Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 536

The plot of Ashes is romantic and fanciful, although often embellished with a realistic covering of details and description. At times it suggests the picaresque tales of Henry Fielding and other eighteenth century novelists, but it also has a lushness and romanticism that are more German than English. The idealistic hero of this novel, Raphael Olbromski, questions the meaning of existence; certainly, in the course of his life, he has reason to doubt the purpose of human suffering. Yet he has an idealism centered in his love for Helen and in his patriotism.

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Raphael is essentially passive, letting others work on him; his actions are unpremeditated and often foolish. His father, the prince, the brigands, and others send him hither and thither, changing the course of his existence, and because he has no particular ambitions, he obeys or yields to these forces. He is, for example, led to join the Masons, but through no convictions of his own. He is impressionable, impetuous, and naïve, and he often gets into trouble, as when he and Christopher return to school naked, when he runs away, when he kisses Elizabeth after rescuing her, and when he and Helen flee together. More than once, his character and his adventures come close to straining the reader’s credulity.

Stefan eromski possesses a gift for describing action. The novel is filled with excellently drawn scenes, including the hunting scene that opens the book, the scene of the sleighs rushing between estates during holiday festivities, the scene of riding through snow on Baska to Helen’s house, and the scene of Raphael and Baska chased by wolves. The characterization, too, is often fine; eromski can in a single detail encompass a whole personality, as in his description of the superior half-smile always on the faces of Prince Gintult and his sister, Elizabeth.

Raphael is torn between the shallow society of the cities and the life of the country. He is educated but not dedicated to books or intellectual pursuits, preferring to hunt and roam about in the woods and fields. For a long time, he exists on the fringes of the great world, barely aware of the momentous happenings occurring elsewhere. Then he is caught up in the wheel of history, and when his fortunes become so low that they cannot sink any lower, his old friend Christopher Cedro appears to save him.

Raphael tries to rebuild his uncle’s old estate, but again history and Christopher carry him away, and once more his fate is determined by forces outside himself. Perhaps eromski is suggesting through the life of his protagonist that it is futile for people to struggle against the forces of destiny and history.

Much of this work is in the German Romantic tradition. eromski describes nature in great detail and devotes long sections to philosophical speculations engendered by contemplation of nature. The tragic love affair of Helen and Raphael and the frequent unconnected sequences of action are reminiscent of the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. By contrast, the scenes that describe some of the Napoleonic campaigns are precise and realistic. Ashes ranks high as a historical novel, and eromski has been acknowledged as a master of the genre.

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