Although The Peasants was not translated into English until 1924, when its author was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Germans had already recognized its worth. It has been rumored that during the German occupation of Poland during World War I, German officers were required to read and study the novel as a text to enable them to understand the Polish customs and mores and, thus, have more success in controlling the stubborn and proud peasants than did the previous occupiers, the Russians.
The Peasants is epic in the sweep and significance of its story. The problems of Europe are contained in this novel: overpopulation, poor and overworked soil, ignorance, imperialism. The novel is at once a text on the subject of mass sociology and a human, heartwarming narrative. In keeping with the seasonal movement of its story, Wadysaw Reymont’s masterpiece is divided into four volumes: Autumn, Winter, Spring, and Summer.
As an intimate, detailed picture of the Polish peasant, the book is magnificent. Using a naturalistic approach, Reymont gives an unbiased account of both the sordidness and the beauty of the peasants’ lives. Between these extremes, there seems to be no middle ground. Life is filled either with animal joy and lustiness (as is shown in the elaborate details of the three-day celebration of Matthias and Yagna’s wedding) or with intimate details of poverty, despair, and illness. Yet the peasants never surrender; they all accept their fate.
The novel is more than a sociological analysis of Polish life, however, for Reymont creates characters who are individual and vital. He explores in detail the universal struggles of society: the poor who produce against the rich who exploit; the young who struggle for what is legally theirs against the old who desperately try to hold on to their hard-earned land. He examines the eternal conflicts between women and men, between humans and nature, between religion and superstition, and the lonely struggle of one asserting and defending oneself in a harsh, unyielding, threatening world.
Reymont never allows himself to abandon the basic standard of naturalism: objectivity. Although the reader becomes more involved with some characters than others, the involvement is never caused by Reymont’s intervention.
Yagna is perhaps the most interesting character in the novel. She is one of the few villagers not motivated by greed; true, she delightedly accepts a scarf and ribbons Matthias buys for her at the fair, but she is completely uninterested in the marriage settlement, which is handled by her greedy mother, Dominikova. The mother realizes the problems that may arise...
(The entire section is 1114 words.)