Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

10 Jun 2011

(Short Story) Death by: Wladyslaw Reymont

(Reaction) One Must Pay to Die by: Antonio Conejos

After death we are supposed to be beyond all cares. Yet Wladslaw Reymont's short story details in stark language how death is burdened by the concerns of the living. Moreover, while these concerns may supposedly be for the well being of others; in actuality these concerns are decidedly selfish in nature.

The death in question is of Antkowa's father. He is not dead yet but is certainly at death's door. His final hours though will not be peaceful as Antkowa is a violent, even cruel, woman. This violence is expressed both verbally, Go to Julina, you old dog! You've given the property to Julina, let her look after you... and physically, With a jerk his daughter tore away the feather-bed, and, taking the old man round the middle, she pulled him furiously half out of bed, so that only his head and shoulders were resting on it; he lay motionless like a piece of wood, and like a piece of wood, stiff and dried up.

This hailstorm of abuse culminates in her dragging her barely alive father out to die in the freezing pigsty, 'Now die, you leper!' She kicked his naked leg, which was lying across the opening, with her clog, and went out. The elements do their work swiftly and the old man freezes to death alone, a few yards away from home and hearth, No one heard the helpless old man entreating for mercy in a voice trembling with despair. No one saw him creep to the closed door... He reared up feebly, till at last he broke down on the threshold, with foam on his lips, and a look of horror at being left to die of cold, in his broken eyes; his face was distorted by an expression of anguish which was like a frozen cry.

Antkowa's abuse of her father stems from his having left the inheritance to her sister, Tomekowa. Indeed, there is no love lost between the sisters, At last Antkowa began to sob hysterically with rage and exhaustion... Tomekowa, meanwhile, was cursing and shouting outside the house, and banging her heels against the door. (The sisters may protest that they are nothing alike but they are certainly equal in their propensity to spew bile as well as their talent for, in their eyes, always being the victim of an unfortunate situation.)

Thus, the father's death does not signal an end to life. Rather, his passing serves as a furtherance, even a deepening, of life's many burdens. Death in Wladslaw Reymont's short story is not a termination of life but merely a bridge for more of life's hates and perceived wrongs.

Perpetuating this hate is certainly the story's principal character, Antkowa. The poverty of her family is starkly clear, and the reader can surmise that the father's inheritance would have gone a long way to alleviating their lives.

The meanness and pettiness of Antkowa and her husband is revealed though in their reaction to accidentally discovering even a small piece of the father's inheritance, He had stitched it into his chaplet and I took it from him... I felt the silver through the lined, so I tore that off and took the money. That is ours; hasn't he wronged us enough? Immediately upon this discovery, husband and wife hatch a scheme to lend the money to a neighbor who cannot pay and the neighbor's land which was used as security will default to them ...I must lend him the money. He won't be able to redeem it... We shall go to the lawyer and make a proper contract that the ground will be min unless he repays the money... Antek thought of his five acres; he looked upon them as a certainty.

Antkowa and Antek may think that they are aggrieved because they could have used the inheritance for the rearing of their children. But the predatory and rapacious nature of the couple is readily seen as born out of selfishness, not of parental love. After all, Antkowa regularly beats her daughter and her son. They wanted that money for themselves and they are incensed that they did not get it. These heathen! These thieves! You wait - I'll show you my five acres! Then I shall have ten.

The story ends with Antek's drunken preoccupation on the land, The five acres are mine, mine! Far from his mind is the death of his father in law, close to his heart is the money and land that he thinks will soon be his.

Hamlet thought of death as The undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns. Yet Reymont perceives death as the very same country as life, a land where one's journey of hardship and suffering never ends.


This story relies on equal measures of hard nosed realism and decidedly noisy melodrama. Strikingly there's a lot of domestic noise in this short story reminiscent of a Philippine telenovela. Indeed, the plot, featuring a daughter fooled out of her (allegedly) rightful inheritance, is a staple of many a soap opera.

This kind of plot was probably old even at the time Reymont was writing it. Neither does the writer do anything new with this set piece of feuding daughters and dying fathers. Thus, the story feels like a tired rehash of conflict that you've undoubtedly seen before in other works.

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