#language & literature
Leo Tolstoy once said that if you describe a single village well, you describe the whole world. This famous sentence fits Władysław Reymont’s novel ‘The Peasants’, written and published between 1904 and 1909. Reymont received the Nobel Prize for it in 1924, and the book went on to be translated into many European languages. Its theme was universal; the novel’s French translator called it a ‘testimony to European peasants’.
Fascination about the ‘simple life’ in nature is as old as literature itself. One of its earliest examples is Works and Days by Hesiod, written in ancient Greece. But in the 19th century, there were some new factors involved. European romantics rediscovered their cultural treasures, which had been kept up by peasants over the years. Anthropologists, such as Frazer, followed in their footsteps. Industrialisation was changing the traditional way of living all across Europe, and former peasants were moving to cities. Gradually, fascination for rural life was born amongst broader audiences, people who lived in cities and were detached from nature. In Poland, it was called chłopomania – a peasant obsession.
Its elements can be seen in the works of artists such as Stanisław Wyspiański. Important and warmly received peasant novels were written by such giants as Emil Zola and Knut Hamsun. Peasantry’s most influential advocate was perhaps Leo Tolstoy, who preached a ‘return to the land’ and even tried to work as a farmer. A similar experiment was conducted by Henryk Sienkiewicz, who tried to commit to field labour in a writer’s colony in America. This project failed, since he and the other artists just couldn’t rise early enough. The peasant topic was trending and Reymont’s novel came at a very good time.
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It’s worth mentioning that the people described in the novel were nothing like modern farmers in Western Europe, working on large chunks of land, landowners and businessmen in one. Polish peasantry – whose members could be still seen in Poland and Eastern Europe until very recently – was an entirely different breed. Their ways of living, community rituals and customs dated back to antiquity, or even the Neolithic period.
The Peasants is a novel about Lipce, a Polish village from the late 19th century. It’s partially based on a real village, called Lipce Reymontowskie – but the author decided to distort its topography and language to achieve a more ‘universal’ effect. The novel’s protagonists are Maciej Boryna, a rich farmer and a village leader, his rebellious son Antek and Jagna – the femme fatale, a beautiful girl who marries the older Boryna but falls in love with his son. This love triangle has tragic consequences, creating a growing enmity between Maciej and Antek, whilst Jagna is condemned by the village. Critics and scholars have pointed out that the main structure of the novel resembles an ancient epic. Jagna plays the role of Helen of Troy, the village beauty, luring men into tragic conflicts.
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The exact time frame of the story is blurry, most likely set in the last decades of the 19th century. It was an interesting moment in Polish history, when peasants, who made up the majority of Poland and were known as chłopi, gained a national identity. Such processes were happening all over Europe. In the novel, patriotism is cultivated by Roch, a mysterious, religious wanderer, probably connected to the tragic January Uprising. His stories and legends add another layer to the novel, a mixture of mysticism, Romantic reminiscences and folk Catholicism. In one of the main plots of the novel, the inhabitants of Lipce are arguing with the local landowner for the forest, but they are also in conflict with Russian authorities.
The characters are strong and diverse, with distinguished personalities and passions. Amongst them, the most complex is Jagna. Her sensitivity and passion remind me of the tragic, self-destructive women from Tennessee Williams’s plays. She is not just beautiful and voluptuous. Jagna is very sensitive, yet somehow unable to see her own soul, to protect herself. In that aspect, she resembles Madame Bovary or Tess d’Uberville. Her beauty attracts and devastates men around her, but makes her easy prey because she lacks thick skin and a cunning nature. Her own charms turn against her when she becomes attracted to a young priest candidate, therefore transgressing one of the most important taboos of the village.
One could say that it’s just a cliché, coming from the male perspective: the fantasy of the femme fatale, eternal temptress, Salome and Lilith, something that was popular in literature and art during Reymont’s era. Nevertheless, I think Reymont really sympathised with Jagna. For example, there are scenes when Jagna displays artistic sensitivity and true talent. But there is not much use for that in her place and time, except a few times per year, when people are preparing traditional, painted Easter eggs, pisanki, or Christmas decorations. Perhaps her constant flirting and seducing was just a substitute, an escape from her dull existence? She resembles an alienated artist, popular in Young Poland’s art, surrounded by philistines, blind and insensitive moguls. Some claimed that Reymont idealised village life, but the whole of Jagna’s plot feels more like an accusation. Reymont seems to like her more than the men that played with her. Like in Baudelaire’s famous poem, she‘s a beautiful, rare bird with no place to spread its wings.
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Her main lover, Antek Boryna, is a man driven by external circumstances. He endures and adapts, perhaps becomes hardened and cruel. Just as life in the village cycles around harvests and seasons, the life of human beings has its cycles. At the end of the novel, Antek starts to resemble his own father and one can just wonder if he will replay the same Freudian conflict with his own son. Part of the devastating effect of the novel is achieved by its stark contrasts. The individuals suffer, but life goes one.
When an unfitting individual is ostracised, the whole organism – the village – is healed. Life goes on and sometimes there is nothing more unbelievable and shocking than that. The village of Lipce resembles a living organism, whose mechanisms are as inevitable and ruthless as the processes of metabolic conversion in a single cell. Alluring Jagna is dangerous to the stability and integrity of the village, so its immunologic system starts to act. The thorn must be pulled out. The way that the conservative community deals with the artistic, sensual woman is haunting.
In the broader scope, the novel shows four seasons of village’s life, with its calendar rituals, cycles of ploughing, plantation and harvesting. The prominent role of nature and its poetic descriptions are one of the most distinguishing elements of the novel. Usually, so-called ‘panoramas of nature’ from 19th-century prose tend to be tedious for modern readers. Since photography and films, with their direct capturing of pictures, eradicated the need for such long description, literature has changed. Having said that, in the case of Reymont’s novel we can see the advantages of literature as a medium. This book has an almost shamanic feel. Reymont animates nature and connects its changing seasons with human moods and emotions. Such connection is one of the main distinctions between peasant and modern city folk. Humans and seasons meld together.
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On the other hand, the daily narrative of the novel is often from an insider, peasant perspective and quite far from poetic. At times it’s naturalistic and brutal. Peasants don’t stare at the land, admiring. They work it and crave it. Possessing one little chunk of field more marks a difference between life and death from starvation, so likely to happen in winter or spring. Perhaps the most important feeling in the book is not love, but hunger. But sometimes the narrative becomes humorous and mocking, gossip-loving and down to the earth. Especially with Jagustynka, an old, ‘toxic’ lady, feared and respected for her acid tongue, who comments on various daily events in Lipce, like a proto blogger.
The contrast between all those aesthetics is strong but various styles complement each. The Peasants is a truly complete novel, a world in a nutshell. It sparkles with vivid, realistic details. Some scenes resemble the village paintings of Peter Breughel, sparkling with countless seasonal activities. It’s bafflingly educational, showing various activities, field works, religious ceremonies and feasts, animal slaughtering, wood collecting and bread making. In that regard, the book can be quiet handy for a modern prepper. In the TV adaptation of the novel from 1972 we can also see all the richness of the colourful folk clothes and dances.
The nature and ‘border moments’ such as deaths are described by an expressionistic, modernistic language, belonging to the poetic culture of the Young Poland movement. This style is often high pitched, stylised to approximate language from the Bible. The death of one of the characters, an old man who dies on the field while planting seeds, is one of the most touching scenes that I ever found in literature, portrayed with truth, intimacy and clarity.
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Władysław Stanislaw Reymont
According to some literature scholars such as Kazimierz Wyka, Reymont was obsessed with death. No other writer in Poland wrote so many notable scenes of dying. For the modern reader, those scenes are strikingly different than the typical entertaining, bloody mess we find in pop culture. And just like pornography reduces and deforms love, the average violent movie, video game or TV show just mimics and mocks death. Reduces it to a quick and attractive spectacle, food for the senses. In Reymont’s book, dying takes days and weeks. It’s a long, detailed process, describing the changing of skin colour, the weakening of breath, various odours and the decomposing of the mind. And it raises fundamental questions. You could almost feel that the author wants to know what’s really happening here? How come we all keep on dying and still dare to ignore this fact?
Reymont liked to use strong, disturbing contrasts. An individual’s demise and suffering pass unnoticed by the world. When an old beggar lady dies, observed by a shocked young cleric, the author immediately moves to a description of vitality. Pictures of sunshine and crops, fertility and daily labour. Life goes on and it doesn’t care ‘for one, poor soul, struggling in the claws of death’. The world of The Peasants is epic and circular, ensnared in the eternal cycle of seasons, births and deaths, but its inhabitants, the characters of the novel, are shown as painfully fragile and fleeing. It’s one many paradoxes which contribute to the richness of this book.
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