Narcyza Zmichowska (1819-76) was the most accomplished female writer to come out of Poland in the mid-nineteenth century. In terms of influence and popularity, she was the George Eliot of East European letters, but her fiction was written less in the realist style than in the Romantic one. Her novel The Heathen, rendered here in a crystalline English translation by Ursula Phillips, is the tale of a doomed love affair between Benjamin, a young man from a poor but patriotic rural family, and Aspasia, a femme fatale who is older, beautiful, worldlier, and more sexually liberated. As the story unfolds, Benjamin falls in love with Aspasia, accompanies her to Warsaw, and under her influence achieves incredible intellectual and professional heights--until she tires of him and takes another lover. Jealous, Benjamin murders Aspasia's new paramour and flees to his mother in the countryside--where he realizes the full extent of what he has lost and betrayed. Hence the fundamental tension in this work, represented by the two women who compete for Benjamin's affection: the mother, who represents self-abnegation and redemption from sin, and Aspasia, who represents self-indulgence and sin itself. In the end, The Heathen embodies a profound meditation on the limits of these typecasts: the novel not only explores the restrictions they placed on women during the nineteenth century, but on human happiness, and Poland's then tenuous impulse toward modernity.
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