Plzeňské sympozia

Dagmar Mocná

Neruda’s Trhani (“Paupers”). From Social Appeal to existential Message

pp. 125–135 (Czech), Summary p. 136 (English)

This paper aims at a revision of the traditional assessment of Jan Neruda as an author focusing on purely and unreservedly social themes, a school of thought promulgated most notably by Marxist scholars. In the introductory part, it points to the fact that concern with social issues was not specific for Neruda alone, but was much rather typical for the majority of his contemporaries (and represented in his case, as in theirs, merely one, albeit not insubstantial element of a more extensive and thematically varied production). Whereas his output of epic verse, traditionally regarded by his interpreters as the crux of Neruda’s socially oriented work, does not markedly differ, in terms of choice of characteristic subjects, from the standard literary production of the period, in the collection of lyrical verse Hřbitovní kvítí (“Churchyard Flowers”) the problem of social inequality is treated with a substantially greater degree of originality and artistic power, qualities for which it can be regarded as the key vehicle of Neruda’s contribution to the establishment of the social question as a relevant subject in Czech literature. To demonstrate the polarity of opulence and want, Neruda chose the unlikely setting of the churchyard, a venue identified by the common wisdom rather with the idea of levelling out of all differences; instead of narrowing the problem of penury down to its elementary attributes such as hunger or inadequate clothing, he laid emphasis on its being instrumental in social stigmatization and loss of human dignity. Neruda felt a lifelong inclination towards a deeper insight into the social question. He turned with irony against the sentimental clichés that had accumulated around this subject matter, and for his part chose to correlate social aspects of human existence with others, including primarily that of human relations at large. This is already obviously present in one of his early poems, Dědova mísa (“Grandfather’s Bowl”), traditionally and wrongly decoded as a social ballad. Towards the late 1860s, his focus on the more general aspects of the human condition (along with nationally oriented themes) became central to his work. This was also manifest in his reassessment of approach to such emblematic motifs of socially oriented fiction as were the characters of the beggar (in the short story Přivedla žebráka na mizinu/“She Busted a Beggar”), or the poor artist (Figurky/“Grotesque Figures”).

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