Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 481
Frederick and Witold are two older men who visit the country estate of their friend Hippolytus S. They soon become obsessed with two young people, Karol and Henia, and scheme to bring them together as lovers. Frederick is the motivating force in this erotic plan, and Witold is his passive and somewhat distrustful ally. No precise reason is given for Frederick’s interference in the lives of others, except that he seems to derive his pleasure from manipulating others. He has no beliefs. He is an atheist who kneels in church only because that is the behavior required of him in that setting. He performs the act of kneeling so carefully that it looks as though he really is a believer. His actions are so correct that for the moment (Witold speculates) Frederick may actually believe in the act he is performing. Similarly, to Frederick, Karol and Henia, who are about the same age and who have grown up together, seem to be made for each other. Frederick and Witold regard Albert (Henia’s fiancee) as an older man who is not fit to have her.
Frederick and Witold conspire to contrive situations in which Karol and Henia are thrown together. Witold is somewhat surprised when he finds that Henia is no innocent and has had other men. Karol, too, is no innocent and shocks Witold when he lifts the skirt of an old woman. Nevertheless, Witold and Frederick are never shaken in their belief that Karol and Henia belong together, and the conspirators achieve their goal when they manage to have Albert see what appears to be an erotic meeting between Karol and Henia.
Much of the satisfaction Frederick and Witold seem to derive from the Henia-Karol coupling has to do with their apparent dislike of growing old, although they never say so. They are clearly rejuvenated by their creation of a love affair between the young people. They also obtain a thrill by disconcerting the mature Albert, who has never doubted Henia’s constancy. In the end, Albert contrives his own death by assuming the identity of Siemian, a Home Army soldier who has lost his nerve and who therefore must be murdered before he reveals vital information to the German occupiers. Hippo, Frederick, and Witold have agreed on the murder and persuade Karol to do it, but Karol mistakes Albert for Siemian and murders him. At the end of the novel, Frederick and Witold and Karol and Henia find themselves united in recognition of Karol’s error. Witold’s last words indicate the satisfaction he and Frederick share with this young couple they have made their own: “They smiled. As the young always do when they are trying to get out of a scrape. And for a split second, all four of us smiled.” For an instant, at least, Frederick and Witold have succeeded in becoming young again.