Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 509

Ivona, Princess of Burgundia is very much of a piece with Witold Gombrowicz’s other plays and novels. Ferdydurke (1938; English translation, 1961), a novel about a thirty-year-old man turning into an adolescent, is the author’s fullest expression of a certain immaturity he finds in the human character. As his other novels Pornografia (1960; English translation, 1966) and Kosmos (1965; Cosmos, 1966) suggest, Gombrowicz has little faith in the wisdom of civilization. Rather than growing into responsible roles, many of his characters seem coerced into adopting guises.

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Although the playwright’s characters seem to speak nonsensically at times, and although his depiction of society is satirical, it is perhaps going too far to say that his dramas are absurdist in the sense that they imply that there is no meaning in existence. Gombrowicz was a skeptic and certainly saw the vacuity of social relationships, but he was not a nihilist. Indeed, many of his characters have a compulsion to put their world in order, even if that order is rather trivial or ridiculous.

It is perhaps inevitable that Gombrowicz, a Polish writer who left Poland in the 1930’s and took up a life of exile in Argentina, should be suspected of writing allegory. His plays and novels are sometimes interpreted as elaborately indirect studies of the way his country has been oppressed by other nations, chiefly Germany and the former Soviet Union. There may be some point to this approach, especially if Ivona, Princess of Burgundia is taken as a drama about how individuality is crushed in a conformist, authoritarian society. Gombrowicz himself, though, denied such allegorical interpretations. What seems more certain is that his historical experience as a Pole made him skeptical of any form of social or political control. All forms of policing human behavior, he implied, are only rationalizations for society’s compulsive need for each of its members to submit to authority.

There is much humor in Gombrowicz’s work, which is accentuated in Ivona, Princess of Burgundia by making the royal figures behave so foolishly. Once they are caught in the grip of their scheme to kill Ivona, they cannot stop talking about it. They become possessed by their plan to such an extent that the king expresses his murderous feelings at the very moment when he should conceal them: “As we have said, we are giving this modest but elegant entertainment to celebrate the violent end . . . I mean, the happy betrothal of our future daughter-in-law.” As Gombrowicz said in an autobiographical work, Entretiens avec Gombrowicz (1968; A Kind of Testament, 1973), in writing Ivona, Princess of Burgundia he was “assailed by the limitless anarchy of form, of human form, of its dissoluteness and licentiousness.” He appears to have had in mind the utter unreliability of human beings who, like the king, rule and yet are overwhelmed by impulses they cannot control. In the very act of trying to reimpose stability at court, the king loses control of his tongue. A deeply ironic writer, Gombrowicz nearly always had a wry smile, if not outright laughter, for the human pretense of self-government.

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