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 from the May-December marriage, but she is eager to obtain the six acres Matthias offers. The mother does not force Yagna to marry; Yagna is motivated solely by animal spirit and does not really care. Married to an old man, her health and vitality drive her into the younger arms of Antek and Matthew, but it is this same animalism that initially attracts Matthias to her. She lets her mother handle such things as marriage settlements; her own interests are more physical.
Yagna is driven by sexual passions she cannot begin to understand. She neither appears concerned about the quarrel she has caused between Antek and his father, nor does she worry about the rupture she has caused between Antek and Hanka. She sees only Antek’s youth, and that is sufficient for her. She has the same intensity of sexual attraction for Matthew and is unable to control her passion. When he creeps into her darkened cottage before the wedding, she defends herself before her mother by pleading that she could...
(This entire section contains 1114 words.)
not keep him off.
Yagna cannot transfer her passionate feelings to old Matthias Boryna, which he, a deeply proud man, resents. Although he has heard rumors about Yagna with Antek and Matthew, he ignores them until he sees her creeping into the warm protection of the straw stack with Antek. He then shows no mercy and blocks the entrance to the stack before he sets fire to the rick, hoping that both will be burned alive.
When Matthias takes Yagna back as a serving girl, the young woman accepts it stoically and does not beg for mercy. Like the true peasant, she accepts her lot with resignation and spends no time in self-recrimination. Her position is essentially tragic in the naturalistic sense. Young, attractive, and full of natural self-interest, she allows herself to be controlled by forces she cannot understand.
It is hard to visualize Antek as a sympathetic character, because all of his actions are motivated by jealousy or greed. He abuses Hanka, his wife, and defies both her and his father when he makes no secret of his affair with Yagna. After being expelled from his father’s house, he finally gets a job at the mill but spends all of his wages at the tavern so that Hanka and her children are completely dependent upon Hanka’s destitute, sick old father. During the harsh winter, when Hanka is nearly frozen while gathering forest wood in a raging snowstorm, it is old Boryna, not Antek, who comes to her aid. Yet, in spite of the hatred Antek bears his father, he instinctively kills the squire’s woodcutter who attacks Matthias. Thus, through Antek, the author indicates that underneath the hardness and materialism of the villagers, a vestige of mutual concern remains. It is this element that keeps the book from depicting total despair. Despite the bitter environment, all the peasants retain a zest for life revealed in their delight in celebrations and in their love for food, drink, dance, and brightly colored clothes and ribbons. The dignity of humanity is described as the peasants stop their individual bickering to join forces against the squire and his men who attempt to overtake the ancestral forests of the peasants.
The book is an amazing portrait of common life in a Polish village. Reymont presents all details of daily life—sowing and harvesting the cabbage crops, house life, clothing, furniture, and food. The notes of the translator are invaluable, for without them, the reader might not understand the importance of certain ceremonies, traditions, and superstitions, which are so much a part of the Polish culture.
When the four-volume work appeared, many reviewers criticized it for redundancy, but, in a work more prose epic than novel, each detail enhances the rest. It becomes more than simply a narrative of Polish life; its universal aspect describes the emotions and impulses alive in the peasant everywhere. The work must be read as a whole, beginning with Autumn and ending with the harvest scenes of Summer, for then the reader may view a splendid picture of life in all aspects.