The Polish Novel Critical Essays


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

While the history of the Polish novel in the strict sense goes back only a little further than two hundred years, the beginnings of Polish long fiction can be traced back as far as the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries gave birth to numerous chronicles, hagiographies, legends, and apocrypha, in which the proportion of fictional and nonfictional elements varied. Even a genre as apparently factographic as the chronicle usually included fictional or fantastic passages, and apocrypha were purely fictional variations on biblical motifs. The subsequent development of long fiction in the late Renaissance and the long period of the baroque (which lasted approximately until the middle of the eighteenth century) moved along two distinctly different routes. In terms of the sociology of literature, the difference can be seen as a gradually widening rift between the cultural elite and the popular readership, as well as between “high” and “low” literary genres. The genre of verse epic evolved from among the “high” genres to acquire the greatest significance in the seventeenth century. Of the “lower” genres, medieval legends and apocrypha developed into the special genre of “histories,” popular tales loosely based on historical, mythological, or biblical plots. Meanwhile, nonfictional genres such as memoirs, itineraries, and diaries, which flourished particularly in the seventeenth century, also laid foundations for the emergence of the Polish novel, insofar as they provided it with specific models of construction and style.

The creation of the genre of the novel in Poland, however, would have been delayed still further if a sudden outburst of interest in Western literatures had not occurred around the middle of the eighteenth century. The period of the Enlightenment, which in Poland coincided with the reign of the last Polish king, Stanisaw August Poniatowski (r. 1764-1795), was marked by the rapidly increasing popularity of English, French, and German novels, which were read both in the original and in translations or loose adaptations; in particular, translations of Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, Samuel Richardson, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe were available from about the 1760’s.

Both foreign and native influences can be detected in the first Polish novel, Mikoaja Dowiadczyskiego przypadki (the adventures of Nicholas Dowiadczyski), which was published in 1776 by the most prominent poet of the Polish Enlightenment, Ignacy Krasicki (1735-1801). In full accord with the didactic role assigned to literature in that epoch, with Mikoaja Dowiadczyskiego przypadki, Krasicki initiated the genre of the “educational novel,” in which the central character goes through various stages to demonstrate how Prejudice and Error can be finally overcome by Reason. Krasicki’s novel, a liberal mixture of satiric, realistic, utopian, and didactic elements, gave the initial stimulus to the more far-reaching experiments in the field of the newly created genre. Authors such as Dymitr Krajewski (1746-1817), Józef Kossakowski (1738-1794), and Stanisaw Kostka Potocki (1752-1821) produced other educational novels and “novel-treatises”; Krasicki (in another novel), Franciszek Salezy Jezierski (1740-1791), and Anna Mostowska (c. 1762-1833) created the Polish version of the historical novel; the sentimental novel, sometimes including both elements of psychological insight and realistic portrayals of society, was represented by Ludwik Kropiski (1767-1844), Maria Wirtemberska (1768-1854), and Klementyna Taska-Hoffmanowa (1798-1845); the novels closest to the realistic mode were written by Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz (1757-1841) and Fryderyk Skarbek (1792-1866), who was also influenced in other of his novels by the style of Laurence Sterne.

In spite of the generally rationalistic character of the Enlightenment, the first Polish gothic novels (chiefly by Mostowska) also emerged; the most masterful example of this genre was that of Jan Potocki (1761-1815), Manuscrit de Saragosse (The Saragossa Manuscript, 1960), written in French between 1803 and 1815 and published in Polish as Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie only in 1847. As far as its poetics was concerned, the Polish novel of the Enlightenment was characterized by its didactic purpose, personal narrator, and frequent use of “authenticating” devices (for example, epistolary or diaristic forms, or the convention of the “found manuscript”).

In Poland, the subsequent epoch of Romanticism was the period of the greatest triumphs of the nonprosaic genres, such as poetry and poetic drama—though certain epic poems, such as the famous Pan Tadeusz: Czyli, Ostatni Zajazd na litwie historia Szlachecka zr. 1811 i 1812 we dwunastu ksiegach wierszem (1834; Pan Tadeusz: Or, The Last Foray in Lithuania, a Tale of Gentlefolk in 1811 and 1812, in Twelve Books in Verse, 1917), by Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), can be said to represent long fiction in verse. The novel, however, was far from insignificant in this period. On the contrary, the first half of the nineteenth century was marked by the rapid evolution of realistic techniques in the novel, developed principally under...

(The entire section is 2165 words.)