As it has become commonplace to assume that serious works of fiction cannot appeal to a wide readership, the enduring popularity of a novel with the general public can obscure its literary merits. Such has been the case with Quo Vadis, a work acclaimed by an early reviewer as “one of the great books of our day,” subsequently translated into dozens of languages, and still in print more than a century after its initial publication. Henryk Sienkiewicz’s deft handling of the central characters and focus on external action, coupled with his championing of traditional Christian values, have been both strengths and liabilities. While some have seen Henryk Sienkiewicz as a kind of prophet, revealing in his novel a way out of the moral morass that characterizes the modern era, others have dismissed Quo Vadis as propaganda that does little more than pander to popular sentiment by offering simplistic solutions to complex moral and social dilemmas.
To appreciate the literary merits of the novel, it may be helpful to understand the source of the novelist’s inspiration for the work. During the nineteenth century, there emerged throughout Europe and the United States an interest in the civilizations of Greece and Rome, and writers found in the annals of classical societies fertile material for a number of popular works. Readers throughout the Western Hemisphere were treated to historical tales such as Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii (1834), John Henry Newman’s Callista: A Sketch of the Third Century (1856), and Nicholas Wiseman’s Fabiola (1854) in England (translated into Polish and widely read in Sienkiewicz’s native land), and a number of Polish novels such as Józef Ignacy Kraszewski’s many historical works. Sienkiewicz found a parallel between the moral chaos of his time and the history of Rome. The success of novels set in classical Rome convinced Sienkiewicz that the time was right for him to employ the history of Rome as a means of making a commentary on his own age and on timeless issues of human values.
Like all serious historical novelists, Sienkiewicz chose his materials carefully, so that the period he depicts is one...
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