Maria Dąbrowska

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Zbigniew Folejewski

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[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...

(This entire section contains 3180 words.)

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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. 48-9)

Dabrowska has emphatically denied statements made by some critics that her own views are expressed mainly in the ideological portrait of Agnieszka. And yet, one cannot help feeling that somehow in Agnieszka's idealistic enthusiasm there is an important part of the author's dreams, that what Dabrowska as a realistic writer had to give up in the name of epic objectivity, in portraying Bogumil and Barbara, she allowed herself to ascribe to this naïve young girl. Perhaps one can risk the conjecture that the author, while creating the realistic vision of the existing world of the parents, allowed herself to give a more idealized vision of her own youthful dreams in the character of Agnieszka as she herself once was or wanted to be. (pp. 54-5)

Dabrowska does not resolve her ideological problems on the level of practical political programs, and thus … can allow herself to dream of [the] kind of moral purification which would enable people to improve their collective social and economic situation without encroaching on the sovereign right of the individual. Not without some justification this concept has been termed a naïve illusion by both Agnieszka's more politically-minded friends in the novel and by some critics in Poland. To the extent that a writer bears responsibility for the views of his heroes, Dabrowska shares the honor of being regarded as an ideological utopianist with such writers as Leo Tolstoy and Stefan Zeromski. (pp. 55-6)

Nights and Days starts as a typical traditional novel of the 19th century. It looks as if the author were going to take the full course of novel exposition, introducing the reader to the history and prehistory of the main characters so as to have the reader fully prepared for the events that constitute the theme of the work. However, this first impression of orderly chronological progress is somewhat deceptive. Contrary to what most critics said about the good old solid technique of Nights and Days, some signs of more modern devices are discernible almost from the start.

The best illustration of this technique is the treatment of the hero, Bogumil Niechcic. After some rather sketchy remarks about his background and youth, the author leaves out a somewhat mysterious "heroic" period of his life, so important to the formation of his character, namely his participation as a sixteen-year-old boy in the Polish uprising against the Russians in 1863 and his life in exile after the defeat…. Only retrospectively, at various points in the work, does the author reveal certain aspects of this period of Bogumil's life. This happens when it becomes necessary for a better psychological motivation of certain situations and certain decisions on the part of Bogumil.

There can be no doubt that this mode of narration is not a coincidence, but a conscious technique on Dabrowska's part. The device of selection … is a well-known technique, which often serves the purpose of creating a mysterious aura and intensifying the dramatic quality of situations in which a certain character is brought into contact with other people, or with fate, or with some problems and conflicts within.

The whole problem in the case of Nights and Days is complicated by the fact that the novel was not written in a normal order. From Dabrowska's account of "How Nights and Days was Created" we learn that the first to be written was Volume Two. Its first version, written in 1927–28, was originally published in installments in the weekly Kobieta wspolczesna (The Modern Woman); the second version, written soon thereafter and published in the daily Gazeta Zachodnia (Western Gazette) had an introductory chapter on the history of the families of Bogumil and Barbara. This chapter, according to the author's account, was later expanded into a full volume (Volume One), entitled Bogumil and Barbara, while the rest of this version became Volume Two, Eternal Worry, soon followed by Volume Three, Love, and Volume Four, Wind in the Eyes.

Dabrowska's account of this creative process poses an interesting problem so far as the structure of the novel is concerned. Apparently the writer started the work somewhat in the short-story fashion, placing her hero at a certain point, in the midst of the stream of his life, without the traditional preamble which would enable the reader to follow the formation of his character and the background of his ideological profile. It may be said that the conventions of the novelistic technique had forced themselves upon the writer as her work started growing into something of a larger proportion than she originally planned—into a fully developed epic novel.

Still, in its final shape the work must be regarded as a closed novelistic structure, and as such it presents the problem of a compromise between the traditional concept of a chronologically composed work and a more modern concept of arranging events in a different order, allowing for a free movement back and forth in time. (pp. 60-2)

After the completion of the big novel cycle Nights and Days, Dabrowska on the one hand returns to the form of the short story and, on the other, tries her hand in the dramatic genre. In 1938 she published a new volume of short stories, entitled Signs of Life (Znaki zycia), and shortly thereafter, in 1939, she finished her first dramatic work, The Orphan Genius (Geniusz sierocy). At the same time Dabrowska was very active both in the field of literary criticism and also as a publicist of steadily growing moral authority, even though her views were somewhat too utopian to be of any direct practical value.

The collection of short stories entitled Signs of Life is characterized largely by the features which have been observed in People from Yonder. Thus we see how the author oscillates in her narrative form between the traditional straight-forward relation of facts and observations, and the more modernistic mode of mixing various levels and directions of plot and point of view in order to illuminate various aspects of human character and human reactions to situations which are mostly rather ordinary and hardly amount to the established idea of a "plot."

The first story, "Father Philip," is an example of a rather traditional technique of short-story pattern based on an inner struggle between ideal and reality. The actual plot here is the frequently utilized theme of conflict between a Catholic priest's vocation with its vows of purity and the reality of worldly temptations and indulgences, even including sexual relationship with a woman. (p. 79)

Dabrowska does not hesitate to take up this touchy theme, but with her characteristic life-affirmative attitude she presents her vision as one of those "age-old" moral questions which, in her opinion, art should always take up and present in the light of experience, as a projection for the future of new generations for which no situation should be regarded as absolutely hopeless. The basic problem in Dabrowska's story is not so much the problem of the priest's sin and his deserved punishment, but the problem of charity, the problem of man's supreme obligation to possess compassion and understanding for other human beings. Dabrowska's thesis in this story is the conviction that although sin is always sin, there is something far worse, namely the lack of charity between human beings. (p. 80)

Other stories of this collection contain less typical short-story plot material. Instead, the psychological penetration so typical of Dabrowska is frequently encountered. There are elements of keen realistic observation of life and elements of serious reflection on the reaction of various characters in different situations, both usual and unique. Some of the characters and situations encountered are very typical, but even then, as for example in the story, "Miss Winczewska,"… the individual features are drawn with such a degree of vividness that the characters stand out as individuals. The story is a precise, almost clinical analysis of character and situation and is obviously based on the author's long personal experience with professional and educational organizations. The routine of work in a small library is shown here with all its technical details and the confrontation of two characters with two different attitudes toward work keeps the reader in suspense, in spite of the fact that there is no classical plot, no real short-story intrigue. It is a psychological study, artistically organized into a finished unit.

Actually, it is possible to speak of a plot here, but not plot in the common meaning of the word. There is an internal psychological development, perhaps less dramatic than is usually encountered in a story of intrigue, but nevertheless fascinating as a struggle within an individual, a struggle between emotional and rational elements, a struggle in which the intricate nature of human relations is reflected with the suggestive power of a true picture. It is surprising to observe how this seemingly detached clinical study of human character turns into a classical "little tragedy" in which all the ingredients of a dramatic situation are potentially present, even though they never come completely to the fore….

There is something of Chekhov's depth of penetration into the life of ordinary people in this story…. (p. 81)

It could be argued, to be sure, that the two dramatic works written by Dabrowska should be placed on the same level with her short stories and with her novel cycle. However, it is the opinion of this writer that Dabrowska's plays are closer to her work as a publicist and are not organically related to the main stream of her creative work. Of course, it is perfectly true, on the other hand, that in her journalistic work Dabrowska is often more of a writer than a politician. (p. 83)

[When] The Morning Star, appeared, it proved a true artistic and moral triumph for Poland's most cherished and respected writer. It became a literary sensation of unequalled proportions, literally selling out within a few hours after it reached the country's bookstores.

Applying a technique similar to her earlier stories, blending authentic recollections and observations with motifs of pure fiction, Dabrowska created a book which is an artistically finished whole, a book in which, in spite of the fragmentary character of the various stories, there unveils a broad panorama of the tragedy of war and the reality of postwar life with its turns and conflicts, serious problems and everyday worries and joys, tragedies and hopes. In short, the work proved to be the "nights and days" of the Polish people as the author saw them from the perspective of her personal experience, and from her observation of the collective life of the early postwar years. The sharp realism of detailed observations and personal experiences is, as usually can be expected in Dabrowska's works, permeated by the author's philosophy, her affirmative outlook on life, both past and present. Her philosophical comments are no revelations, but they always contain a good deal of honest, thoughtful penetration into the deeper significance of a particular phenomenon. (pp. 89-90)

[The] all but unanimous tone of enthusiasm that characterizes literary criticism of Dabrowska's work in the period 1922–1939 underwent a considerable change in the early postwar period…. It was especially Dabrowska's idealistic humanitarianism that became the object of attacks [on the grounds of containing reactionary elements]. (pp. 100-01)

In spite of certain critical attitudes on the point of Dabrowska's not quite "correct" interpretation of social problems, general respect and admiration for her never diminished and even … [Marxist critics] stressed the artistic values of her work. (p. 101)

Zbigniew Folejewski, in his Maria Dabrowska (copyright © 1967 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, A Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1967, 108 p.

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