Analysis of Władysław Reymont’s The Peasants

The Peasants is undoubtedly the greatest narrative achievement by the Polish author Władysław Reymont (1867–1925). The four volumes of the novel, titled after the four seasons, were serialized in a weekly magazine for nearly a decade and finally earned him the Nobel Prize in literature in 1924. The work’s originality stems from a detailed presentation of rural customs and characters. The story of the individual lives of a handful of families is combined with the cycle of death and rebirth of nature and Christian liturgy, elements that give the novel its unity and universality.

The Peasants, set exclusively in the village of Lipce in central Poland, presents a year in the life of the community. The exact time of the novel is not specified since objective, historical time is of lesser importance to the farmers, whose life depends on the rhythm of reoccurring patterns of the changing seasons. The plot evolves mainly around the Boryna family. Maciej Boryna is one of the richest and most respected farmers in the neighborhood. Though he has been widowed twice and has grown children, he decides to marry again, choosing the 19-year-old Jagusia (Jagna), despite her bad reputation. He is unaware that Jagusia has had an affair with his own son, Antek (among others), and she marries Maciej Boryna only because her calculating mother advocates the union. Jagusia, a dreamy and passionate woman, is indifferent both to Maciej and to his lands.

The marriage is opposed by Antek, who is jealous of his father and infuriated that his inheritance is slipping away, as Maciej gives his new wife a generous part of his best lands, completely ignoring his four children. After an argument escalates into a fight, Maciej throws Antek out of the house with his two children and a pregnant wife. Antek’s family later suffers great poverty, partly because of his drinking. Though Jagusia tries to be faithful to Maciej, the youth and strength of Antek compel her to yield to him again. Maciej, humiliated in front of the whole village, first sends his wife away but later takes her back only to treat her as a servant. Jagna feels miserable, especially because her relationship with Antek no longer gives her happiness. The lovers blame each other for the social ostracism they have to endure from their adultery.

When the local landowner sells the wood that is officially on a common ground, the villagers resist the lumberjacks and a fight starts. When the gamekeeper hits Maciej, Antek’s long-suppressed loyalty toward his father suddenly rises and he kills the man. Father and son are reconciled, but Maciej, who has been hit hard on the head, loses consciousness while all the village men, including Antek, are taken to prison. With most of the men imprisoned, the running of the farms falls solely to the women. Antek’s wife, Hanka, moves back to old Boryna’s cottage. She looks after the property and attends her unconscious father-in-law, since Jagusia ignores him. Two other men soon appear in Jagusia’s love life: the village’s chief officer and Jas´, a young priest-to-be. After Maciej’s death, Hanka evicts her rival from the cottage and resists the attempts of the smith, the late Boryna’s son-in-law, to take his money, hidden in the corn. She uses it to pay Antek’s bail.

After his return, Antek is impressed with Hanka’s management of the farm. He also realizes that the continuation of his affair with Jagna might endanger his new reputation as the informal village leader, which he inherited after Maciej’s death. The villagers, especially women envious of Jagna’s beauty, decide to banish her as the disturber of morality. Other subplots fill the book’s pages with colorful action and emotive power: the beggar woman Agata, who wanders during the winter to collect money for a funeral; the love affair of Tereska while her husband is serving in the Russian army; the courting and marriage of Szymek and Nastusia; the patriotic activity of Roch, who teaches Polish history and raises national awareness in the peasantry; and the fate of former uprising participants Kuba and Jacek.

The collective portrayal of peasantry is drawn with great precision and honesty. Reymont focuses on their devotion to the land and the hardships of agrarian cultivation. He does not idealize his subjects and presents their cruelty (evictions of children or parents, treatment of servants, harsh economic division between wealthy farmers and landless peasants), malice, stupidity, xenophobia, and greed. Nevertheless, he is also aware of their capacity for charity, sincerity, and piety. When somebody is in real need, the rest of the community forgets their mutual grudges and helps generously.

The novel is narrated in an unusual manner. Most of it is written in a lively folk dialect, with spelling, vocabulary, structures, and proverbs faithfully re-created. On the other hand, descriptive patterns are rendered in an impressionistic language filled with poetic similes. The shifting point of view allows for the inner lives of the peasants to be presented in the dialect, with observations of educated characters, such as the priest, in standard Polish.

Reymont planned to write a sequel to The Peasants, to deal with Antek’s life in America, where he intended to flee from imprisonment. The book, however, was never started. The tetralogy was filmed twice.

Boronowski, Peter M. Studie über die “Chlopi” und Dorfnovellen Wladyslaw St. Reymonts. Munich: O. Sagner, 1994.
Krzyzanowski, Jerzy R. Wladyslaw Stanislaw Reymont. New York: Twayne, 1972.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis

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