‘Quo Vadis will rouse more attention than anything I have written hitherto’, claimed Henryk Sienkiewicz in a letter to Jadwiga Janczewska in 1895. Nevertheless, even the author himself did not suspect that the novel would break all records of popularity and bring him a Nobel Prize in Literature.
Sienkiewicz visited Rome several times, and was always guided by Henryk Siemiradzki. Paintings of persecutions of early Christians impressed the writer. He studied ancient history and knew Tacitus almost by heart. Sienkiewicz meant to create a novel that discussed universal values, like the battle between good and evil and the victory of the spirit of freedom over tyranny. Quo Vadis was the outcome of these plans and was preluded by the largely unknown story Let Us Follow Him from 1892 that confronted the ongoing pagan world with the emerging Christianity. The idea of this story was transmuted into a novel that was published in sequential instalments in Gazeta Polska (later also in Czas and Dziennik Poznański) between 26th March 1895 and 29th February 1896. The novel was reprinted immediately in the Russian and German press and shortly book editions appeared in the UK, Italy, France, and the United States. Till today the book has been translated into more than forty languages and millions of copies of it sold. Why is the novel so beloved?
The main thread contrasts early Christianity with the declining pagan Rome at the time of Nero’s rule. This motive had been repeatedly used in literature, Sienkiewicz had most probably read, for instance, Lewis Wallace’s Ben Hur. Quo Vadis has fast-paced action, an intriguing story and most importantly visually artistic scenes. The author joined the historical and fictional (although highly plausible) threads masterfully. We follow the winding love story between Marcus Vinicius, a military tribune and Roman patrician, and Ligia, a Christian from a barbarian tribe called the Ligians (here enters a Polish accent: the tribe lived between the Oder and the Vistula; this is the reason why some read the novel as a comment on tsarism). Their love affair is bursting with drama: a kidnapping, a runaway lover, Vinicius’s conversion to Christianity, Ligia’s imprisonment and her rescue from the arena in the culminating point of the novel, and finally the lovers’ reunion.
The romantic thread hides a great religious story. The action occurs in Rome (in opposition to other historical novels of the writer where the protagonists constantly travel) in the last years of Nero’s rule (63-66, with an epilogue in 68) and at the time of the persecution of early Christians. Sienkiewicz chose the most unfavourable period of Nero’s rule, which allows the writer to show the ruler in an unequivocally negative way (Sienkiewicz was never so radical before). As much as Nero is an expressive character, Petronius is a great psychological creation. He is an epicurist who values physical beauty as much as the idea of beauty, a philosopher and politician. He is also the moving spirit of the story. As a member of the cultural world of the city, he represents the degenerated surroundings of the emperor. In the end he commits suicide.
‘Great characters and great frames are the unquestionable artistic achievement of the author of Quo Vadis’, underlines Tadeusz Żabski. The researcher of Sienkiewicz’s works also emphasizes its great stylization of Latin. The language is indeed full of terminology that creates a grid of references to the ancient times. Additionally, allusions to mythology and a precisely reconstructed map of Rome allow readers to feel immersed in the Eternal City.
In Poland the book was largely acclaimed by the public but critics were more distant. Piotr Chmielowski represented the middle position: he admired the representation of the Christian world but condemned concentrating on the pair of lovers at the cost of historical facts. Ignacy Matuszewski saw Sienkiewicz’s artistry in his ability to describe and notice shapes, colours and motions. He was alone in his opinion, as other critics pointed at the lack of religiousness, psychological depth and expressions. Nowadays, the writer is recognised as a classic of Polish literature because of The Trilogy whereas Quo Vadis is forgotten.
The greatest of Sienkiewicz’s competitors was Bolesław Prus. Their artistic paths ran in parallel: Without Dogma, The Doll, The Polaniecki Family and The New Woman were all written in the same period of time. Historians of literature admire Prus more, though when we compare Quo Vadis and Pharaoh from the perspective of literary quality Sienkiewicz undoubtedly wins.
The scale of the novel's success all over the world surprised the author himself. In the United States Quo Vadis was the most popular book of 1898 and the great William Faulkner was one of Sienkiewicz's fans. The French audience praised the novel as well, but French critics could not stand the fact that Sienkiewicz was not French. Most of the reviews used words such as ‘kitsch’ and ‘plagiarism’. In Italy almost hundred editions of the book were published in a few years. Some commentators even suggested a cult of the author. In the face of such a popularity, the Swedish Academy could not stay silent. Sienkiewicz was awarded a Noble Prize for his ‘outstanding merits as an epic writer’, and not – as it is commonly wrongly assumed – for this particular novel. However, he would probably not have won it without Quo Vadis.
Its countless circulation, numerous translations (including Yiddish, Latin and Esperanto), and film, musical and theatrical adaptations did not bring Sienkiewicz any reasonable profits. Russia, whose citizen was Sienkiewicz, had not signed the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. Eventual professional fee was only a good will of publishers. The love of millions of readers was proved to be priceless.
Published in ‘Gazeta Polska’ between 1895-96
The first book publication in 1896
- Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo Vadis (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1946, translated by Jemiah Curtin).
Author: Agnieszka Warnke, translated by Antoni Wiśniewski, March 2016