Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 380
Witold (VEE-tohld), the narrator, a student from Warsaw who does not get along with his parents. He is obsessed with interpreting the random events and objects in his environment. He and a fellow student rent a room in the mountain resort of Zakopane in Poland as a place to study for their examinations. On their first day at the resort, they come across a dead sparrow that has been left hanging by a wire, and Witold ponders whether it is meant to be some kind of message or sign. They begin to discover what appear to be other signs or clues, including more objects left hanging. Witold is also fixated on the physical features of those around him (such as their hands) and grows obsessed with the mouths of two women who live in the rooming house. He becomes increasingly compelled to look for connections and links between events as if there were some kind of plot or mystery to be unraveled. He is never sure whether the objects they find really do have significance or he has merely interpreted them so. Witold begins to lose his control of reality and creates his own mystery by killing a cat and hanging it. He eventually finds the body of a man hanging in a tree.
Fuchs (fewks), a fellow student and friend of Witold. He often seems bored and vacant. He assists Witold in his efforts to resolve the mystery of the puzzling objects.
Kulka Wojtys (KEWL-kah VOY-tihsh), the somewhat plump housewife who rents a room to the two friends.
Leo Wojtys, Kulka’s husband. He is a short, bald man who is a retired banker.
Lena, Kulka’s daughter, an attractive woman with a virginal appearance. Witold is obsessed with her freshness and the innocent eroticism of her mouth. It is her cat that Witold throttles.
Louis, Lena’s husband. He is tall, well built, and intelligent looking and has well-shaped hands. Witold finds him hanging in a group of trees, an apparent suicide.
Katasia (kah-TAH-syah), Kulka’s poor relative who helps in the kitchen. She has a lip disfigurement that gives her a somewhat sensual and reptilian look. Witold becomes transfixed by the erotic suggestiveness of her mouth and lips.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 351
Except for his hanging of the cat, Witold is a passive character. To say that he is in love with Lena is not quite accurate, since he never actively pursues her and is put off by even minor obstacles. He takes the path of least resistance and is somewhat upset when Fuchs assumes command of their interpretative quest. It is Fuchs who announces to their landlady’s household that he and Witold have become intrigued by the signs evidently left for them. Witold suspects that Fuchs has attached himself to the Wojtyses for lack of anything better to do, because Fuchs has had trouble with his employer and now seems to be compensating by trying to master this new situation. This explanation might prove to be as accurate for Witold, whose family quarrels have driven him away from home.
Each character in the book brings to the world a very private, compulsive way of looking at things. Kulka, for example, is obsessed with her housecleaning. Her husband, Leo, is the epitome of the tendency to create a private reality that others cannot imagine. For years, he has cherished the memory of a brief episode of lovemaking with another woman. He even brings his boarders to the location where he had made love to this woman—although he does not tell them in so many words about what the site commemorates for him. Witold is the only one who realizes that Leo is lost entirely in a world of his own making. The only way to enter that world is through “berging,” the term Leo has made up to express his divorce from the mundane reality of his marriage. When Witold says the word “berg,” Leo realizes that he has met a kindred spirit, for what Witold finally discovers is not some overarching meaning to the signs that have troubled him but rather the human knack for creating signs. Berging, or sign making, is the acknowledgment that humans are free to interpret their existence as they choose. There is no one objective meaning to be grasped, as Fuchs and Witold had supposed.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 51
Fletcher, John. “Witold Gombrowicz,” in New Directions in Literature: Critical Approaches to a Contemporary Phenomenon, 1968.
Freeman, G. Review in New Statesman. LXXIV (November 17, 1967),p. 685.
Miosz, Czesaw. A History of Polish Literature, 1983 (second edition).
Thompson, Ewa W. Witold Gombrowicz, 1979.
Veeder, William. “‘A Call to Order’: Cosmos,” in Cross Currents. IV (1985), pp. 125-144.
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