Study Guide

Ferdydurke

by Witold Gombrowicz

Ferdydurke Summary

Summary (Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Johnnie is a thirty-year-old author who is disappointed over the reception of his writing. Critics have called his work immature and he, in turn, complains of the power they have over his reputation. Why should these “cultural aunts and uncles” be in a position to define literature? Johnnie is outraged that people whose intellects he cannot respect have so much say over the course of his career, yet he realizes that it is in the nature of things that the individual’s self is defined by others.

Unaccountably, Johnnie suddenly finds that his life is no longer his own. He is taken in hand by Professor Pimko, a distinguished scholar who puts Johnnie back in school. Strangely enough, no one seems to notice that Johnnie is much older than his fellow pupils. Indeed, they welcome him as though he fit right in. At school, the tyranny of the teacher’s opinions is even worse than the literary critics Johnnie attacked earlier in the novel. Pupils are expected to cherish great writers, such as the nineteenth century Romantic poet Juliusz Slowacki, just because the teacher says that they are great. What is at stake is not really the greatness of the literature which the students study but rather the opinions of the teacher.

The same is true for the society of students. The students are led by the boy who can establish himself as an authority and not necessarily by the one who has the better argument. Mientus and Siphon fight over whether the...

(The entire section is 594 words.)

Ferdydurke Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Johnnie Kowalski awakens one morning from a nightmare in which he reverted to adolescence: The adult in him was mocking the youth and vice versa, and all the ill-fitting parts of his adolescent body were jeering at one another in rude and raucous fashion. The dream brings back uncomfortable memories of his literary debut and his sense of being doubly trapped, by his own childhood and by the childishness in others’ perception of him, “the caricature of myself which existed in their minds.” At the moment he sat down to make a new start, to write a new book that would, this time, be truly identical with himself, the distinguished professor T. Pimko appeared on his doorstep. As the diminutive but terrible Pimko quizzed him on King Ladislas and Latin grammar, Kowalski felt himself shrinking to schoolboy size. His adult mind knew that the situation was absurd, but his body seemed paralyzed, and when Pimko dragged him off to enroll in school, Kowalski did not resist.

Neither the boys nor the schoolmasters seemed to notice anything odd or unusual, and Kowalski found himself conforming to schoolboy behavior in spite of himself. Like the others, he languished in stultifying classroom sessions where the masters taught that Juliusz Sowacki’s poetry was great because Sowacki was a great poet; like the others, he smeared ink on his hands and picked his nose. Only one boy, Kopeida, seemed unaffected by any of this. Kowalski was drawn into a “duel of grimaces” between Siphon, the honorable, innocent Adolescent, and Mientus, the champion of crass, foulmouthed Boyhood. Mientus, on the verge of losing, simply called on his cronies to attack Siphon, and they held him down while Mientus poured all the obscenities he knew into Siphon’s ear.

At the very climax of this “violation by the ear,” Pimko reappeared and dragged Kowalski away again, this time to the home of the Youthful family, where he was to rent a room. The family consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Youthful (both educated and both earnestly progressive) and their daughter Zutka, who was the embodiment of the modern girl—athletic, unaffected, and absolutely invulnerable. At this point Kowalski became not only unable but also unwilling to reveal his true, thirty-year-old self: All he cared about was what Zutka thought of him. He tried to gain the psychological advantage by annoying her, but drunken Mientus, boasting of his exploits with the housemaid and rambling on about running away to the country to fraternize with honest stable...

(The entire section is 1024 words.)