Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Władysław Stanis Rejment was a Polish novelist, born in 1867 in Wielkie, Poland, while it was part of the Russian Empire. He had various jobs in his youth, including as a shop apprentice, a railway official, and an actor. His time as an actor influenced his early writings, such as The Promised Land (1899) and his popular work The Comedienne (1896).
The Peasants (1904–1909) is a four-volume novel that depicts Polish peasants in the four seasons, one for each volume: Autumn, Winter, Spring, and Summer. The subject matter comes from Rejment’s own experiences as a poor Polish citizen, and the novel is written entirely in the Polish peasant dialect. It follows an aging man and his family, as he has married a young beauty while his children quarrel over their inheritance when the man dies. It also evokes the philosophy of naturalism, which is the idea that natural forces are that which govern the structure and behavior of the universe, and that changes are results of those forces. This philosophy also holds that nature has no explicit purpose, which is illustrated in some of the darker scenes of the novel.
In the various scenes presented in the volumes, two are commonly excerpted and included in anthologies. "A Polish Scene" is an appropriate excerpt due to its depiction of a hungry beggar being reluctantly served by villagers. The villagers and the peasant alternately quote the Bible and various adages, justifying their feeding of the beggar and impressing upon him that he should be grateful for their mercy. His attitude in the situation is expressed clearly in this quote:
Then the beggar spoke. "With food in his belly a man is not badly off, even in hell," he said, setting down the empty pot.
He is grateful to have food to eat at all, but his reference to hell makes it evident that he is not enjoying the "scene" in which he is involved.
One of the men gathered in the scene speaking with the peasant makes the following ironic remark, including toward the end the sentiment that the beggar should be grateful for the little that the villagers have fed him with:
Man, I tell you, be prudent, but don't force it into any one's eyes. Note everything, and yet be blind to everything. If you live with a fool, be a greater fool; with a lame man, have no legs at all; with a sick man, die for him. If men give you a farthing, thank them as if it were a bit of silver; if they set dogs on you, take it as if it were a bit of silver; if they set dogs on you, take it as your offering to Lord Jesus.
The excerpt titled "Death" is included in the Winter volume of the novel and depicts the death of an old man and, subsequently, his two daughters feuding over their inheritance of his property, while his wife is his only true mourner. His family moves him to the pig sty while he is dying so he will not dirty the sheets, and his life ends in the winter cold, alone:
No one saw him creep to the closed door and raise himself with a superhuman effort to try and open it. He felt death gaining upon him; from his heels it crept upwards to his chest, holding it as in a vice, and shaking him in terrible spasms . . . He reared up feebly, till at last he broke down on the threshold, with foam on his lips, and a look of horror at being...
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left to die of cold, in his broken eyes; his face was distorted by an expression of anguish which was like a frozen cry. There he lay.
The following quote illustrates the selfish attitude in the face of proper grief after the man's death, while nature provides a proper response to the sad situation toward the end of the chapter:
"Look here, mother . . . ," said Antek, "the five acres are mine! aha! mine, do you hear? In the autumn I shall sow wheat and barley, and in the spring we will plant potatoes . . . mine . . . they are mine! . . . God is my comfort, sayest thou . . . ," he suddenly began to sing.The storm was raging, and howling.