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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 519

Two students, Witold and Fuchs, rent a room in the mountain resort of Zakopane in Poland in order to prepare for exams. Perhaps because they are students and therefore in the habit of studying things for their meaning, they begin to observe certain signs that they think are meant to be interpreted. During their first day in Zakopane, they come across a dead, hanging sparrow, and they wonder what message was intended by this sight. They discover a crack in the ceiling that seems to be an arrow. Where is it pointing? Witold is particularly bothered by the way people look. Katasia, who works in the kitchen, has a cut across her lip to which he attributes a sinister meaning. Lena, on the other hand, has a mouth that seems fresh and unspoiled, but for that very reason it haunts him. Witold wants to believe that somehow these two women are related to each other, and that “Katasia’s dissolute perverseness, that indecent, gliding mouth movement” is connected with “Lena’s fresh, virginal, half-open lips.”

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Witold and Fuchs search Katasia’s room hoping that they will find evidence with which to interpret the mysterious signs. Witold is well aware that their suspicion of her may be no more than their wild imaginings, but he cannot resist pursuing even the remote possibility that Katasia’s room might provide at least a “partial revelation.” Nothing significant is found, yet Fuchs and Witold are later beset by a number of hanged objects. Witold becomes so upset that he hangs Lena’s cat. By initiating an action, he temporarily feels in control. All along he has had the feeling that Lena wants to tell him something, yet almost no communication occurs between them.

Witold’s satisfaction over hanging the cat turns to puzzlement as he realizes that he “acted out of sheer excess and superfluity.” Reality had been giving him too many signs; he had had too much evidence to interpret and had wanted “to force reality to declare itself.” Still, the killing of the cat is something of which Witold finally knows the full meaning, and he hopes that by his own intervention he has been able to build a bridge between his feelings about Katasia and Lena.

In fact, Witold learns very little from his act. What seems clear by the end of the novel is that each character has revealed his or her obsessions, and that these obsessions do not necessarily add up to some great whole. The most dramatic event, near the end of the novel, concerns Witold’s discovery of Lena’s husband, Louis, hanging from a tree. One interpretation of this scene suggests that Louis has had an obsession with hanging which has ended in his own suicide. Unfortunately, Witold takes Louis’ hanging as a sign that he must now hang Lena, but Lena’s illness prevents him from doing so. Instead, he returns to Warsaw and his parents’ home to resume “warfare with my father” and his regular life. The novel ends with his mundane and anticlimactic statement: “Today we had chicken and rice for lunch.”

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