Under the influence of the Polish positivist movement, which emphasized the need to educate the people and gradually improve society, and which called for literature focusing on the middle class and the common people rather than on the aristocracy, Sienkiewicz at the beginning of his career wrote stories about the plight of the peasants. In “Bartek the Conqueror,” he wrote about a simple Polish peasant, drafted to fight on the Prussian side in the Franco-Prussian War, who ends up torn between obeying his Prussian superiors and aiding some fellow Poles who are fighting on the side of the French.
This issue of divided loyalties is a recurring theme in Sienkiewicz’s works, from the Polish soldier Kmicic in The Deluge having to decide whether to follow his traitorous commander, to the Cossacks in With Fire and Sword having to decide whether to rebel against the Polish Commonwealth, to Marcus Vinitius in Quo Vadis deciding whether to stay true to Rome and its traditions or to join the new movement of Christians. There is even Prince Yeremi in With Fire and Sword, who has to decide whether to obey his government’s orders to negotiate with the rebel Cossacks or disobey them in the name of the greater good of saving the commonwealth.
This issue of divided loyalties is a personal and psychological one, but it is connected to social causes, in particular the cause of Poland as a nation threatened or ruled by others. Even in Quo Vadis, which on the surface is a tale of ancient Rome, the issue is how to deal with a tyrannical empire much like the Russian empire of the late nineteenth century.
Thus although Sienkiewicz drifted away from positivism, writing more about upper class characters or characters like Yanko the child musician, who has a talent that does not fit with his peasant status, he still focused on social themes in the manner of the positivists, in his case the theme of Poland’s status as a nation. It is possible to see most of the themes and situations in his fiction as reflecting the Polish national situation. Many of his heroes, such as Pan Yan in With Fire and Sword, Marcus Vinitius in Quo Vadis, and Kmcic in The Deluge, spend much of their time ill or wounded, tended by others, waiting helplessly while others step forward to rescue them or the women they love, all suggesting the situation of helpless Poland, divided between three conquering empires and unable to rescue itself.
Similarly, the Hamlet-like indecision of the hero of Without Dogma has been seen to reflect the paralysis of Poland in the nineteenth century. One message of Sienkiewicz’s fiction seems to be that Poland is unable to assert its nationhood. Indeed, he may even be saying it would be imprudent to do so, if the early Christians of Quo Vadis represent the Poles of the nineteenth century. The Christians resolutely refrain from fighting back against Roman tyranny; they preach acceptance of suffering, patience, and forgiveness, and yet Sienkiewicz frequently reminds the readers of Quo Vadis that Christianity conquers Rome in the end.
The message would seem to be one of prudence, of patience in the face of Russian rule. Yet Sienkiewicz is also the novelist of battle. Especially in the trilogy, he depicts one battle after another. He is celebrated for his ability to depict scenes of war. Even in Quo Vadis the most memorable scenes are the ones of the gladiators and wild animals in the arena, and the most gripping moment involving a Christian is not any of the passive deaths that most of the Christians allow themselves to be led to but the fight put up by the strongman Ursus. Thus though on the one hand Sienkiewicz seems to preach prudence, on the other he seems to be wishing for conquest and victory by force. He decries revolution in Whirlpools, but he is at his most enthusiastic depicting uprisings, battles, and similar events in the trilogy.
The trilogy is also a great celebration of Polish nationhood, harking back to a time when there was a great Polish empire in Europe. It is true, though, that Sienkiewicz chooses a time period when the Polish empire was under threat; each of the novels of the trilogy shows the empire embattled. In With Fire and Sword, there is an uprising of Cossacks against Polish rule; in The Deluge there is a Swedish invasion; and in Pan Michael there is a threat from the Turks and Tartars.
In other words, Sienkiewicz in this way also is a novelist in conflict; he is both celebrating Polish greatness and indicating its precarious nature. What is more, to a certain extent he is questioning the morality of old Polish rule, for in With Fire and Sword Pan Yan, the Polish officer, is forced to admit that the Cossacks have legitimate grievances against their Polish rulers. Perhaps all empires lead to tyranny, or perhaps Sienkiewicz for a moment is letting the Polish empire of the seventeenth century represent the Russian one of the nineteenth.
There is also the issue of the decline of European civilization. Especially in Quo Vadis, though the Roman empire of Nero may be a despicable tyranny that deserves destruction, it does put on grand spectacles that Sienkiewicz delights in portraying. He also delights in portraying the elegant aristocrat, Petronius, who is very much attached to the old world, even though he despises Nero. If Rome falls and the pure and virtuous Christians triumph, is that entirely good? Though he seems to be celebrating the early Christians, Sienkiewicz also seems to be suggesting that some aspects of the old...
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