Polish Writers With a Social Conscience: From Bolesław Prus to Maria Dąbrowska
#language & literature
default, Adaptation of Reymont’s ‘The Peasants’, directed by Jan Rybkowski, 1973, photo: Film Studio “Kadr” / Filmoteka Narodowa / fototeka.fn.org.pl, center, #000000, chlopi-fototeka-1-f-202-25-1240.jpg
In the history of Polish literature, there has been no shortage of writers who have consciously advocated for people who are excluded from society for various reasons.
In times of subjugation to the dictates of foreign (and sometimes even domestic) hegemons, writers have seen people and entire social groups deprived of the right to a dignified life and defended them, regardless of the consequences. However, despite their involvement in current affairs, they have rarely found understanding in a world where history books are written by those who are stronger and more powerful.
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Dictionaries describe sociology as a science that studies the rules according to which society functions. Nearly all literary output has reflected the processes and structures that connect and divide people, but only a few Polish authors have shown empathy for their fellow human beings ‘in losing positions’.
The essence of every good literary work – prose, drama, radio plays, film scripts, poetry, song lyrics – is conflict. A clash of mindsets or interests. Without this, there would be no Bible, Thumbelina, The Little Prince, Revenge or The Wedding, as well as no Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Władimir Wysocki or Leszek Wójtowicz. Without conflict, the action of any novel would be unable to move even one step forward.
However, in conflicts – not necessarily armed conflicts, with which Henryk Sienkiewicz felt the most comfortable – there must be stronger and weaker sides, victorious and defeated. Lamentation over those who have been defeated – which strongly shaped the whole Romantic movement during the era when Poland didn’t officially exist as a country – still remains to this day in the souls of successive generations of Poles, both in Poland and abroad. Stanisław Brzozowski lamented this state of affairs (admission of one’s own powerlessness, and rebellion that most often ends in emigration, either real or internal) in his books, such as Legenda Młodej Polski (The Legend of Young Poland).
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In our overview, which is far from exhaustive due to length, we must necessarily omit the prehistory of Polish literature, even though the topic that interests us was already apparent in the early days of Polish literary output. For example, in Mikołaj Rej’s Krótka Rozprawa Między Trzema Osobami, Panem, Wójtem a Plebanem (A Short Discourse Between the Squire, the Bailiff and the Parson), written in 1543, representatives of the three estates of the time expressed themselves quite freely, in an irreverent spirit.
In the year 1614, a bold description of the exploitation of serfs resounded fully in Żeńcy (The Reapers), published in the collection Sielanki (Pastorals) by Szymon Szymonowic, a Renaissance poet and enlightened humanist.
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In the history of Polish literature, just as in the literature of the rest of the world, periods with wise, well-grounded heroes alternate with hypersensitive characters who express the distinctiveness of their own spiritual (or rather psychological) dilemmas, which are not accessible to the insensitive world. Things turn out so strangely in this world, Jan Kochanowski used to say, that we can rely solely on the former: trustworthy, spirited literary characters who appear during epochs when reason triumphs (the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Positivism, and the Interwar period of the 20th century). In turn, literary protagonists of periods when the spirit triumphed over matter (the Middle Ages, the Baroque, Romanticism, Young Poland) are much more successful on paper than in the concrete reality of life.
Therefore, we’ll need to delve into the canon of Polish literature and look at works that aren’t necessarily the favourite reading material of Polish schoolchildren. We’ll begin with Positivism, in which a small number of characters work their fingers to the bone in order to alleviate the plight of others – those who are less resourceful – before they themselves succumb to poor health or gloriously collapse beneath the burden of the cruel world’s verdicts. For in Polish literature, too, there is no shortage of noble hearts, fighting to the bitter end against the callousness of satiated, self-satisfied people who are firmly established within the system. However, the pattern of a hero losing strength and health by providing solid aid to the needy was and still is much less attractive to readers than, for example, the spiritual dilemmas of a conspirator in a prison cell, in exile or at the door of the tsar’s bedroom.
What remains for writers, if not an attempt to describe the phenomena they observe? The first relatively mature literary perspective on the current challenges of reality – regardless of external circumstances, for example the restrictive regulations of foreign administrations in a country wiped off the world map – was Positivism, whether people like it or not. With its postulates for organic work (society as a living organism) and work at the foundations (education raising the standard of living for peasants and the proletariat, as well as the fight against Germanisation and Russification), it did what it could to awaken the nation from its apathy and encourage it to act.
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Let’s take a look at several notable works of Polish literature.
‘The Doll’ by Bolesław Prus (1890)
In his novel The Doll, Bolesław Prus, the most outstanding Positivist writer, described the unhappy love of Stanisław Wokulski, an enterprising merchant, for an impoverished aristocrat named Izabela Łęcka. He created one of the greatest Polish romances, involving two people from different social classes who are unable to cope with the common prejudices of their time. Although Wokulski is a talented man of action, in the eyes of the aristocracy, which was losing its importance in that era, he remains a despised commoner. The woman he loves doesn’t associate the institution of marriage with love, but with material goods. She rejects the man seeking her favours because of his low birth.
Wokulski, a sober rationalist in business matters, displays idealistic helplessness in the sphere of emotions. Blinded by his love for Izabela Łęcka, he’s unable to perceive who she really is. After convincing himself that his beloved is having an affair with his cousin, Starski, he throws himself in front of a train, like a true romantic lover. Unfortunately, romantic feelings become a destructive force for this protagonist.
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One of the strengths of The Doll, the longest Polish realist novel, is the meticulously described backdrop of the plot’s main action. Prus, who started earning a living as a journalist at an early age and made use of his excellent observational skills in his Weekly Chronicles published in the press, was also a social activist. His descriptions of poverty-stricken districts – where there were hovels inhabited by the working poor and their sickly families with many children, struggling to survive day to day – are infused with a disturbing authenticity.
‘On the Niemen’ by Eliza Orzeszkowa (1888)
Justyna Orzelska, the young heroine of Eliza Orzeszkowa’s novel On the Niemen, is a noblewoman who has lost her social standing, and who was raised by her uncle, a wealthy landowner named Benedykt Korczyński. Thanks to her acquaintance with Jan Bohatyrowicz, a poor member of the gentry, the girl begins to appreciate the value of simple work. She falls in love with him and rejects the rich, vain suitors suggested to her by her guardians. Jan, who reciprocates her feelings, fears that such a mésalliance has no chance of success. Justyna patiently breaks down her relatives’ prejudices and gets engaged to her beloved. At the same time, she manages to settle a long-standing dispute between Uncle Benedykt and Jan’s uncle, Anzelm Bohatyrowicz.
Orzeszkowa’s novel shows that a nation’s heroism should not be sought only in successive military battles, but also in the hardship of everyday work in the fields of the fatherland. Despite the author’s most sincere intentions, however, it is tendentious prose – with a clear division between hardworking and parasitic individuals, which leads to predictable narrative solutions and discourages potential readers.
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‘Without Dogma’ (1891) & ‘Children of the Soil’ (1895) by Henryk Sienkiewicz
After completing his famous Trilogy, Henryk Sienkiewicz published two contemporary novels. Without Dogma is written in the form of a decadent’s diary. Leon Płoszowski, a wealthy, 35-year-old Polish count living with his father in Rome, is a regular frequenter of European salons and an example of ‘Slavic idleness’, a refined social parasite suffering from a lack of purpose. Sienkiewicz, who focused on a psychological analysis of this free-spirited aesthete, did not, however, maintain the necessary distance from his subject – the lack of unequivocal condemnation of the novel’s main protagonist provoked discussions and disputes in which the author was even accused of immorality.
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The protagonist of the novel Children of the Soil is an impoverished nobleman involved in commercial trade in Warsaw. An authentic portrayal of impoverished landowners aspiring to join the emerging nouveau riche class was painted with epic grandeur, which – contrary to the author’s intentions – can be regarded as an apology for it. In both novels, Sienkiewicz realistically depicts the parasitism and idleness of the wealthy elite.
‘Nasza Szkapa’ (Our Nag) by Maria Konopnicka (1893)
Maria Konopnicka – the ‘most socially minded of all Polish poets’, according to the philosopher and sociologist Kazimierz Kelles-Kraus – applied an interesting narrative structure in her novella Nasza Szkapa (Our Nag), which was published in the collection Na Drodze (On the Way). The story takes the form of a teenage boy’s diary. Wicek Mostowiak lives with his parents and brothers, Felek and Piotr, in a squalid tenement house in Warsaw’s Powiśle district. His father, a river sand miner, has lost his job.
In order to survive, the Mostowiaks are forced to sell their meagre possessions. The hardest for the children was to part with their old, worn-out horse. Its buyer promises to take the boys’ mother, who is dying from consumption, to the cemetery for free. When the first clods of soil fall on their mother’s coffin, the boys return to their beloved old nag and decorate its harness with freshly picked flowers.
In his Diary (Warsaw 1992), Jan Lechoń wrote that Konopnicka’s novellas are ‘masterpieces, very human, but without even a hint of sentimentality – even less sentimentality than the works of Sienkiewicz’. In her works, Konopnicka allowed poor, simple, common people to speak, which was a very innovative literary approach. Before that, their fates were most often described by third parties, from an intellectual point of view.
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‘Ludzie Bezdomni’ (Homeless People) by Stefan Żeromski (1900)
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Stefan Żeromski (in the frame center) in the Tatra Mountains, 1916, photo: National Library / Polona.pl
Joanna Podborska, the heroine of Stefan Żeromski’s novel Ludzie Bezdomni, is an impoverished noblewoman. Sensitive and intelligent, she leaves her hometown of Kielce to lead an independent life, supporting herself financially as a tutor. After falling in love with a doctor named Tomasz Judym, she dreams of becoming his wife.
Tomasz is a young, lively doctor from a lower social milieu. He is wholeheartedly committed to improving the lives of the working class. He feels that philanthropic activities are insufficient, however. He becomes deeply involved in projects aimed at radical change – which expose him to perpetual conflicts with the people around him, who are mostly focused on their own selfish interests. This forces him to leave Warsaw and move to Zagłębie, via Cisy.
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Despite his love for Joasia Podborska, he sacrifices his own personal happiness in order to devote himself utterly to fighting the injustice experienced by people on the margins of society (a romantic motif of sacrifice for the general good slips into the realistic tone of the story at this point). Tomasz and Joasia are far away from each other, which causes them a great deal of suffering. However, Joasia does nothing to regain her beloved. Perhaps she acknowledges the nobility of the doctor’s position, although it’s also possible that she’s held back by her own pride.
‘The Peasants’ by Władysław Reymont (1904)
Władysław Reymont set the action of his novel The Peasants in the village of Lipka, where he worked as a lower-ranking officer of the Warsaw-Vienna Railway. Against this rural backdrop, he presents the sensual love of two unbridled temperaments, which goes against all social norms. He depicts it without the slightest inhibition, as if his writing were also guided by an irrepressible instinct.
Jagna Paczesiówna, a village beauty, becomes the second wife of the richest farmer in the village, an older man named Maciej Boryna. Surrounded by housekeepers who are hostile towards her, she is quite unhappy as a housewife. She is soon swept away by affection for her husband’s son, Antek Boryna. The affection is reciprocated.
They both disregard the fact that he has a wife, named Hanka, and two children. Their fervent passion for each other doesn’t escape the attention of their family or other members of the rural community. Jagna is deemed immoral, her name is dragged through the mud, and she’s expelled from the village. After Maciej’s sudden death, Antek takes over the patrimony and repairs his relationship with his wife – but he doesn’t get involved in the village’s lynching of Jagna.
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The four-volume work, encompassing all the seasons of the year, meticulously presents the traditions and customs of Poland’s provincial society at the end of the 19th century. There is a rich literary tradition of depicting the social problems prevalent in Polish villages. Awareness of them increased, especially, thanks to the novels and novellas of the above-mentioned writers: Prus, Orzeszkowa, Konopnicka and Sienkiewicz. Their works created fertile soil for the four volumes of Reymont’s The Peasants, which led to the author winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1924.
‘Nights and Days’ by Maria Dąbrowska (1931-1934)
In Nights and Days, Maria Dąbrowska presents a full panorama of the lives of Polish people from the social sphere of impoverished landowners. This four-volume work, full of historical references, depicts the plight of a couple struggling to survive in the face of the challenges of their time. The man and woman complement each other because of their opposite characters. Deep in her heart, Barbara Ostrzeńska remains faithful to her first love, Count Józef Toliboski, who has nevertheless married a more affluent maiden.
After a while, Barbara accepts a marriage proposal from Bogumił, a nobleman 15 years older than her, who has lost his social standing, and who fought in the January Uprising. He’s a man who remains in constant harmony with nature. Barbara is essentially a contemplative person, while Bogumił is a man of action, deeply engaged in working for his family – and for the land. Barbara often expresses her discontent with life, but in moments of historic trials, she is able to meet every challenge. In the end, despite many ups and downs, their marriage (perhaps a marriage of convenience?) can be considered successful.
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Dąbrowska’s novel presents a perfect portrait of the disappearing epoch of people who have been deeply rooted in the countryside for many generations. It depicts life unfolding within the manors of landowners and in peasant huts. Maria Dąbrowska gives both these strata of society the opportunity to express themselves fully within the pages of Nights and Days.
And this is where we’ll have to end our overview. The pro-social line drawn by these works by Polish writers is also visible on the literary map after World War II. In addition to fiction, the genre of literary non-fiction has recently been developing dynamically in Poland – but this is a topic for a completely different story.
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Originally written in Polish, translated by Scotia Gilroy, Nov 2020