Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Reflections on The Peasants

I just finished reading The Peasants, by Wladyslaw Reymont. I first mentioned the book in a blog post last October. Since then I've written about it here, here, here, here, and here. I've been reading it for months now (it's a long book) and it feels like I've just said goodbye to a whole community of people I've come to know rather well. I've lived with the characters through autumn, winter, spring, and summer... the book covers a complete year of life in a Polish village in the late 1800s. I thought I would share with you some of my reflections about the book and the insights I've gained from reading it.

First off, I was intrigued by village life. For the most part, people were born, grew up, and died in their own little village with little opportunity or desire to venture beyond it. There was a sort of cast system that was dictated by the amount of (or lack of) land one's family owned. Those who didn't own land and had to work for others were one step above the beggars. Those who owned just enough land to sustain their families were second to those who were able to support their family and perhaps hire some additional hands to help out around the farm. Those who were trade merchants (i.e. miller, blacksmith, etc.) were more highly regarded along with the parish priest, the soltys (village administrator) and the wojt (village leader). Because the Catholic Church forbade its members to serve liquor, the Jews were the bartenders and money lenders. There was a strained relationship between the villagers and the Jews. They each seemed to think less of each other but at the same time recognize that their own well being depended on getting along with the other. I wouldn't say there was respect between them, more like a mutual tolerance and acceptance of the ways things had to be.

Today's soap operas have nothing on the scandals that went on in the remote villages in Poland. Adultery, thievery, slander, conspiracy... for a people who were so devoutly Catholic and had shrines on practically every corner they sure had their share of human foibles. I was appalled at how common place it was to verbally thrash one's neighbor or family member and then pray fervently for God's forgiveness only to do the same thing again the next day. Screaming was a way of life. I know the book is fiction but I have no problem believing this way of interacting was "normal". I distinctly remember some of my relatives discussing this years ago, they would have been first generation Americans. They would scream vile names at each other and if someone suggested that they didn't need to be so nasty they would look at them like they were nuts and say something to the effect of "I'm Polish, it's in my blood!". They were only repeating behavior they'd seen modeled for them.

It was interesting to see how ignorant and fearful they were of things like the weather. Poland typically doesn't get the extreme weather we get here in the U.S. Hurricanes don't happen there and tornadoes are extremely rare (I think the last one occurred in 2002). Even thunderstorms, while not exactly rare, are not frequent either. The villagers in the book were pretty fearful of storms and did a lot of praying during them. Some believed the weather was one of God's ways of rewarding them for good behavior or punishing them for their misdeeds. There was much they didn't understand about the world around them and as often as not what they didn't understand they attributed to God or the devil.

Within a family, those who were most able were most valued. It was almost shocking to see the rudeness and disregard shown to the elderly. When someone became too old to be of much use around the farm they were pretty much seen as a liability... another mouth to feed but no more hands to help. Some were encouraged by their grown children to go begging, essentially becoming vagabonds. Others left on their own accord not wanting to wait for the humiliation of being thrown out by their families. It made a twisted sort of sense in their world, so many went hungry due to not having enough land to support their large families. Still, it seems so harsh, so cruel.

Even when the peasants were free land holders and no longer "owned" by the estate Lords, they didn't trust them. There was an "us vs them" mentality that no doubt stemmed from the "haves vs the have nots" reality. It appeared that the peasants had long memories of the times they were treated unfairly by their keepers. Likewise, the nobility and landowning gentry avoided associating with the peasants unless necessary. I'm not sure if they feared them or just thought themselves better than them.

Voting was a joke. This story takes place in the Russian partition of Poland and the voting process was conducted by the Russians government officials. In the book the villagers of Lipka were asked to vote on whether or not to build a school in the village. The Russians told them they wanted one. The villagers said they did not. They wanted to learn to read and write in Polish not the Russian language that was mandated. They were threatened that if they didn't vote in favor of the school they might have a heavy price to pay. Then they voted against it but were told the final vote tally was in favor of a school. Slam dunk. Nothing they could do. They'd be taxed and have to attend a school they didn't want. The book may be fiction but I have no trouble believing this sort of thing really went on.

Reymont was a master at creating a setting so detailed you don't have to use much imagination to be there. He was born in the small village of Kobiele Wielke, and grew up in the village of Tuszyn both located south of Lodz. Lipka (Lipce), the village where the story takes place, is located east of Lodz, but all are in the same general vicinity. His own life experiences would have given him good reference material for writing about village life. He was obviously a good observer of human behavior and a keen observer of farm life though being the son of a church organist his family likely didn't do any farming of their own. Still, his writing makes you feel the boring drudgery of a village farmer who toils in the fields hour after hour, day after day. You could feel the hot sun burning down on the villagers as they made their way into the fields during the peak of summer and feel the bitter, biting cold winds that whipped around those forced to go into the woods for firewood in the dead of winter. The monotony of rain, day after day that forced everyone to stay indoors until they felt like climbing the walls of their one room huts was described so well it was hard to keep reading... you couldn't help but want the rain to end just so you wouldn't have to keep reading about it!

No doubt about it, I learned a lot about the lifestyle my Polish ancestors lived by reading this book. I also learned how the villagers feared the Russians and why they would consider fleeing to America to avoid being sent to work camps in Siberia (even those like my grandfather who being the eldest son stood first in line to inherit the large family farm). Their daily life was hard. They were oppressed by the Russians, and they feared storms, the Germans, and the wrath of God. They often went hungry and except perhaps during harvest never ate a balanced meal. They had no medicines beyond the herbs they could gather in the fields and woods. Most couldn't read or write. The one thing they clung to to get them through their dreary existence was their religion. It gave them forgiveness for their sins, belief in a better life after death, holy days to rest from their toil, and sacraments to celebrate life. They decorated their clothing and homes with bright colors and danced and drank vodka when life gave them an opportunity to celebrate. I watched them baptize their young, honor their dead, celebrate Christmas, marry, observe Lent, bury their loved ones, fight for what was theirs, celebrate Easter, and reap their harvest. It was educational, emotional, entertaining, and at times exhausting.

No wonder Reymont won a Nobel Prize for this book. It's quite a book.

My friend "V" was kind enough to lend me her VHS copies of the movie made of this book. I've been holding off watching them till I finished the book. Now I'll have to watch the movie to see how close the movie comes to the actual story. I can only hope it is as well done.