#RivetingReviews: Ursula Phillips reviews THE PEASANTS by Władysław Reymont

Set in the village of Lipce in the Russian Partition area of Poland in the 1880s, The Peasants is no pastoral idyll, but a saga of poverty and hardship, betrayal and jealousy, gossip and revenge, where richer peasants, such as the miller and blacksmith, exploit the poorer. Despite its length (893 pages in the new translation), it bristles with drama, intense emotions and punchy dialogue. 

Władysław Reymont’s epic novel of peasant life was originally serialised in the Warsaw magazine Illustrated Weekly between 1902 and 1908, first published as a book in 1909, and translated into English in 1921. In 1924 Reymont was awarded the Nobel Prize for this one work, suggesting its perceived importance not only in Polish letters but also internationally; Reymont has been compared to Zola and Hardy. Its reappearance in English a century later in a translation by Anna Zaranko prompts opportunities for reinterpretation and reassessment of its relevance today. The new version includes a substantial introduction by Ryszard Koziołek, which provides invaluable background for readers desiring deeper insights into its origin and purpose. The whole project was inspired by Hugh Welchman’s forthcoming animated film and his approach to Penguin to make available a fresh translation that more vividly captures the language and dynamism of the original than the previous one. This aim has without doubt been achieved. Meanwhile, the novel’s empathetic portrayal of universal human relationships, irrespective of class, continues to render it accessible to non-Polish readers, while the new version rehabilitates the invariably undervalued figure of the ‘peasant’ in our modern consciousness. 

Significantly, the (genderless) narratorial voice comes from within the community, no doubt reflecting the fact that Reymont himself grew up in a village. Contrary to what might be expected, given that Polish society at the time was predominantly rural, there are few comparable Polish works: Bolesław Prus’ The Outpost (1885–1886), Eliza Orzeszkowa’s The Boor (1888) or Maria Dąbrowska’s Folk from Yonder (1926), all of which have themes in common with The Peasants, have an external, more objectivised narrative perspective.

The novel consists of four parts that follow the seasons, beginning with autumn. The cycle of agricultural life, sowing and reaping, closely parallels that of the sacred rituals of the Christian year. This is a deeply Catholic environment, where the priest and his acolytes wield considerable power. Metaphors related to the Eucharist frequently appear in descriptions of crops and agricultural work. There are powerful scenes, as when the dying farmer Boryna rises from his deathbed and walks the fields at night, going through the motions of sowing the seed. Land has a sacral significance. Meanwhile, the ‘desecrator’, beautiful Jagna, intelligent but illiterate, dreamy and promiscuous, who instinctively rebels against the established order by rejecting her role as wife, is eventually sacrificed for her disruption; the fact that no one stops her punishment implies the villagers’ tacit compliance. All this might suggest that peasant life is locked in a ‘natural’, immutable and sacredly ordained cycle. Rebellions are few and short-lived, as when the villagers assert their rights over woodland felled by the local manor and are then rendered contrite by temporary imprisonment. However, as Koziołek suggests in his introduction, the conditions of peasant life were not immutable but had evolved as a result of centuries of serfdom. 

Russian political and administrative control is one of two major contexts for appreciating the novel (the language of the courts, police and education is Russian), although the peasants have their own elected headmen, the Voyt and the Soltys, who keep order in the village and represent it in dealings with the local squire and with local officials. Among the Polish landowning classes, desire for national independence inspired uprisings, notably in 1830–1831 and 1863–1864, which were suppressed by the Russian government. For peasants, however, the situation was different: in 1864 reforms were introduced similar to those seen in other parts of Russia in 1861: serfs were liberated and lands parcelled out. Put in simple terms, this meant that peasants had less reason to rebel against the Russian authorities than other Poles. The theme of Polish class unity was regarded, however, as an essential ingredient in the Polish liberation project, and evidence of this can indeed be seen in The Peasants – in the discreet activities of wandering characters who visit the village trying to raise national consciousness. In Reymont’s portrayal, the peasants generally remain passive, but such references nevertheless suggest his awareness of potential change afoot. 

Another aspect of potential change in the novel is the increased agency of women, upon whose behaviours the novel’s action largely hinges. When the men are imprisoned, the burden of upholding the village’s economy falls on the women, but this inspires a spirit of cooperation not demonstrated before. Hanka, the binary opposite to Jagna, takes charge of Boryna’s farm and emerges as a formidable force. Meanwhile, a number of elderly women comment on events, in particular the gossip Jagustynka, who utters home truths the villagers do not wish to hear. Koziołek’s suggestion that Jagna’s name is contained within Jagustynka’s is a powerful one: could this kind of woman provide the next critical perspective on the Polish village? 

The second context is that of the Young Poland literary and artistic movement of which Reymont was a part. As both Welchman in his foreword and Zaranko in her translator’s note point out, this is a very ‘painterly’ text. It is understandable why Welchman would choose to use Young Poland paintings as the inspiration for his animations. The approach is more impressionistic, however, than realistic. On one level, the portrayal of nature, for example, feels visceral and immediate, yet it is often inaccurate in scientific detail. But this does not detract from the overall effect. The same could be said of the language, the so-called ‘peasant-speak’, which is an impressionistic language constructed by the author, not a realistic reflection of any dialect spoken in rural Poland. The translator has therefore made the right decision to treat it with a light touch, using colourful informal speech without drawing on any British dialect, although occasionally, as she says, ‘its cadences are decidedly northern’.

Reviewed by Ursula Phillips

THE PEASANTS

By Władysław Reymont

Translated by Anna Zaranko, with Foreword by Hugh Welchman and Introduction by Ryszard Koziołek

Published by Penguin Books (2022)

January 2023 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Ursula Phillips is a British translator from Polish and a writer on Polish literary history. Recent translations include novels by Zofia Nałkowska, Choucas (1927) and Boundary (1935), which received the Found in Translation Award 2015 and the PIASA (Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America) Wacław Lednicki Award 2017 respectively.

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