Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 440

Gombrowicz’s novel attacks the idea that human beings are the masters of their destinies. Most people are immature; they do what they have been taught by family, society, and school. Much of the author’s humor derives from exposing human pretensions and conventionality. People believe that they are acting on their own and in the interest of the highest ideals when, in fact, they are usually motivated by urges they cannot control. Professor Pimko says that he has brought Johnnie to the Youthful household to learn how a modern home and family are managed. In truth, Pimko is obsessed with Zuta and is looking for ways to be intimate with her. His concerns are sensual, not intellectual. Yet the professor is so bound by the rhetoric of schooling that he cannot see the lie in what he professes. He does not really want to teach children; he wants to be a child again. His advanced age makes youth all the more desirable. While his facade is one of a confident, urbane intellectual, his true state reflects an instability that is characteristic of human life in general. As the critic Robert Boyers suggests, “what Ferdydurke enforces ultimately is an existentialist view of man as perpetually in the act of becoming, perpetually insecure and filled with that neurotic dread of extinction that is a visible component of works by Sartre, Beckett, and others.”

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It takes a considerable adjustment to read Gombrowicz because, unlike most novelists, he is not interested in presenting well-rounded characters. Mientus, the Youthfuls, and Pimko do not have psychological depth; they are types and react to other people as types. Their psychologies are a matter of conditioning and form. Once life takes a certain form, Gombrowicz argues, it cannot change. Human beings are under the illusion that they create form, that they shape life. It is, alas, exactly the opposite. As Johnnie realizes, “[T]he fundamental grief is purely and simply, in my opinion, the agony of bad outward form, defective appearance, the agony of phraseology, grimaces, faces.” People cannot help the way they look or, by extension, the way they behave. This is why Gombrowicz uses the term “bad outward form.” Life is external to human beings, even though they often think just the opposite. Just as the hapless Johnnie becomes the victim of Pimko’s schoolmaster tyranny, so human beings in general inhibit one another. Gombrowicz writes, “[T]he primary and fundamental agony is that born of the constraint of man by man...i.e. from the fact that we suffocate and stifle in the narrow and rigid idea of ourselves that others have of us.”

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