Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 448

That characters are inseparable from the themes and meanings that they create or have imposed upon them seems to be the point Witold Gombrowicz makes in calling his novel Cosmos. Witold’s odd way of describing himself and others is perfectly natural to him, because he sees correspondences between himself and others that someone else would not necessarily acknowledge. When he says that “Katasia advanced from the sideboard to clear the table, and her deformed, gliding, darting mouth approached the mouth opposite me,” Witold has arbitrarily chosen to associate Katasia’s mouth with that of Lena, who sits across from him at meals. Another character might find some other feature to establish a different relationship which is just as arbitrary. Witold realizes this when he discovers a photograph of Katasia that shows her with a “perfectly normal mouth, a decent, honest, peasant mouth.”

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Like most of the characters in this novel, Witold finds things significant because he has made them so. He returns to the same subjects repeatedly, until he is convinced of their import. That his ideas are, in fact, unsupported by reality is revealed by the lameness of his language: “when something was repeated more often than it ought to be, well, we knew what it was like when something was repeated more than often than it ought to be.”

Cosmos does not have a plot as such, because the very idea of a plot involves moving to a destination or a definitive ending, and this maneuver is not possible in Gombrowicz’s mundane world. Despite all the pseudoprofundity of his speculations, Witold ends his narrative by mentioning what he had for lunch. This is a pathetic ending, but it is what the author intended. In the words of Czesaw Miosz, “Gombrowicz’s destructive talent has always been directed toward depriving the reader of his certainties and his presumed values”; Miosz adds that Gombrowicz has no respect for literature or philosophy and not the slightest interest in comforting his readers with great themes or ennobling thoughts. Thus his novel will not end with a grand summation; it will conclude, rather, with the narrator’s current state of mind, which has no final revelation to offer.

Yet Cosmos is not a nihilistic or unfeeling novel. It reveals great compassion for adolescents who are often peculiarly concerned with being authentic, with finding models of behavior that can be safely and successfully imitated. If there is great arbitrariness in the inconsistency of adolescence, there is also great freedom to be creative. Perhaps this potential explains why Gombrowicz preferred the company of a generation younger than himself and took special delight in pointing out how adolescence survives into so-called adulthood.

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