(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Wadysaw Reymont was a writer of large novels, as there are painters of broad landscapes. His works can be compared to the paintings of Pieter Brueghel, bustling with activity and replete with detail. This comparison with the sixteenth century Flemish artist can be extended even further: Both Brueghel and Reymont present panoramic scenes without specific heroes, yet they manage to convey precisely an ambience that immediately renders their works heroic and classic in composition.

Reymont’s critics have charged that his novels suffer because of a lack of concentration on particular “heroic” personages. They assert that his overattention to detail in the descriptions of routines, customs, and other everyday realities surrounding his characters in fact detracts from their presentation and even distances the reader from identification and sympathy with potential heroes. It appears, however, that the author deliberately chose to emphasize the general, the sweeping nature of his vision, rather than encapsulate or incarnate it in the dramatis personae of his works. A catalog of the titles of his major works will confirm such an assumption: Excluding the first novel, The Comedienne, all subsequent titles indicate that Reymont was more interested in and intent on a presentation of—respectively—an urban milieu, the peasant class, and a historical era in The Promised Land, The Peasants, and Rok 1794. In this conscious election of panorama over personage, Reymont recalls the epic nature of Leo Tolstoy’s Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886).

Reymont was also accused by his contemporaries of a neglect of particular historical reference and ideological direction in his novels. There is some truth in this charge, but it must be remembered that the author was essentially uneducated. His intellectual limitations are most evident in the historical trilogy, for which the author conducted extensive research, but the result is an enumeration or regurgitation of textbook facts with no analysis or consideration of political implications. As a self-taught writer, however, Reymont was able to impart his knowledge and observations through his other literary works. What marks his greatness is not a lack of ideology but a keen awareness of feeling and attention to detail, a rich, emotional attachment to his subject, an affinity for the language, and a dedication to represent, as Reymont himself stated in his diary, life “as it is, not as it should be.”

Reymont’s early novels, like the short stories that anticipated them, depict the poverty and purposelessness of the lives of a troupe of traveling actors. As literary historian Julian Krzyanowski has stated, the ordeals of Janka Orowska in The Comedienne and Fermenty are important as a social document, “not for psychological depth, nor for sociological importance, but for their vital truth.” The character of Janka, a would-be actor, is traced from her life in the theater, through the vicissitudes of such a peripatetic existence, to her return home (in the second novel) to resume a more stationary way of life on her father’s estate. These debut novels are already characterized by their lengthy descriptions (here, of the drama troupe), Reymont’s unique representation of characters through linguistic peculiarities, and his vivid depictions of nature and manorial life. Here, too, there is evidence of the author’s predilection for the presentation of a human group as opposed to the potential heroic nature of an individual, in this case his leading lady. This tendency led in later works to a portrayal of an entire group as a heroic class.

The Promised Land

Reymont’s The Promised Land is as much an antiurban novel as it is a cinematic panorama of the rapidly growing industrial city of Lodz. Set in what Czesaw Miosz has called “a kind of Manchester of eastern Europe,” the novel centers on three young men, each a representative of one of the ethnic groups that have invaded the city to capitalize on its overnight boom. Karol Borowiecki, a Pole; Max Baum, a German; and Moryc Welt, a Jew, join forces for their mutual benefit to erect their own textile plant. These are the Lodzermenschen, a unique breed of ruthless capitalists, technologically superior but morally inferior to their parents and predecessors.

Surrounding the activities of this troika of would-be tycoons, there is an...

(The entire section is 1839 words.)