wedding of his friend, the Kraków poet Lucjan Rydel, and the peasant woman Jadwiga Mikołajczykówna. The party took place in the manor of the painter Włodzimierz Tetmajer in the village of Bronowice, near Kraków. Rydel and Mikołajczykówna served as inspiration for the newly married couple, Tetmajer for the host.
The premiere of The Wedding caused a bit of a scandal as some of people from Kraków were offended by the critical portrayal of their fictional counterparts in the play.
Rydel – the Groom in ‘The Wedding’ – is treated with good-hearted irony. It’s not that he’s stripped of his noble and honest traits there, but once and again he comes about as a bourgeois, an artificial writer. Once and again certain traits appear, spitefully taken from real life (…).
From ‘Plotka o Weselu Wyspiańskiego’ (Gossip about Wyspiański’s ‘The Wedding’) by Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński, trans. MK
An erudite philosopher
In 1946, one of Poland’s most cherished children’s books was published, Jan Brzechwa’s Akademia Pana Kleksa (Professor Inkblot's Academy). In this heart-warming story, a twelve-year-old boy by the name of Adaś Niezgódka is admitted to a fairy-tale academy where, alongside other pupils, he learns various fantastical skills from the titular Professor Inkblot. Inkblot is a magical character; he can, for instance, read his pupils’ minds and hover about them in mid-air. He’s very wise and well-educated but also somewhat absent-minded, as he has trouble remembering what happened the day before. His pupils adore and respect him because he’s kind and understanding.
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In the 1960s Brzechwa wrote two sequels of Professor Inkblot’s Acadamy: Podróże Pana Kleksa (The Travels of Professor Inkblot) and Tryumf Pana Kleksa (Professor Inkblot’s Triumph). Naturally, Professor Inkblot plays a key role in both of them.
It’s believed that Brzechwa was inspired to create the character of the magical tutor by Franc Fiszer, an erudite philosopher and prominent Warsaw socialite in the Interwar period. Brzechwa knew Fiszer personally, as did plenty of other Polish artists, including writer Julian Tuwim and painter Zofia Stryjeńska. Thanks to his cheerful disposition and witty remarks, Fiszer is said to have been all but adored by the culture circles of Interwar Warsaw. This was so, even though this onetime student of philosophy never actually had a real job – he lived off the generosity of his friends and family, after having squandered his inheritance. Nevertheless, thanks to Fiszer’s broad interests (he was an avid reader) and likeable demeanour, he was widely respected. Much like Professor Inkblot is respected by his pupils:
(…) When, during World War II, [Brzechwa] wanted to get away from the horror of life, he started to write this fantastical story about Ambrose Inkblot, in which the prototype of the character of Professor Inkblot was Franc Fiszer. Anna Szóstak, a scholar of Brzechwa’s works, wrote that Professor Inkblot is a magician with unlimited capabilities, a genius but also a childishly naïve and carefree person, an expert on the human soul and a philosopher. And that’s exactly what Franc Fiszer was like.
From ‘Fiszer Pierwszy i Ostatni’ (Fisher the First & the Last) an article published by Polityka, trans. MK
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A theatre star & a young painter
In 1972, the captivating novel 622 Upadki Bunga, czyli Demoniczna Kobieta (The 622 Downfalls of Bungo, or The Daemonic Woman) by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, a.k.a. Witkacy, was published. The book, which had been written around 1911, appeared long after its author’s death in 1939. Witkacy is said to have been reluctant to publish this novel due to its clear autobiographical character and his boldness in the presentation of erotic scenes.
The story, set in Poland at the beginning of the 20th century, revolves around an affair between the young painter Bungo and the opera singer Akne Montecalfi – the titular daemonic woman. Bungo is utterly fascinated by the alluring vocalist but she doesn’t treat him seriously and plays with his feelings. The toxic relationship they share causes Bungo to experience mush distress. The story does not end well…
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It’s a common knowledge that Witkacy based the plot on his own tumultuous relationship with the actress Irena Solska, one of Kraków’s biggest theatre stars of the beginning of the 20th century. Witkacy met her when he was a student at the local Academy of Fine Arts.
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Although it’s highly probable that to Solska the affair with Witkacy was just a game (…), it’s hard to doubt the honesty of the young painter’s affection. The intensity of the experiences he had during the couple of months in which he was involved with the famous actress, was incomparable to anything he had lived through before. Solska devoured and destroyed Witkacy, forcing him to create himself anew. (…) What was an intense adventure to her, to him was a borderline experience. (…) Witkacy’s novel is an attempt to give a psychological portrayal of Solska.
From ‘Całuję Wszystkiem Wszystko w Tobie’ (With Everything, I Kiss Everything in You), an article on teatralny.pl, trans. MK
akademia pana kleksa
622 upadki bunga czyli Demoniczna Kobieta
Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy)
The line between fact and fiction is often very thin.
Written by Marek Kępa, Oct 20