The World of Stone

by Tadeusz Borowski

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 649

Very few events take place in “The World of Stone,” yet when the conclusion is reached, after five pages, a comprehensive attitude toward the entire world has been described, as well as a resolute course of action toward that world. The story is not impressionistic, although at the outset it seems to register the narrator’s stray observations. The reader is presented with two items of information, or building blocks of the story. First, the narrator possesses the “terrible knowledge” that the universe is inflating at incredible speed, like a soap bubble. Second, the narrator enjoys taking long, lonely walks in the city, through its poorest districts. At the beginning, this is all the narrator discloses.

If the reader is tempted to think that these two themes of the story have no relation to each other—that the first is of a purely psychological nature and the second, an innocuous everyday pastime—this is quickly dispelled by the author. Indeed, part of the artfulness of the story’s beginning is that the reader is lured into it by a seeming contradiction, only to find that there is none, or that it is not what she or he had expected.

As the narrator takes his daily strolls, he observes the world around him acutely. There is no psychological impressionism here. It is a specific world—a city in ruins, beginning to be rebuilt. The country is unnamed, but it is in postwar Eastern Europe; the details could describe many different European cities after World War II. Fresh grass is already beginning to overgrow the ruins, and people are busy—working, selling wares—and children are playing. The narrator observes this world in its entirety and he feels indifference for it, even contempt. Although some of the first details describing the city and its inhabitants are superficially attractive—peasant women selling sour cream, workmen hammering and straightening trolley-bus rails, children chasing rag balls—the narrator has an unambiguous attitude toward it. It is ugly, meaningless, a “gigantic stew” flowing like water down a gutter into a sewer.

At an important transition midway through the story, the narrator proceeds from one of these walks in the city to the office where he works. It is not any office of a businessman: It is grandiose, with a marble stairway and red carpet “religiously shaken out every morning” by the cleaning ladies. Inside the building is another world, ordered, important, with a hierarchy unmistakably composed of Communist Party members.

At the end of the day, the narrator returns home to his apartment. It has a curious resemblance to the building for party members where he works and which he has just left. He lives there only because of his party position (“it is not registered with any rent commission”). His wife is far offstage working in the distant kitchen, and he goes to his workroom, his desk, where he looks once again out the window, re-creating the world he saw earlier during his walks: the peasant women selling sour cream, the workers hammering rails. He has no feeling whatsoever for any of the people in this world. “With a tremendous intellectual effort,” however, he intends to grasp their significance and give them form, chiseling out of stone “a great immortal epic.” Although the Western reader might by puzzled by some details, the author states at the end of the story in an unequivocal way that the work he is chiseling from the meaningless world will be great, epic, and immortal because—and only because—it will be a communist world. The ending of the story is a declaration of intention: The narrator intends to create a work giving form to the world. He clearly states that it will have the qualities normally associated with art—epic, immortality, greatness—not because of any craft or compassion or human quality, but solely because of political allegiance.

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