Print this page

Pathetic and grotesque, or worthy of respect? Valued for their wisdom and experience, or of no use to anyone? Able to assist the young, or only hampering their development? How are older people portrayed in the Polish literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries?


Author: Ewa Paczoska
Faculty of Polish Studies, University of Warsaw
e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  


Prof. Ewa Paczoska studies the history of Polish literature, and is also herself a poet. She works at the Section for the Literature and Culture of the Second Half of the 19th Century.  


The latter half of the 19th century was a time of great change in Europe, brought by the experience of modernity. Processes contributing to the global “transformation of the world” (as German historian Jürgen Osterhammel calls it) in various aspects – temporal, spatial, and anthropological – were gaining strength. A new social reality was emerging, or rather new social realities, driven by transformations in the traditional models of urban family life, labor market demands, the expectations of the emancipating classes and groups, particularly those experiencing sudden advancement, and greater human mobility in the individual and collective sense. Relations between the sexes and between people of different generations were being redefined. All these factors of course had an impact on how old age was perceived as a social and cultural phenomenon. The 19th century saw the lifespan of the average European grow longer, leading to the appearance of new cultural perception of old age. At the same time, the literature of the time begins to showcase youth – both youth of the rebellious, romantic sort, full of fresh and dynamic emotions, and youth in the style of the modernistic “rebellion of the flower against its roots” (as Polish writer Stanisław Brzozowski once put it). The 19th century’s revolutions and social movements seeking alternatives to the official culture were of course based on a youthful rejection of the world in its existing configuration.


The wise old sage?


Modernity is affiliated with young people from its very outset, with older people being out of touch with it, or quite simply afraid of it. The young protagonists of 19th-century Polish literature open up to the ongoing metamorphosis of the world, setting out to seek their own identity within it. Their elders, on the other hand, feel powerless in the face of change. Such anxieties are illustrated quite well by the modern stories and novels of Józef Ignacy Kraszewski. Although the Polish positivists in a certain sense departed from the romantic apology of youth, in their programmatic battles they also evidenced an aversion towards the old, towards those who refused to take part in the necessary transformation of the world, thereby regulating themselves to the margins of civilization. In the press commentaries of the 1870s, old age is associated with the waning of creative energies, with the stabilization of Poland’s national calamity under foreign occupation and the related sense of hopelessness. It was not until later that the generation of Bolesław Prus and Eliza Orzeszkowa came to appreciate maturity, as is visible in the novels from the 1880s – above all in Prus’s “The Doll,” a story about a man of mature years who yet again, in middle age, learns to understand the sense of his own experiences. Prus’s work, in particular, shows an interest in older age as a time of reevaluation and soul-searching in human life, which is closely linked to his concept of development as an evolutionary process leading to better and better ways of human participation in the world. This is nevertheless a model that rarely comes to fruition in the Polish social reality, which in the author’s view is so frequently governed by immature emotions and collective intellectual mediocrity. That is why Prus’s novellas and novels frequently include older characters who are pathetic, even grotesque, who demand respect from those around them simply on account of their grey hair – a respect they never earned, having lived long years egoistically and thoughtlessly. These are old madmen or helpless elderly children – like the main characters of “The Palace and the Hovel” or Tomasz Łęcki from “The Doll.” Their depiction meshes well with Prus’s reflections about Polish society being halted in immaturity. This is also one of the leitmotifs of the writer’s press commentaries in the 1880s-90s, as his weekly chronicles sometimes feature the emblematic figure of the Pole as a “misfit,” an eternal child who never grows up. Older individuals are only worthy of respect when they have made an effort to shape their own lives and can therefore hope to reap the benefits in their old age.


Such wise old men can indeed be found in Prus’s work. They include, for instance, Prof. Dębicki from “The New Woman,” who is a secondary and caricatured figure at the start of the novel, but as the plot progresses he grows to become a life-teacher for youths who have lost their way, like Magdalena Brzeska and her dying brother. It is Dębicki who shows them how to reconcile science and faith, how to interpret the lessons of suffering, where to find sense in the day-to-day confusion. Dębicki’s body may be decrepit, but his physical weakness is compensated for by a certain strength of spirit. For him, old age is a stage of the most profound awareness, a time of burgeoning spirituality. Similar traits can be seen in the old sage Menes from Prus’s novel “Pharaoh,” who when observing things from a distance, “from the top of a pylon,” sees the secrets of the world so clearly that he is suspected of having the “second sight.” Menes already knows that “a clown pretending a knight makes more sense than this world, in which we all pretend something without use to us.” Real wisdom and a mature old age are only possible in Prus’s world when one remains true to oneself and refuses to participate in the lies of others. Caught up in such lies, the old pharaoh becomes a puppet in the hands of his own priests.



Tadeusz Fijewski as the aging store-manager Ignacy Rzecki in the film adaptation of Bolesław Prus’s 
“The Doll,” directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has (1968). Photo: Jerzy Troszczyński / Polish National Film Archive


The old sages of “The New Woman” and “The Pharaoh” possess knowledge about the world and have reached spiritual fulfilment, but at the same time they realize their own weakness, which whispers to them, as Menes tries to explain, that they “are not the most important.” This is an old age that could take as its motto Frederic Hebbel’s aphorism: “the best demise is that of the branch that bends under the weight of its own fruit.” A positive old-age experience in Prus’s work also depends on a certain coming-to-terms with young people, who do have the gift of feelings, vibrant emotions, empathy, without which it is impossible transform the world. The old lose out when they isolate themselves from the world or shut themselves off from modernity. This is shown, for instance, by the fate of the shop-keeper Rzecki from “The Doll”: although he is just middle-aged, not really of elderly years, he takes refuge in the past and uses the mask of an old man to hide from the difficulties of acknowledging modernity. Old age may be a positive experience, on balance, on condition that one’s life has been active and “purposeful” (as Prus wrote in his sketch “On the Ideal of Perfection”), when one treats one’s existence as a kind of task.


Helpless and pathetic?


A different depiction of old age appears in the work of the modernists of the late 19th and early 20th century. Instead of the wise-old-sage character, impressively mature and skilled at interpreting his own and other’s conditional experiences, here there is more often an image of a helpless, pathetic old age, offering proof of the “scandal of existence.” The senselessness of human existence discovered by Arthur Schopenhauer, of being thrust into being and fulfilling only the plans of voracious nature, ends up being reconfirmed by old age. The apology of old age in this pessimistic philosophy encourages us to interpret the experiences of the elderly in order to understand the misery of human existence overall and its paradoxes. The comforts of old age that the philosopher indicated, the waning of desires and the practicing of vita contemplativa, are rarely enjoyed by characters in turn-of-the-century Polish literature, who are often seen wrestling with the experience of being the “young old man.” Youth is here an inherent part of the decadent experience, of being aware of the crisis and “great perishing.” The elderly in this world can offer the young only a sense of powerlessness, and in the role of the cultural lords of reality they prove to be pathetically weak (in such novels as Wacław Berent’s “Winter Crop” or Stanisław Brzozowski’s “Alone Among People”). Of course, in this literature there is a lingering dream of the old sage, the old teacher who understands the world, but his depiction is situated more outside the limits of reality, in the space of myths and tales, such as in Tadeusz Miciński’s “Nietota,” a story of initiation, an apprentice being educated by a sage as old as the hills.


In general, the Young Poland literature brings a great attempt to reckon with the mistakes of old age, including in the social dimension. Here, unlike for Prus’s generation, maturity ceases to be cherished as a value – instead it is stamped as bourgeois correctness and mimicry. The main characters of Brzozowski or Janusz Korczak (“Children of the Drawing Room”) have to perform a symbolic patricide or “grandfather-cide,” in order to make their lives a space for their own individual creation. The kind of “grandpa” character embodying the wisdom of generations gets abandoned, or rather discarded to the shelf of popular literature (to recall the novels of Maria Rodziewiczówna and Helena Mniszkówna, for instance). It also remains strong in the work of writers marked by conservatism (such as Józef Weysenhoff, or somewhat later Henryk Sienkiewicz as the author of contemporary novels, such as “Children of the Soil”).


Women unneeded?


Other interpretations of the cultural depiction of old age are supplied by the female characters in the work of writers during the period we are examining, especially female writers. Differences in the aging process experienced by women and men were already pointed out by Prus in “The New Woman,” whose main character, the forty-year-old Mrs. Latter, undergoes experiences that can be linked to the process of menopause (the interest in which can be illustrated by Karin Michaëlis’s book “The Dangerous Age,” published in the early 20th century and soon translated into many languages, including Polish). For Mrs. Latter, growing old is a bitter experience. Menopause is for her a negative time of soul-searching, reflection on a life in which she has had to play false roles mainly because she was a woman. The period is experienced similarly by Michaëlis’s main character, who says that for her whole life she was “sailing under a false flag.”


In the work of Polish women authors from the 1880s, the old age of women takes on new traits, fleshed out with previously unnoticed aspects. The old ladies from Orzeszkowa’s novellas in the collection “From Different Spheres” are lost in the reality in the wake of the January Uprising of 1863. Thrust out of the saddle, relegated to the fringes of social life (such as the old judge losing her sight in “Julianka”) personify the brutality of life, its absurdity, the ruthlessness of history. The beautiful, noble old lady-in-mourning in Grottger’s painting – a central figure of the national mausoleum – here proves to be someone unnecessary, unneeded, her lifetime experiences are not useful or conveyable in the new social situation. Although in this world where “different spheres” are mixed the wisdom of life is personified by the old Jewish trader Złotka, for instance, she is merely left to spin tales about those who have lost out. Orzeszkowa’s novellas confirm the much later observation made by Simone de Beauvoir that elderly ladies constitute the lowest social stratum.


Barbara Horawianka as Mrs. Latter in the film adaptation of parts of Bolesław Prus’s novel “The New Woman” directed by Stanisław Różewicz („Mrs. Latter’s Boarding School for Girls”). On the left is Szymon Szurmiej as a moneylender. Photo: TOR Film Production / Polish National Film Archive


This notion can also be illustrated by the old lady in Maria Konopnicka’s novella “Miss Florentine,” an interesting study of the relations between an old mother and her aging daughter. For the latter, growing older, here closely linked to physical, material, and therefore also social degradation, is a very humiliating experience. With an impressively modern approach, in this novella Konopnicka explores the various countenances of female aging, manifesting itself above all in Florentine’s distinctive struggle for power with her mother. The main character of this novella is one of many older women in Konopnicka’s work who see what is overlooked or forgotten in social practice.


Orzeszkowa’s journal from 1989-1904, written in code, represents an important attempt at personal reflection on the existential phenomenon of female aging. Here the author finds growing old to be a shameful experience, which she is at a loss to describe. She is at a loss of words because the emotional needs of an old woman, which Orzeszkowa mentions here, are invisible and socially unacceptable. This is also one of the topics in Gabriela Zapolska’s work. The depiction of female old age in her novels, and above all the aging process, are integrally related to reflection about women’s place in androcentric culture. “Tuśka’s Daughter” shows, using the example of the lives of a mother and daughter, that society has no use for a mature woman (or especially one growing old). As Tuśka enters old age, she finds the vision of her life as an unending failure reconfirmed. The most dramatic part of her soul-searching proves to be the awareness that the aging mother finds no way to express or convey what she is experiencing to her daughter. The most important dialog between the two women in this novel takes place without words.


In Zapolska’s “salon drama” of 1909, entitled “Skiz,” the husband and wife play a game of pretended youth, humiliating for the latter. What is most interesting here is that the aging woman, whom social norms situate beyond any sort of sexuality, reveals her own erotic needs and wants to be “desired.” The main character loses this game of “marital tarot,” but at the same time she discovers her desires. Here, therefore, Zapolska touches on a tabooized realm that would not be subjected to literary analysis until much later, for instance in the novellas and novels of the French writer Colette, younger by a generation. In “Skiz” Zapolska lifts the grey veil of “invisibility” behind which aging women are concealed.


The culture of youth


Old age, as the above examples show, therefore became an important topic in Polish literature as it responded to the challenges of modernity and attempted to capture its experiences. Interestingly, this happened at a time when the culture of youth that dominates today, in which being old is shameful and a sin, began to stabilize. The literature of Polish modernism highlights how modern-age people shape our own identity through our choices and tradeoffs. Old age does not liberate us from that practice – if we treat it as yet another task on that path.




Further reading:

Prus, B. (2001). Pharaoh, trans. Christopher Kasparek, Warsaw: Polestar.
Bois J.P. (1989). Les Vieux: de Montaigne aux premières retraites, Paris: Fayard
de Beauvoir S. (1996). The Coming of Age, trans. P. O’Brian, London: W.W. Norton
Kruk S., Flis E. (eds.) (2006). Dojrzewanie do pełni życia. Starość w literaturze polskiej i obcej [Maturing to Fullness of Life: Old Age in Polish and Foreign Literature]. Lublin: Wydwnictwo UMCS.
Paczoska E. (2004). Dojrzewanie, dojrzałość, niedojrzałość. Od Bolesława Prusa do Olgi Tokarczuk [Maturation, Maturity, Immaturity: From Bolesław Prus to Olga Tokarczuk] Warsaw: Wydawnictwo SIC!

© Academia 3 (43) 2014

Rate this item
(0 votes)

Related items