Maria Dąbrowska Essay - Critical Essays

Dąbrowska, Maria


Dąbrowska, Maria 1889–1965

Dąbrowska, a short story writer, novelist, critic, journalist, and playwright, was one of Poland's greatest contemporary writers. Noce i dnie, a family chronicle composed of four novels, established her fame as a writer concerned with the preservation of human dignity in the midst of the changing social structure of pre-Revolutionary Poland. Her political involvement and experience as a social worker are frequently reflected in her thematic material. Essentially a realist employing traditional narrative techniques, Dąbrowska describes everyday lives, yet develops her narrative to achieve an epic scale.

Manfred Kridl

[When Noce i dnie (Nights and Days) first appeared, the] public (and probably some critics as well) already were a little weary of [recent] experiments in novelistic structure. Accordingly it was with relief and joy that they greeted a book the essential trait of which was simplicity—simplicity in all its component elements: structure, language, characters and the type of life portrayed. With regard to the structure Dąbrowska reverted to an old novel form, which might be called that of a chronicle. Like a chronicle, such a novel 'begins at the beginning' with the genealogy of the characters; the narration of events then follows in chronological order and continues for a longer or shorter period of time; it could, for that matter, continue indefinitely, presenting the history of one, two, three or more generations. Such method brings the structure of the novel closer to the normal course of human life and endows it with the charm of 'authenticity.' The latter trait becomes even more pronounced because of the kind of the characters, the method of their treatment and the langauge of the novel. The characters are simple and average. In addition to the two leading heroes there appears a crowd of secondary persons, frequently without any essential necessity, especially in the latter volumes of the novel. This also corresponds to 'the way things are in life.' The author's narrative is also of the simplest kind; it flows slowly, in a broad...

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Z. Folejewski

When Maria Dąbrowska entered the literary scene in Poland with her first short stories, "We Francji" ("In France"), "Janek" ("The Little John"), etc., she was under the influence of the Polish literary tradition, but she was soon to absorb impulses from such important literary sources as Scandinavia, England, and Germany (less observable are French contemporary influences). Polish literature at the time was mainly the continuation of West-European Realism with some admixture of Romantic dreams on the one hand, and on the other, of utilitarian ideas of literature as an instrument for bringing about social and political changes…. [From] an early stage Dąbrowska succeeded in avoiding epigonism and in striking new, fresh, and independent notes in her stories based on authentic observations and a true human and artistic outlook.

Dąbrowska's rapidly widening literary horizons were due to her interest and studies, and later professional and social work in Belgium, England, Scandinavia, and other countries. One of the more important early literary encounters which left a deep trace in Dąbrowska's work was her contact with the work of the Danish writer, Jens Peter Jacobsen, whose novel Niels Lyhne she translated into Polish and preceded with a penetrating introduction which reveals some aspect of her own artistic credo. Especially characteristic is her remark on what she believes constitutes one of the most essential elements of Jacobsen's writing, namely, his "love and understanding for the secrets of human life."… [One] can see that this remark can easily be applied to her own work. In her first really important volume, a collection, Ludzie stamtąd ("The People From Yonder," 1927), this formula is partly the key to the work, the key without which some of the stories may easily be misunderstood. The writer depicts here poor peasants trying to penetrate into the sphere of their inner life. In this world, certain thoughts and dreams take place which may seem incompatible with their social and intellectual status; they are possible only on the metaphysical level where a miracle of "inner transformation" can occur. Formally, from the point of view of the principles of Realism, such a literary device can be subjected and indeed was subjected to criticism as excessive poetization of thoughts and feelings normally not considered common to uneducated proletarians. However, in the introduction to the second edition of this volume, Dąbrowska defended her right to this approach, using the argument that even from the social point of view it can be justified by a natural desire of such people to break out of their existing social conditions. (p. 11)

[Already] in her short story collections certain features of novelistic composition were clearly present. The volume Ludzie stamtąd bears all the marks of a uniform larger structure, with the typical novelistic preamble followed by a number of dramatic conflicts, and then by the anti-climax of philosophical reflection and the acceptance of fate.


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Maria Kuncewicz

[Maria Dąbrowska was] a major writer and a moral force in her nation under several vastly different political régimes.

Never an habituée of literary cafés, all through her life she remained a provincial in the same noble sense that Flaubert had been a provincial in France and Faulkner in the United States—an uninhibited artist contributing to universal values, not as a cosmopolitan, only as a supremely civilized voice coming from a backwater. That salt-of-the-earth quality of her work was never belied by the public attitudes of the frail looking woman; in an age of political promiscuity and moral indifference she grew into a monolithic figure respected by both friends and foes. (p. 3)

[Dąbrowska's] mind was pragmatic, liberal, objective. Doctrines did not mean much to her…. [Political] and economic theory, she maintained [in an article on Russian socialism], is good if it increases human well-being; well-being must never be limited to a party, or to one class of people. The social background in her artistic prose is therefore not massive; it is broken up into a multitude of patches, like that world of the French pointillistes, who never painted in long strokes of brush so as to obtain a smooth surface, and, instead saturated the picture with brilliantly colored dots. (pp. 3-4)

In fiction her approach to life remained realistic, although contemplative. In one of her public confessions, she admitted that she started writing at the age of twelve, when one day she decided to sit down on a little stool right in the middle of the living room and put on record the activities around her. She practically never parted with this stool in her adult life….

In 1935, in her...

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Zbigniew Folejewski

[Maria Dabrowska's] collection People from Yonder can be treated as a highly realistic presentation of the farm laborer's world. This by itself was a novel and important phenomenon in the history of Polish literature which, being traditionally a literature of the gentry, had rather neglected the life of the lower social classes. (p. 23)

Dabrowska, like Turgenev in Russia, took up the theme of landless peasants mainly as an artistic motif, and not as a purely social problem. But as in Turgenev's case, Dabrowska's volume was often discussed as a work of political nature, and some critics discussed its merits and demerits in this light. Considering Dabrowska's involvement in professional and social organizations with some political affiliations, this confusion of Dabrowska the agitator and Dabrowska the writer is not surprising. (p. 24)

However, the publication of People from Yonder made it obvious that the author did not resort to fiction in order to propagate political slogans, but to express her deep interest in the lives of the people she had observed closely during her childhood in Russow. There was an element of true epic in this attempt to capture a certain form of life at the moment when it was already disappearing. (p. 25)

It was said that the volume People from Yonder made the young author famous, and decided her entire career. Indeed, she became an acknowledged writer almost overnight, greeted almost unanimously by the reviewers as a new big name. Even where there were reservations, Dabrowska's keen sense of observation and the purity and simplicity of her language and style were acknowledged…. [In her] seemingly loosely assembled collection of stories there was from the beginning a well-balanced and artistically motivated unity of structure. It is here, in this first notion of a larger unit, of an artistic synthesis developing out of earlier fragmentary efforts, that the actual break-through took place in Dabrowska's career…. [It] is not only the unity of social and topographic milieu and the unity of realistic method in its re-creation; there is also a clear line of composition in which the seemingly separate stories serve the function of traditional chapters in a novel. Consequently there is an interesting interplay of two technical devices: Each of the stories follows, of course, the basic principles of short-story technique, such as the unity and uniqueness of motif, setting, and mood, and the significance of final effect. However, at the same time, each of these separate units is subordinated to the structural principles of a larger unit which in this case resembles the form of a traditional novel. One could point out the particular novelistic form, namely that of Zola's La terre or Reymont's The Peasants, as being constructed on similar, almost biological principles of the natural course in nature and in the life of people close to nature. The course of this natural biological process in Dabrowska's volume described an almost full circle, the main difference from the above-mentioned novels lying in the fact that in People from Yonder, the vision of human life goes beyond the concept of naturalism…. The emphasis in Dabrowska's work is shifted from the biological and materialistic ground to the psychological and moral sphere. (pp. 25-6)

Dabrowska is not particularly interested in strictly formal experiments in prose. Her short stories are quite conventional from the point of view of their formal features, although she fully utilizes the achievements of psychological realism. In the field of the novel the situation is quite similar: Dabrowska comes up with a work which follows the best tradition of the realist novel, and that tradition in Poland was quite impressive both in scope and in depth. (p. 39)

[Nights and Days] does not provide any formal or ideological surprises. But the artistic fulfillment, and the note of deeply human concern and integrity in facing the most vital problems of human life in the past and in the present, combine in an admirable way the main achievements of both realist and modern writing. Interest in individual destinies, fine psychological analyses, the concept of style, all these things bear witness to the author's relationship to her time. At the same time, however, there is nothing loose, accidental, or strictly experimental in her novel, and the individual problems of her heroes are not hanging in the air of social indifference; the fate of each person in the novel is a symbol of the fate of the collective, and the world-outlook of each of the main protagonists is a reflection of the important issues of the collective life. No wonder that the appearance of the novel became the greatest literary event of the decade in Poland…. [All the volumes of this large novel] were greeted by the almost unanimous enthusiasm of both critics and readers. (p. 41)

[The cycle's] tetralogical structure has its internal logic; on the one hand, there is the natural—the biological, as it were—rhythm in the eternal cycles of human life, rotating as the seasons rotate in nature, and on the other hand there are both the ideological and the strictly artistic rhythms dictating this composition. (pp. 41-2)

Of course, the main personages in [Nights and Days], Bogumil Niechcic and Barbara, his wife, and their daughter Agnieszka, are representatives of a larger group. Of course they may be called "typical" both as representatives of these groups and also as representatives of a certain kind of character. But they are, above all, individual human characters, created by the artistic power of the writer, each one of them living in the particular reality not imitated but evoked by the artist as something independent and unique, though, at the same time, highly real. Human heart, human soul as something sacred and infinitely valuable by itself, but at the same time as something that can hardly exist for itself, without the element of love and of compassion for other human beings, this is, perhaps, the most important factor in Dabrowska's work. It crystallized very early in her life and it remained with her as possibly the only true "guiding thought."

Perhaps the best illustration of this is the fine portrait of Agnieszka Niechcic, the young daughter of Bogumil and Barbara. In the process of changes depicted in Nights and Days, Agnieszka represents the generation which already is free from the tradition of possessing land as the symbol of social status; she possesses a new set of values, based entirely on character, profession, ideas, and a somewhat vague program, connected with bettering the political, social, and economic lot of people. Like the author herself, she leaves home to go abroad for study, and like the author herself, she studies natural sciences in Switzerland. Like the author herself, she finds a man who is an active political agent with radical socialist affiliations. But this, of course, does not mean that Agnieszka is the author's only porte parole. Dabrowska herself stated emphatically that if any of the personages expresses her own views, then it is above all Bogumil. Actually, all three of the main personages can be said to express some of the author's ideas. Only when taken together and supplemented by many other figures in the novel can they give a sum of things that are close to the author's heart. This polyphonic ideological concept is in agreement with the practice of realism.

Agnieszka, nevertheless, often seems to express better than any other person in the novel some of the thoughts which were … the most essential in Dabrowska's concept of human life and of the place of an individual in society. (pp....

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