Henryk Sienkiewicz Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

There can be no doubt that it was Henryk Sienkiewicz’s success as an author of historical novels that led the Swedish Academy to select him as the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1905. He was at the same time, however, a prolific writer of short stories, many of which continue to be ranked among the finest ever written in the Polish language. One of his masterworks in this genre is titled “Janko myzikant” (1879; “Yanko the Musician,” 1893). In this story, a young peasant boy named Yanko is so obsessed with the beauty of music that he is unable to resist the temptation of stealing a violin from the manor house of the local squire. When caught, he is beaten so severely that he dies. The underlying irony of this tale stems from the fact that those who live in the manor house consider themselves to be patrons of the arts and frequently travel to Italy for the purpose of discovering and assisting young artists.

Equally popular is “Latarnik” (1882; “The Lighthouse Keeper of Aspinwall,” 1893), the plot of which centers on the fate of an aged Polish exile who finally succeeds in being hired as a lighthouse keeper on the island of Aspinwall near the Panama Canal Zone. One day he receives a parcel of Polish books that includes a copy of Adam Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz: Czyli, Ostatni Zajazd na litwie historia Szlachecka zr. 1811 i 1812 we dwunastu ksiegach wierszem (1834; Pan Tadeusz: Or, The Last Foray in Lithuania, a...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Henryk Sienkiewicz is both a literary and a political phenomenon in his homeland. In order to appreciate the twofold significance of his major novels, it is necessary to recall the troubled state of Polish national life throughout the nineteenth century. Poland had been partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austria during the latter part of the eighteenth century and had completely disappeared from the map of Europe. The largest portion of Poland, including Warsaw itself, came under the control of the Russians, and Sienkiewicz was destined to spend his entire life as an involuntary subject of the czar. Two full-scale insurrections against the Russians, the first occurring in 1831 and the second in 1863, ended in defeat, and their failure served only to intensify the oppressive policies of the czarist officials. Both of these revolts were largely inspired by Romantic idealists. After the debacle of 1863, the Polish intelligentsia appeared to wash its collective hands of the doctrines of Romanticism and rapidly embraced the scientifically oriented philosophy of positivism as the best solution to the problems confronting the nation. The adherents of positivism in Poland openly abandoned the quixotic quest for national independence by means of political conspiracy and armed insurrection and focused their energies on promoting organic economic development in the various Polish territories as well as on expanding educational opportunities available to the masses. The transition from Romanticism to positivism signaled a rejection of the feudal values cherished by the landowning gentry and the adoption of the ideals of capitalism championed by the middle class.

For the positivists, writers had a moral obligation to tackle contemporary...

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Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

To what extent does Henryk Sienkiewicz sympathize with Petronius in Quo Vadis?

To what extent are Sienkiewicz’s writings in the tradition of Polish positivism?

Why does Sienkiewicz choose the troubled seventeenth century as the setting for his trilogy about the glories of the old Polish Commonwealth?

Sienkiewicz’s novels have been dismissed as soap operas. To what extent is this a fair judgment?

Discuss the parallels of ancient Rome with nineteenth century Poland in Quo Vadis.

If Sienkiewicz is a supporter of the Christian virtues of forgiveness and turning the other cheek, why does he write so enthusiastically about military battles?


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Coleman, Arthur Prudden, and Marion Moore Coleman. Wanderers Twain: Modjeska and Sienkiewicz—A View from California. Cheshire, Conn.: Cherry Hill Books, 1964. A study of the trip Sienkiewicz and Helena Modjeska made to Anaheim, California, in 1876. Most useful for the student of Sienkiewicz’s fiction are the chapters on his early years in Poland.

Giergielewicz, Mieczyslaw. Henryk Sienkiewicz. New York: Twayne, 1968. This introductory volume begins with a section on historical background, as Sienkiewicz’s fiction is tied so closely to the fate of Poland and of Central Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There are also chapters on his life, his experience as a journalist, his tales, and his epic novels. Includes a chronology, notes, and an annotated bibliography.

Giergielewicz, Mieczyslaw. Henryk Sienkiewicz: A Biography. New York: Hippocrene, 1991. An excellent source for information on Sienkiewicz’s life and times.

Krzyanowski, Jerzy R. “Sienkiewicz’s Trilogy in America.” The Polish Review 41 (1996): 337-49. A good example of well-informed scholarship on Sienkiewicz’s fiction.

Lednicki, Waclaw. Henryk Sienkiewicz: A Retrospective Synthesis. The Hague: Mouton, 1960. Lednicki met the novelist on several occasions and uses his personal experience of the author to provide insightful and well balanced comments on Sienkiewicz’s significance.

Modjeska, Helena. Memories and Impressions: An Autobiography. New York: Macmillan, 1910. The actress who accompanied Sienkiewicz to Anaheim, California. She also knew the novelist in Warsaw, and she provides insight into his character and literary sensibility.

Phelps, William Lyon. Essays on Modern Novelists. New York: Macmillan, 1910. Although brief, Phelps’s essay on Sienkiewicz is an excellent place to begin for an assessment of the novelist’s place in world literature.