Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 819

Much of the interpretation of the story is done by the narrator himself; it is a story about his “knowledge,” which he asserts is not simply opinion but truth. The story operates on a high level of generality. There are no dynamic relations between individual characters, but instead a single point of view (the narrator uses the first-person singular pronoun) looking out at a broad variety of details and people that make up the world. This world is referred to by the title; it is far more important than any single character or living human being, with the exception of the narrator.

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The reader will quickly notice that this “world” has two somewhat contradictory qualities: It is both light—ready to dissolve like a soap bubble, insignificant and senseless—and it is heavy, intractable, difficult to grasp, a “world of stone.” Other descriptions of this cosmic world fall midway between these two poles: It is an overripe pomegranate, a cosmic gale, a huge whirlpool, a weird snarl, and gigantic stew. This contradiction is one of the most intriguing features of the story. The interpretation of this world, and resolution of Tadeusz Borowski’s contradiction, is one of the reader’s thorniest tasks. Something is missing, or withheld. There is an irrational element in the story that Borowski partly confronts, and although he stops short of full clarity, this confrontation is one of the most moving concerns of the story. The dominant impression of the narrator’s observations of the outside world is not really one of lightness or even “indifference,” as the author suggests, but one of disgust. When Borowski claims that the narrator feels “irreverence bordering almost on contempt,” he has already created an attitude of full de facto contempt that borders, rather, on hatred. It is not the world, “this weird snarl,” that is weird, but the narrator’s attitude. What, then is the “stone” of “the world of stone”—what does the author mean by his title? The author does not establish a clear equation, and the reader must interpret the question for himself. It is open-ended, part of the strange and disquieting art of the story. It is possible to follow the author and say that the world is worthy of total indifference and contempt, that it has no objective value and is only a place of stone. The stone can also be interpreted in psychological terms; it is the author’s feelings that are petrified.

The single clear, and striking, reference to stone in the story is the description of the Communist Party building in which the narrator works. It is “a massive, cool building made of granite,” and its staircase is made of marble. This is the one setting in the story where the world, with its babble and meaningless chaos, is kept at bay.

The title of the story is also the title of the collection of stories; hence, its reference is also outside this particular story. When the reader turns to the other stories—“The Death of Schillinger,” “The Man with the Package,” “The Supper,” “A True Story,” “Silence,” and above all the stories not about concentration camps but about the postwar, civilian world—the overall feeling of numbness and nihilism is confirmed. Borowski was a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and his subsequent fate indicates one path taken by survivors.

An abundant literature has grown up about the concentration camps, as well as the plight of survivors—Elie Wiesel and Bruno Bettelheim are two of the foremost American contributors. Borowski, too, has made one of the most important and lasting contributions to the literature of the Holocaust. American readers often find one of his major themes unpalatable, refusing to accept it, denying it, or sentimentally distorting it: that the human survival instinct is not necessarily a positive value. To survive in the camps often required the willingness to destroy others. (Readers of Wiesel’s Night, published in 1956, will recall the father and son trying to kill each other for a small piece of bread.) No one has portrayed this better than Borowski, both in his stories and in his life. The “stone” in the title of “The World of Stone” is not only numbness but also destructiveness; it carried over into civilian life after the war and was directed against society as a whole, finding an outlet in the Communist Party. It was also directed against art; after the collection The World of Stone was published in 1948, Borowski ceased writing literature and devoted himself to shrill, propagandistic journalism, filled with hatred and largely directed against Americans—no matter that his 1946 book Bylismy w Oswiecimiu (we were in Auschwitz) was dedicated to “The American Seventh Army which brought us liberation from the Dachau-Allach Concentration camp.” Borowski became consumed by a one-dimensional rage that sacrificed all art to politics. Finally, this hatred was turned against himself; he committed suicide in Warsaw in 1951.

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