Themes in “Drive Your Plow…” by Olga Tokarczuk
This paper will analyze the Polish novel Drive your Plow Over the Body of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, focusing on several key themes of feminism, protection of nature and its innocence conflicting with human immorality and ignorance. In the novel, one of the major themes is nature vs. humanity, with the story suggesting that conforming to human ideals is destructive and comparable with idiocy, as elements of dramatic irony and foreshadowing are utilized to portray poetical justice for those who choose to pursue vile human interruptions of the natural world.
Throughout the novel there is an inherent tension that is generated between those who value the natural world in its untouched and innocent state, like the protagonist Janina, and those who are pursuing human passions that seek to create destruction. Janina is an outcast of sorts, and holds the opinion that humans could co-exist with the natural world in harmony. She argues that all elements of nature deserve respect and humans have neither the right or the capacity to judge what is useful and what is not, what gets to live and what does not. Janina argues, “Who divided the world into useless and useful, and by what right? Does a thistle have no right to life, or a Mouse that eats the grain in a warehouse?… Whose intellect can have had the audacity to judge who is better, and who worse?” (121). There is an inherent way of life and stability to this system which has existed for thousands of years. The novel continuously seeks to emphasize that nature is both a representation of bare innocence but also possessing immense strength to persevere and fight back against human-created destruction.
Meanwhile, the novel’s approach to civilized humanity is one of distraught disgust. The destructive and vile nature of humans is symbolized through the hunters. They are shown to be ruthless, lacking empathy, self-entitled, and believing they are better than others and the natural world which they seek to dominate. While there are exceptions, that is the saddening reality of human nature, selfish and disregarding for most others. Humanity’s purpose is seemingly focused on acquiring power over people, things, and nature. The act of hunting as demonstrated, is a vicious cruel action, performed by many of the antagonists in the novel. It is done not for the purpose of survival, but as recreation and a means to achieve recognition in the community. Janina who is an avid environmentalist and protector of animals is terrified at the trajectory of humanity’s development, “This mass killing, cruel, impassive, automatic, without any pangs of conscience, without the slightest pause for thought, though plenty of thought is applied to ingenious philosophies and theologies” (57). Her views are both seen as extremist, but in the context of human behavior in many cases, virtually justified.
Therefore, the novel sets up the conflict of humanity vs. nature, in which Janina takes on the role of an executor. She, both, believes that she is acting in the name of nature’s protection and spreading the mysticism that the animals are directly responsible for the rampant murders in the village. That is the role of the dramatic irony and foreshadowing. Although Janina is not revealed as the killer until the end, the reader realizes from the moment where she examines the photo in the cabin, that she is somehow involved. It is written, “And that the world is a great big net, it is a whole, where no single thing exists separately; every scrap of the world, every last tiny piece, is bound up with the rest” (34). Therefore, by confronting nature, man is also attacking themselves, garnering a response from nature in one way or another that backfires on them. Poetic justice reaches those who abuse the power more than the rest.
Despite being nearly pulled into the mysticism of the novel; the reality is that the novel demonstrates that humanity is so predominantly blind and focused on their truths. Both individual and collective, people are unable to see the broader picture. That is also, the wider perspective of how their actions are impacting the natural world. Janina argues that while for the hunters it may be just one animal, or one tree for lumberjacks, but in reality, they are contributing to the total devastation without fully encompassing its impacts. She says, “The whole, complex human psyche has evolved to prevent Man from understanding what he is really seeing.
To stop the truth from reaching him by wrapping it in illusion, in idle chatter. The world is a prison full of suffering, so constructed that in order to survive one must inflict pain on others” (57). The conflict of humanity destructing nature is artificially manufactured, because the system has positioned it in a way that humans believe that is the only way of survival, which it is not. Humanity is unable to reach the level of awareness and harmony as a collective civilization.
The novel Drive your Plow Over the Body of the Dead creates the dilemma in a crisis of humanity versus nature seen through the various symbolisms and dramatic irony foreshadowing. The conflict seems to be man’s own creation, as their path towards interaction, “living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves” (110). Humanity needs to expand its vision, and pursue the truth, or face relentless and potentially similarly ruthless retort. One of the main lessons of this novel that I drew for myself is that conforming to nature is more sane and logical than embracing the societal norms of humanity which systemically seek to stifle out the freedoms of nature and violently violate harmony. In nature, each human on their own, finds a level of comfort and clarity as human barriers are stripped away. Therefore, in the novel, Janina and those like her are portrayed as insane, in reality, the perception of sanity largely depends on the perspective, being conforming to either human or nature.
Tokarczuk, Olga. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Dallas, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018. Web.