Writer, journalist, born in 1847 in Hrubieszów and died in 1912 in Warsaw.
Antoni Głowacki, an aristocrat under the Prus coat of arms, was the prospective writer’s father and Apolonia Trembińska was his mother. Both came from declining noble families who were deprived of their estates. Aleksander’s father owned a parcel of land in Maszów in Wołyń but he didn’t attend to it and worked as a hired land steward in estates near Hrubieszów. The parents died early on and the boy was taken care of by a family council. His aunt Domicella Trembińska looked after him with special attention and he grew genuinely attached to her.
There isn't much on record about his childhood, although it’s highly probable that the descriptions of life in countryside estates and the characters of clerk’s and land steward’s children present in his novels and stories are in great part autobiographical. He attended the real school in Lublin and continued his learning in Siedlce and Kielce. As a teenager, he took part in the January Uprising (1863) and suffered a serious head injury from which he never fully recovered. This injury may have been the cause of the agoraphobia that continued to dog him through the rest of his life. After the uprising’s defeat he served a sentence in the prison in Lublin. Following his release he graduated from the high school in Lublin and began studying at the Main School at the department of maths and physics. In 1869 the school was closed down and Głowacki didn’t continue his studies. Perhaps it was because Warsaw University, where classes were held in Russian, wasn’t respected by the Polish intelligentsia, or perhaps – this can be read in his descriptions of his student times – because of the lack of finances. The respect for knowledge and an interest in exact sciences acquired at school accompanied him for the rest of his life as did the need of self-education.
He worked as a tutor in landed estates and for a certain time as a labourer at the Lilpop factory in Warsaw. In 1864 he began his writing and journalistic activities. He lived in Warsaw until his death, where in 1875 he married a distant relative Okatawia Trembińska. He seldom left the city: on occasion he traveled to Nałęczów to undergo treatment; he went on a few trips to Cracow and to the Tatra mountains. Despite the ailments he suffered from, he forced himself to travel abroad once: he visited Germany, France and Switzerland, where he was Stefan Żeromski’s guest.
The intense journalistic and writing work was accompanied by social activity. Up to this day bright country children receive scholarships, which he funded in his testament. He initiated and participated in many social campaigns, amongst others in the work of the Civil Committee, which obtained funds for the labourers who lost their jobs after the strikes in 1905 or in the actions of the Practical Hygiene Society, which provided cheap bathing places for the youths in Nałęczów.
He died in Warsaw on the 19th of May 1912 in his creative prime. His tomb, decorated with a sculpture by Stanisław Jackowski and an inscription "Heart of hearts" is located in the Powązki cemetery and is preserved carefully and visited by numerous admirers of his work. In Nałęczów there is a statue of Prus and a biographical museum dedicated to him. In Warsaw a statue of Prus by Anna Kamieńska-Łapińska and Zygmunt Jasionowski was erected in 1977.
Prus was a member and co-creater of the positivist movement, which formed itself (chiefly in Warsaw) in the beginning of the 1870s. Its creators still lived and were active in the 20th century and from the end of the eighties they coexisted with the Young Poland movement, which was critical of them. Their opinions evolved, but their fundamental assumptions remained unchanged.
The creators of the positivist movement had a similar social status. Aleksander Świętochowski, Piotr Chmielowski, Stanisław Witkiewicz, Antoni Sygietyński, Józef Kotarbiński – to mention only the most important ones – descended from declassed nobility, were usually brought up in the provinces, struggled to obtain their education and, following a period of tutoring, came to Warsaw, where they made a living mostly through writing. They were the first generation of an intelligentsia in the modern sense. They had an important generational experience in common, which shaped their social opinions: the defeat of the January Uprising. Another failed, armed struggle and the repressions and confiscations that followed, induced the belief that the path of insurgency leads to a dead end. In the periodicals Przegląd Tygodniowy, Opiekun Domowy and Niwa they wrote articles which criticized the "old" – the romantics – and which propagated conceptions of cognition, social life and activity, devoted to the well-being of the nation. Their ideas were completely different than the romantic ones.
Their attitude towards romanticism was ambivalent. They were brought up on great romantic literature and didn’t intend to negate its values. Their attacks were directed at the effects this literature had on the epigonous society. The romantic messianism resulted in passiveness, contempt for mundaneness and in an idealization of the past. If the people is chosen and its objectives come from another world, if it’s destined to achieve salvation, than one can idly await the fulfillment of God’s will. If significant cognition is achievable through mystic states of consciousness, than one can disregard empirical experience and science. A people convinced about its uniqueness may not notice the fact that it’s becoming ever more backward, when at the same time the world is evolving. Prus wrote,
Not only are we a backward and poor society. We have, what’s even worse, an illness of the soul. Our old programmes are obsolete and in the present day they have no value whatsoever. We resemble a disorganised crowd of people who have lost their way in a forest in the middle of the night and don’t know where and which way they’re going.
After reading works by western European philosophers and sociologists - August Comte, James Mill, John Spencer and Hippolyte Taine amongst others – the members of the Polish positivist movement adopted elements of evolutionism, utilitarianism, rationalism and empiricism. However they weren’t philosophers: these elements were to be used to build a social program, which would eliminate the civilisational backwardness, improve the economic situation, develop technology, science and education and enhance the status of the poorest. They didn’t abandon dreams of independence, but they decided that in the times of subjugation, much may be accomplished for the society, and with the society, by legal means. Prus wrote,
In every situation, may it be comfortable or inconvenient, the nation should work in the direction of the right to develop itself, not postponing anything to better times.
The programme of the Polish positivist movement was based on two principles: organic work and basic work. The nation resembles an organism and like every living organism it is subject to the laws of evolution. Such an entity develops properly, when all of its elements (social classes, political factions and individuals) cooperate harmoniously aiming at a common goal. Therefore the objectives are centred on the usefulness, success and happiness of society’s every member. The individual, whose condition is determined by nature and society, is merely a cog in the machine, but without the proper functioning of this cog the mechanism doesn’t work properly. Solidarity and social justice are therefore necessary.
Social development requires the progress of science, technology and economy and also the care for culture and the cultivation of traditions and of the language. All of this can be done in times of subjugation. Acquiring modern, rational knowledge based on empirical facts is necessary. This knowledge ought to be offered to the masses, impoverished youths should be enabled to educate themselves and the ignorance of backward villages should be fought with (basic work). Art (chiefly literature) ought to serve these causes and therefore should be realistic, utilitarian and didactic. It should convey knowledge about society, about the processes governing society’s progress and about the natural, social and psychological condition of man. Prus wrote, referring to Taine,
Now we understand what constitutes the core of great art: the presentation of the most general causes and most permanent laws, which rule the world, above all the human world, and also the conveying of the most general and most permanent characteristics of phenomena in a way that is vivid and understandable to the public. This impressive "method of presentation" is art’s casing. However only the "most general causes and characteristics" of phenomena constitute the soul of art and give it an educational character and enable it to change the human kind for the better. Literature, having abandoned its so-called mission and priesthood, has become above all a field of human work, useful work.
Aleksander Głowacki transformed into Bolesław Prus at the beginning of his work as a journalistic. His attitude towards journalism was ambiguous. On one hand he thought that his modern figure should play an important informative-educational part in social life, on the other he regarded work for the press as a "farmhand job" and considered it less valuable than the scientific research he dreamt about. He intended to write a textbook of applied maths and logic and also one of logic for children. He published a dissertation on electricity and translated Mill’s "Logic". For many years he made "Notes on Composition", which included remarks on philosophy, sociology and theory of literature. However he made a living as a journalist. His work became very popular and initiated important social discussions: about the influence of education on morality, about the value of Spencer’s sociology and about the justness of erecting a monument of Adam Mickiewicz amongst others. (He claimed that the poet would be commemorated better by spending the funds allocated to the monument on universal education – this came as a shock to many people). He expressed his opinions in numerous articles, of which the "Draft of a Programme in the Conditions of the Current Progress of Society" (Nowiny 1883) and "The Most General Ideals of Life" (Kurier Codzienny 1897) were the most synthetic. He wrote feuilletons, correspondences, reviews and humorous sketches. He debuted in 1864 in Kurier Codzienny. He wrote for Opiekun Domowy, Mucha, Kolce, Kurier Warszawski, Ateneum, Echo Muzyczne i Teatralne and the St. Petersburg-based Kraj amongst others. Meeting Stanisław Witkiewicz and becoming involved with the group focused around the periodical Wędrowiec was an important experience to him. In 1882 he became editor-in-chief of Nowiny, where he intended to create modern scientific journalism providing knowledge about society, knowledge that would be based on facts. Sadly, Nowiny went bankrupt a year later.
The Chronicles published in various periodicals were very popular. Most of them appeared in Kurier Warszawski in the years 1875-87. In them he raised all the important issues of public life, reacted to current events, informed, instructed and mocked. He worked according to a large scale of formats: feuilletons, social sketches, dialogues, humorous sketches, poems. He didn’t avoid difficult topics and he didn’t hide his emotions. The Chronicles are an extremely valuable document of an era, a record of its opinions, aspirations and everyday life.
Prus’ journalism became an example and an inspiration for a whole generation. It was the starting point of modern, socially committed journalism. Its variety, literary standard, abundance and also the amount of "farmhand work" put into it, startle. The Chronicles published by Zygmunt Szweykowski consist of twenty volumes.
Since 1879 Prus intensively evolved as a writer. (It was then that he debuted with Stan’s Adventure). His stories and novel sketches began to appear in all of the periodicals he collaborated with. In his works he included a great variety of social observations from enfranchised villages, nobility manors, Warsaw or areas he knew from his own experience. He used many forms: dialogues ("Before Copernicus), genre sketches (Saski Garden), humorous sketches with elements of grotesque (Granny’s Troubles). He was influenced by Dickens and a few times used the idea of transferring his characters into alternative realities (dreams, visions), which enabled the evaluation of their "real-life" activities ("Dream, Christmas Eve, The Convert). He kept changing his style of writing and narration. He demonstrated absolute pitch building psychological images of his characters. The protagonists of his works are often poor people, sometimes even reduced to the dregs of society. Many of his characters are children. The ability to show the way in which the protagonists’ perceive the world and the ease of creating their experiences are illustrated for instance by Stan’s Adventure (a few year old explores his surroundings), The Barrel Organ (the development of a blind girl’s sensual sensitivity) or An Orphan’s Lot (Johnny’s perpetual fear in the house of his pseudo-guardians). The language the characters use corresponds with their social status and often is stylized to resemble country or urban dialects. Let us list the most important works from the three volume collection put together by Maria Dąbrowska.
The Barrel Organ
The main character is a known Warsaw attorney, an egoist, who loves life’s pleasures. His sense of aesthetic is offended by the rasping sounds of barrel organs. Therefore the janitor is ordered not to let them into the courtyard. However the attorney once notices that one of his neighbours, a girl living in a shabby apartment, is very fond of barrel organs. He discovers that the girl is blind and that she perceives her surroundings by touching and listening. To her, every sound is an experience of the world. Touched by this, not only does he accept the presence of barrel organs in the courtyard, but also begins to scrutinize a list of the best ophthalmologists in Warsaw.
A slow-witted peasant, forced by poverty to come to the city, finds employment at a construction site. Homeless, pushed around, ostracized and deceived, he is the only one at the building site to help a man buried by rubble. He acts instinctively, automatically and endangers his own life. He doesn’t understand that he has done something remarkable.
The Returning Wave
The German factory owner Adler has one weakness: his love for his son Ferdinand, who is a carouser and a spendthrift and who has run up debts abroad. To fulfill his son’s needs he over-exploits the workers and machines and fires the medic. This negligence becomes the cause of the death of the worker Godusławski, who worked hard hoping to open his own workshop. Adler doesn’t feel guilty or responsible, despite the pastor’s warnings that every deed has its consequences (the title "returning wave") for the man, who does it. In the end Adler meets his doom: Ferdinand is killed in a duel and he himself, frenzied with anguish and grief, sets the factory on fire and dies in its ruins.
In an impoverished and ignorant peasant family a boy is being brought up. Instead of being interested in farm work he is fascinated by technology. He marvels at windmills and builds models. He becomes the helper of a blacksmith, but is dismissed from his position, when it turns out that he has gained more skills than is required of an apprentice. An unquenchable thirst for knowledge (and a hopeless love for the village head’s wife) drives him into the world. 'Maybe someday you’ll meet a country boy looking for a job and cheap education, which he couldn’t find among his own people (…). Give a helping hand to this child. That will be our little brother Antek, for whom our village became too parochial. He left for the world and entrusted his fate to God and good people.'
The topic of philanthropy was always present in Prus’s journalism and literature. He strongly supported authentic charity (Reconciled – poor students take care of a country boy and provide him with an education). He ridiculed ostensible charity, which amounted to nothing but words The Living Telegraph – An appeal for providing an orphanage with books is made by a group of wealthy people. A poor old man and his grandson respond. "Philanthropists – a lady spends a hundred rubles on dresses preparing for a charity ball. The purpose of the event is to aid the poor. The ball raises fifteen rubles).
Various philanthropic characters are present in An Orphan’s Lot. After his father’s death, little Johnny and his mother move in with their relatives, who take advantage of them and expect gratitude. They find a true home in sir Anzelm’s estate, where they also work, earning an honest pay. Unfortunately it’s not long before sir Anzelm goes bankrupt. Johnny and his mother come to Warsaw where they lead an impoverished life. After a short period of time Johnny’s mother dies. Johnny ends up in Mr. Karol’s house. Karol is an "enthusiast", he has wonderful philanthropic ideas, but he gets bored with them quickly. He gets tired of taking care of Johnny and eventually loses any interest in him. Johnny falls prey to Karol’s spoiled sons.
Interesting children characters were created by Prus in the story Sins of Childhood. The protagonist Kazio, who is also the story’s narrator, is spending his vacation in his father’s house. The father works as a land steward. Kazio on one hand has the manor, where his sister and the daughter of the estate’s owner play together, on the other there are the servants, one of whom is Walek, the illegitimate child of a scullery maid. The story shows the complicated relations, fascinations and dramatic tensions that occur between children coming from different backgrounds.
The country themes present in the abovementioned stories were also used in two longer works: Anielka and The Outpost, to portray the economic and social conditions of the countryside. It is a sad image. After the enfranchisement in 1864, the peasants usually received small parcels of land. They weren’t very good with farm work and having no knowledge of modern agricultural techniques they over-exploited the land. The estates were weakened, the nobility wasn’t much better with farm work than the peasants and kept selling land and running up debt. Despite certain democratic trends, the social solidarity awaited by the members of the positivist movement didn’t come into existence: the estates and villages were distrustful of each other, the manors didn’t become centres of farming culture. Perpetual conflict was caused by the so-called servitudes – rights to exploit parts of forests and estates’ fields given in exchange for certain services.
In both abovementioned works Prus used a third-person narration. The stories are told by the so-called omniscient narrator. However in Anielka Prus assumes the point of view of the thirteen year old estate’s owner’s daughter and in The Outpost he takes on the point of view of the ignorant boy
Anielka was originally printed in Wędrowiec in 1880 under the title Missed Novel. The final version, with the changed ending, was published in Szkice i Obrazki" in 1885. It starts out idyllically. Anielka is happy: she has loving parents, a beautiful house, a garden and a favorite dog. She is good to people: her family, the village orphan, even the caustic tutor. Gradually she notices that not everything is as perfect as it seems: her mother is getting ill more and more often, her father is constantly looking for money, the peasants hate him, there is disorder among the servants. She starts hearing news of her father wanting to sell the estate, about him being interested in another, wealthy woman. A series of misfortunes happens: the deal with the peasants interested in buying the land isn’t made, the manor burns down, the father disappears, the mother and the children find shelter in the steward’s hut. After the loss of her mother, Anielka overwhelmed by the bad luck that fell upon her, becomes seriously ill. The wealthy candidate for the father’s new wife can’t save her.
The book was published in Wędrowiec in the years 1885-86 and later put out separately in 1886. The book was received very enthusiastically as an outstanding realistic novel with naturalistic elements. Realistic – because it objectively presented a certain social problem through typical figures consistently characterized accordingly to their social condition. Naturalistic – because the characters were shown as being embedded in a natural world and were subject to its rhythms. The public also noticed a certain ideological meaning – the heroic bond of the Polish peasant with his land, the struggle against foreign colonization and Germanization. Until today, such an interpretation exists in school stereotypes. It’s not entirely true. Józef Ślimak, the novel’s protagonist has an atavistic bond with the land he inherited from his father. It’s the only reality he knows, it’s his only world. He lives in symbiosis with his land, it speaks to him and so do the horses, grass and sun. He lives on it with his wife, two sons and farmhand. He leads a decent life although he is extremely tired by the never ending work. The streak of bad luck begins when the heir sells his own land to German colonists. The colonists don’t oppress anybody and don’t have the slightest intention to Germanize the locals. (By the way, the action takes place in the Russian partition). They are simply looking for a better life in an area where land is cheap and taxes are low. They are hardworking, well-organized, more civilised than the local peasants and are better at farm work. They pray (although Ślimak has doubts considering the sincerity of their faith) and teach their children to read and write. They want to buy Ślimak’s land (for a good price) because it lies in the middle of their fields and also because there is a mound on it – a perfect spot to build a windmill. Indeed, after the colonists arrive, many misfortunes fall on Ślimak: he loses the meadow he leased from the heir, and because of that he can’t provide a sufficient amount of fodder for his cattle. His farm is flooded and his younger son drowns. Thefts begin to occur in the area and he loses his horses. Ślimak refused to buy the meadow from the heir for a good price, because he suspected some kind of a trick. Ślimak didn’t build a dike alongside the regulated river, even though he knew he ought to. (The colonists did). After the disappearing of the horses (stolen by local peasents) Ślimak banishes the farmhand together with a little foundling. This shocks the entire village and the insane mother of the foundling sets Ślimak’s hut on fire. After the fire, it is the colonists who take Ślimak and his dying wife in their home, and offer them help.
Until this moment the novel’s construction is perfectly consistent. Unexpectedly Prus gave it a happy ending. The poor Jewish huckster Jojna Niedoperz meets the miserable Ślimak by chance. He persuades the parson to take an interest in Ślimak’s fate. Eventually the colonists leave and Ślimak, although lonely, stays on his land.
Prus was the first Polish writer to portray a simple peasant 'from the inside'. He made Ślimak a character, not an object of description. He portrayed him with sympathy and with an understandingofr his way of thinking and for the motives of his actions. The novel itself made a career as an argument against Germanisation in the Prussian partition. Faustyna Morzycka wrote a popular version of the novel, which was distributed among the people (For the Patrimony, How one Peasant Won with the Germans 1889). Stanisław Książek Staszewski and Józef Popławski created a play based on The Outpost (1897). It was played, alongside other adaptations of the novel, by numerous professional and amateur theatres. In 1979 Zygmunt Skonieczny made a film based on Prus’s novel entitled The Outpost.
In 1887, Prus began publishing his greatest work – Lalka/The Doll – in the periodical Kurier Codzienny. He finished the novel, which was written in episodes, sometimes with intervals of many months, in 1889. A year later a book edition was put out. It bore clear traces of censorship interference with the political past of the characters. At first the novel wasn’t received enthusiastically. The critics were surprised by the variety of episodes, chaotic composition, double narration, the mixing of realistic and satirical conventions, the pessimism and also – what was in their opinion – an unrealistic psychological character of the protagonist. Only after a certain time did gain its deserved status of the greatest Polish realistic novel on a European level. The pessimism was a product of the disappointment of the members of the positivist movement with the results of the idea of organic work. The protagonist’s biography resembled their group biography. The son of an impoverished nobleman works as a waiter in a restaurant. He has a thirst for knowledge and after overcoming many obstacles begins to study at the Main School. He takes part in the January Uprising and is deported to Siberia, where he makes important acquaintances and has significant scientific achievements. He returns and is incapable of finding a place for himself. Scientists don’t need a salesman and salesmen don’t need a scientist. Saving himself from hunger he marries a woman he doesn’t love and becomes a co-owner of a shop.
We learn about Wokulski’s past fragmentarily, from the diaries of the old salesman Rzecki, who is his friend and employee. Rzecki is a romantic and idealist, who reminisces about the Napoleonic legend and the Hungarian campaign. He is also an acute, although not always credible, commentator of Wokulski’s actions.
Apart from the first person narration of the diary the current events are reported by an omniscient narrator, who often uses internal monologues – mainly Wokulski’s. His inner voice is full of passion and emotions. The current events take place in the years 1878-79. They are preceded by the outburst of a great love. After the death of his wife Wokulski sees Izabela Łęcka, an impoverished aristocrat, in a theatre. In order to get closer to her circles he invests all of his money and makes a fortune on military supplies. The history of Wokulski’s love constitutes the psychological plot of the novel: his courting of Isabela, his hope and despair, his illusions and moments of common sense.
A broad social panorama is presented in the story’s background. The events take place mainly in Warsaw. The episodic character of the novel enables the writer to portray the cities topography and the life of all of its inhabitants with detail: we observe aristocratic salons, houses of the bourgeoisie, the boroughs of the poor, churches, courts, theatres and inns. Prus creates a perfect gallery of types: from the socialites frequenting Łęcki’s salon to students, craftsmen and coachmen. He also creates interesting psychological portraits of various women such as Łęcka, Stawska or Wąsowska. Although surrounded by people, Wokulski exists in a social vacuum. The egoistic and thoughtless aristocracy eagerly accepts the possibility of making a profit he offers, but essentially perceives him as a rich parvenu. The weak bourgeoisie mainly envies him. The economically active Jews have problems with assimilating to the society, which looks upon them with dislike. Wokulski’s entrepreneurship and huge energy, which could bring benefits to economic and social life, go to a waste because of the lack of a social class that he can rely on. Positive characters, such as the chairwoman Zasławska or the young scientist Ochocki are exceptions in this world. The anachronistic, unproductive and non-solidary society destroys creative individuals, it also destroys Wokulski. After he discovers his beloved one’s betrayal he becomes depressed and disappears. Where to? Nobody knows. Earlier he wanted to leave for Paris to meet a scientist, whose inventions were capable of changing the world. He also considered sinking beneath the ground together with the ruins of Zasławek, where he proposed to Isabela. The ruins were actually torn down, but no traces of Wokulski were to be found. His story doesn’t have an ending. And it doesn’t give hope for a quick, positive social change, maybe apart from the sentence, which ends the book: 'Non omnis moriar' – I shall not wholly die. Maybe some spark will remain after the incurable romantic, social activist and animator of economic life.
Theatrical plays based on The Doll were created by Zygmunt Leśnodorski (1952) and Adam Hanuszkiewicz (1966). The book inspired the director Wojciech Has to create a movie under the same title (1968). Ryszard Ber created a television series based on the novel (1978). In Krakowskie Przedmieście, where Prus placed Wokulski’s and Rzecki’s shop, a plaque commemorating the two characters was embedded. The play continues to be one of the most popular productions on the Polish stage.
The New Woman
In 1890 The New Woman was also printed in episodes in Kurier Codzienny". Prus considered it to be his best novel. It was published as a whole in four volumes in 1894. It clearly consists of two parts: the first is quite dense and takes place at Mrs. Latter’s pension, the second is rather episodic and its events occur in the provinces and in various houses in Warsaw. The New Woman expresses Prus’s attitude towards the emerging movement of women’s emancipation. He is firmly against it. The woman’s place is at home with her family, where she can cultivate her natural traits: kindness, delicacy and subtlety of emotions. Suffragettes are women, who against nature, have to fight for their existence. Prus presents a whole gallery of emancipationists: the pension’s owner Mrs. Latter and her young class ladies, Ms. Howard, who is deluded by the feminist ideology and becomes a caricature of a female, or Ms. Malinowska, who, struggling for her existence loses her feminine traits. Mrs. Latter, who tries to run the pension in order to fulfill the needs of her two grown-up, demoralized children, goes bankrupt and dies tragically. Her class lady Madzia is the protagonist of the second part. After leaving the pension she works as a tutor in various provincial and Warsaw houses, maturing and looking for her place in life. Finally she enters a convent. Madzia is definitely a positive character: “a genius of feelings”, the personification of kindness and gentleness. However her values go to a waste because she doesn’t have a man, family or community she may rely on. In this part of the story Prus used various conventions. Realistic scenes are followed by grotesque ones, there is a sentimental theme and also a metaphysical treatise delivered in the form of a speech by professor Dębski, who argues against vulgar materialism and nihilism. The treatise demonstrates a change in Prus’s ideology – the drifting away from empiricism and natural evolutionism. Dębski argues for the existence of God and spiritual reality, he acknowledges the immortality of spiritual entities and the value of suffering. The positivist philosophy ceased to suffice its creators. Plays based upon the novel were created by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, Jerzy Mieczysław Rytard (1953) and Adam Hanuszkiewicz (1968).
In Prus’s next novel, ponderings on the functioning of the state organism and its evolution were dressed in a historical costume. In the years 1895-96 Prus published the Pharaoh in the periodical “Tygodnik Ilustrowany”. The book edition was put out in 1897. The action takes place in Egypt in the 11th century BC. Prus reconstructed the historical context meticulously: customs, rituals (with the impressive funeral of the pharaoh), topography and architecture. The heir to the throne Ramesses XIII is the protagonist. He is soon to become pharaoh. He grows up in times, when Egypt is losing its old might and is slumping into an economic and military crisis. The country is actually ruled by priests, who seize all the riches and implement their own policies (secret treaty with Assyria). The old pharaoh mainly exercises religious practices and doesn’t intend to change the situation. His son begins to discover how weak the secular government really is and how badly the people are being exploited. After becoming pharaoh he declares war on the priests. He intends to gain control over the treasures of the temples, strengthen the army, fight off military threats and introduce righteous rules. He exhibits good will but is impulsive, inexperienced, uneducated and poor. The priests apart from being wealthy possess the centuries-old knowledge, which they often use to manipulate society. Ramesses gains the people’s support and raises their hopes but loses the battle with the priests. The monks provoke riots and attacks on temples. The attacks take place just before an eclipse of the sun. The people interpret the eclipse as an act of the gods’ anger. The priests – unlike the pharaoh – didn’t disregard the reports made by a scientist about the upcoming eclipse. Ramesses is killed by his doppelganger – the Greek Lykon, who is controlled by the monks. However the emerging social consciousness and the plans of repairing the nation remain. The next ruler, the priest Herhor, will have to realize them in order to save Egypt from collapsing. At first the novel met with little response. One of the reasons for this was that Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis was published at the same time and it eclipsed The Pharaoh. However the book’s literary and historical values were appreciated with time.
After writing his three greatest novels Prus stopped evolving as a writer for some time: he wrote petty and small things. The events of 1905 enlivened him as a writer and journalist. In 1909 he published Children. Even earlier he was conscious of the birth and progress of the socialist movement. He approved of it and perceived it as an awakening of the class consciousness of the proletariat and a just struggle for the improvement of the conditions of life. He had however serious doubts considering revolution. From the experience of the January Uprising he remembered chaos, an inefficiency of actions and the lack of tactics. He was worried that this situation might repeat itself. He also feared that a failed revolution might destroy what the members of the positivist movement tried to build: the economic and cultural autonomy of the partitioned society. He never abandoned dreams of independence, but he wrote:
This freedom we must obtain, but we shall never obtain it without having perfect weapons and people with military training. To create a brave army, inspired by the spirit of liberty, is our first and foremost objective. Partisans won’t do the job.
The image of revolution presented in Children is an image of a 'false' revolution. The young boy Kazio Świrski and his colleagues, who found the secret organization 'Knights of Freedom', believe that they participate in a real revolution. They practice military virtues preparing for the uprising. Meanwhile they become influenced by pseudo-socialist activists and agitators or even common crooks, who manipulate them completely. Reality is utterly different than the vision in the boys’ minds. Acting in good faith they undertake terrorist activity and commit crimes and thefts. Eventually, they die or become degenerates. The idealistic youth will pay for the dirty games of the political manipulators fears Prus.
The enthusiasm of the members of the positivist movement began to wear down after over a dozen of years, when it turned out that the ideas of organic and basic work result in meager practical effects. Prus agreed with this criticism. In his opinion this was a result of the nation’s degeneration caused by an anachronistic social structure and by many years of subjugation. According to Prus the noble ideas of positivism became their own caricatures. The very same thing happened to the pathos of the romantic ideas, when it encountered the common consciousness. Rationality and empiricism resulted in petty materialism and nihilism. The call for practical actions caused "higher ideals" to disappear. However, until the end Prus remained a writer involved with public life, sensitive to the fate of the poor and the wronged. Until today he is an example for social activists. His work set a standard and was an inspiration for the great realistic novels. He was admired by Stefan Żeromski. Władysław Reymont, Zofia Nałkowska and Maria Dąbrowska amongst others owed him much. But nobody has ever written anything that can surpass The Doll.
Prus’ novels and stories have been translated into dozens of languages. Most important edition: Writings edited by Ignacy Chrzanowski and Zygmunt Szweykowski, v. 1-29, Warsaw 1948-52.
In 2012, Unesco set the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the writer's passing as part of its international celebrations.
Author: Halina Floryńska-Lalewicz, March 2006. Translated by Marek Kępa in January 2012