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Literature / The Grandmother

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The Grandmother as portrayed in the 1971 TV movie
The Grandmother - Scenes from Country Life (Babička - Obrazy venkovského života) is a novel by the Czech writer Božena Němcová, considered a classic of Czech literature, published in 1855 as a tribute to the author's own grandmother.

The eponymous grandmother, an old peasant woman, lives in a cottage in North-Eastern Bohemia (then under Austrian rule). One day, one of her three children, her daughter Terezie, writes her a letter in which she states that her husband has just received a position as the coachman of a Princess,note  who spends part of the year on her estate, which is located only a few miles away from where the Grandmother lives. She asks the Grandmother to come and live with her family, adding that her grandchildren, whom she has never met, are looking forward to seeing her. The Grandmother is used to her life in the village and is not sure if she should take her daughter up on her offer, but, blood being thicker than water, she finally decides to go. The milieu to which she arrives is a welcoming one. Her daughter's family, the Prošeks, have been allotted a lovely cottage called "Staré bělidlo" on the estate. Everyone is excited to see the Grandmother, and while the children are at first surprised by her appearance, which is different from that of other grandmothers they know, they soon develop a strong mutual bond due to the grandmother's immense kindness. It is not long before the Grandmother takes on a significant role in the upbringing of the three children, developing a particularly strong bond with the girl, Barunka. She also takes over much of the running of the household, as her daughter is also employed by the Princess at her chateau. Although some of the old lady's country ways appear old-fashioned at first, she will change nothing about them and continues to do things her way. The Grandmother is portrayed as a paragon of kindness, wisdom and piety, as well a loyal Czech woman. She teaches the children good morals, takes them to see various locals, is befriended by the Princess, gives advice to various members of the community, and intercedes for young people who face obstacles to getting married to those they love. In this way, she gains the universal love, respect and admiration of her family and the community at large.

A lot of the plot is episodic, describing the lives of people from the Czech countryside and with several story lines tied together.

This novel has long been considered one of the most iconic in Czech literature. It must be said, though, that while the book still stands as an official classic, it is perhaps no longer read as widely for pleasure as its status would demand. The Czechs are are not a people known for excessive sentimentality and they tend to find more relevance in more modern titles, such as books by Karel Čapek. Nonetheless, the book has significant value as an ethnographic document, as it describes various Czech folk customs. Furthermore, if one looks past the book's romanticism, one finds interesting stories of a variety of female characters of various social backgrounds who, while they keep to their stations in life, are often shown exercising agency in various ways. The novel would deserve a proper feminist analysis.

This work provides examples of:

  • A Good Way to Die: Having lived out her life and reached a ripe old age – apparently well past eighty -, the Grandmother, sensing that her time is coming, summons her family, including her grandchildren, to her side. She dies having led a pious and full life; as her funeral cortege passes the palace, the Princess looks out the window mournfully. However, when it has passed, she utters the famous final line of the novel: "What a fortunate woman."

  • Arranged Marriage: Averted twice:

    • When Viktorka, a local homeless madwoman, was young, she was beautiful, sprightly, hard-working, and in expectation of a share in her father's lands. As a result, she had many suitors; however, she brushed them off, wanting a good dancer over the wealthy farmers who came seeking after her. This would sometimes irritate her father, who on at least one occasion threatened to choose her a husband herself and force her to marry him if she didn't choose one herself, but Viktorka, who was only 20, pleaded with him to let her enjoy her youth a while longer, which endeared her to him and he figured she still had time to find someone. However, a rifleman then started stalking Viktorka; this caused her to make an about-face and she demanded to be married as soon as possible. Another suitor, an honest young man called Tonda, came along, and she accepted to marry him. However, Viktorka could not resist the rifleman's advances. He seduced her, left with his unit sometime after, and a pregnant Viktorka went mad. Her father gave Tonda Viktorka's younger sister Mařenka in marriage instead, and died after three years had passed, apparently of grief.

    • The Princess intends to marry Hortensie, her teenage ward, to a Count. At the time of these plans, the Grandmother sees that Hortensie is sad, but the latter acts like it is nothing. However, the Grandmother notices a picture of a man among Hortensie's drawings, who Hortensie reveals is her drawing master. She manages to figure out that Hortensie is in love with him. The Grandmother reveals this fact to the Princess; the latter, who loves Hortensie as her own child and desires her happiness, allows her to marry her drawing master.

  • Author Avatar: The Prošeks' girl, Barunka, is shown to have a special relationship with the Grandmother (who herself was based on the author's maternal grandmother Marie Magdalena Novotná). Her name is short for Barbora, the author's birth name and the novel is inspired by elements from the author's childhood.

  • Bittersweet Ending: The Grandmother dies and is generally mourned by everyone whose lives she has touched. All the same, she has lived a fulfilled life and has left a lot of good behind her in the community.

  • Christianity is Catholic: The Grandmother is very religious and imparts her simple peasant piety to her grandchildren. The author shows the manner in which several Catholic holidays were celebrated in Bohemia.

  • Conscription:

    • Míla, Kristla's fiance, is liable to be selected for military service. He hopes to get work on the estate as a hired hand in order to avoid this, but makes two enemies: Piccolo, an Italian attendant of the Princess, whom he and his friends physically attack after he stalks Míla's fiancee Kristla, and Lucka, the Mayor's daughter, who is in love with him but whom he rejects. She gets back at him by interceding with her father against him. Thanks to these two incidents, Míla does not get a position as a hired hand, which leads to him being drafted into the Austrian army. Luckily, the Grandmother intercedes on his behalf with the Princess, explaining the circumstances that led to him being drafted and the fact that he and Kristla were planning to get married. The Princess gets Míla out of the Army (she probably buys him out) and he and Kristla get married.

    • The Grandmother reminisces that before she was married, during the War of the Bavarian Succession between the Habsburg Monarchy and Prussia, her then-boyfriend Jiří escaped to Kladsko note  to avoid being drafted into the Habsburg army, asking him to come and meet him there later. However, when she came to see Jiří , she found that he had ended up as a soldier in the enemy army: he and two friends had gone to a tavern where some recruiters enlisted them while they were under the influence of alcohol. In spite of this misfortune, she consented to marry him and they were married shortly afterward by a Prussian military chaplain.

    • Mr. Prošek also reminisces that he had once been drafted into the army, but was there only 14 days. Those were sad days for him and his now wife Terezie, but in the end he had the good fortune of a good friend having him bought out of the service.

  • Cool Old Lady: The Grandmother is kind, gentle, wise, knowledgeable and virtuous. She devotes herself to her grandchildren, takes them places, imparts her knowledge to them, and teaches them right from wrong, all the while showing understanding for their childish behaviors. She has advice for anyone in the community and is able to intercede for young people when their life plans are thwarted by those in authority. Her backstory is also very interesting and shows that she has survived through some turbulent times herself.

  • Child Marriage Veto: Briefly referenced:

    • When she was young, Viktorka was not eager to get married and rejected all the suitors that came her way, at times to her father's ire, under the pretext of wanting to enjoy her youth before settling down with God knows who. However, when the mysterious rifleman started pursuing her, she accepted to get married at once. In the end, though, the rifleman seduced Viktorka, leading to her downfall.

    • Kristla tells the Grandmother that her father has put pressure on her to get married; she is engaged to Míla, but he is just being drafted into the army, where he would be bound to serve for 14 years. However, Kristla insists that she will marry no one else and that she is prepared to wait for Míla for 14 years if necessary. Shortly afterward, she discovers to her horror that Míla has indeed been drafted. Fortunately, she doesn't have to wait long for Míla to come home as the Grandmother tells the Princess about the circumstances that conspired to get him drafted, as well as of his relationship with Kristla, and the Princess arranges for Míla's release from military service.

  • Defiled Forever: The backstory of the madwoman Viktorka. She was pursued by a rifleman whose unit was stationed in the area. She resisted his advances, even agreeing to marry the first suitor who came her way after having rejected a string of them previously; however the rifleman succeeded in seducing her. He then left town with his unit, leaving Viktorka pregnant. She went mad, went to live in the wilderness keeping aloof from her family, and was seen throwing her baby into the river. The trope is not played completely straight, as, even though Viktorka goes mad after her pregnancy, her family and the other villagers seem to pity her and even care for her as a local "character" rather than condemn her for her actions.

  • Don't Make Me Take My Belt Off!: Referenced, but not applied. Kristla teases the Prošek children, who are talking about putting out stockings for St. Nicholas day, telling Jan that St. Nicholas will only bring some of them a scourge. Jan retorts that they had already received a scourge last year, but that the Grandmother put it away and never beats them. The Grandmother does claim, though, that little Jan would often deserve it.

  • Due to the Dead:

    • When the madwoman Viktorka dies, the Gamekeeper takes it upon himself to organize a proper funeral for her. It shows how much she is loved in the community for what she is worth, despite her troubled history.

    • The novel ends with the Grandmother's death at a ripe old age. Her family and the whole village mourn her and a large crowd turns out for the funeral.

  • Evil Eyebrows: The rifleman who stalked and eventually seduced Viktorka had big black eyebrows like a raven's wings, which are joined in the middle, which only serve to accentuate his ominous eyes.

  • First Day of School Episode: Chapter XIII contains this; Barunka and the two boys are starting school; the youngest, Adelka, still stays at home. The Grandmother accompanies them part of the way, giving them advice and instructions and seeing them off on this stage in their lives; she picks them up at the end of the day and discusses with the children how their first day went.

  • Foreshadowing: In-universe. More than once, the Grandmother affirms to the children that one day, she will also die. The book ends with the Grandmother passing in deep old age, surrounded by her family.

  • The Good King: "Joseph the Emperor" (Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II) gave the Grandmother a coin, which she refers to as a thaler ("tolar" in Czech)note  bearing his image and that of his mother, the Habsburg ruler Maria Theresa, on one of his tours among the common people.

  • Good Parents: Mr. Prošek is always portrayed as interacting kindly with his children. He communicates tenderly with them and he is shown implicitly approving his son Jan's wish to be apprenticed as a gamekeeper after leaving school. However, his coachman's job takes him away from his family for long periods of time when the Princess is not on her Bohemian estate, leaving the children in closer contact with their mother. She, on the other hand, is given a rather "meh" portrayal. The author never shows her doing anything blatantly untoward to her children; but she doesn't really show her being warm or motherly to them either; pretty much anytime we see the mother, she is either telling the children what to do or calling them out on their behavior, and is even implied to be irritable at times. The author specifically mentions at one point that "The children knew very well that the Grandmother was more lenient than their mother; she would turn a blind eye to many of the boys' childish shenanigans; she didn't stop Barunka when she stumbled somewhere sometimes; for this reason, they would confide everything in her rather than in their mother, who judged everything more strictly according to her strict nature." This is reflective of the author's parents: while her father was affectionate and tender toward Němcová, her mother was harsh toward her and seemed not to really like her.note 

  • Having a Gay Old Time: The book invariably makes Czech people laugh today with its use of the word "šukat". Today, this word means "to fuck", but in this book, it is used in the sense of "clean the house" or "run around keeping busy".

  • Honor Thy Parent:

    • When the Grandmother was young, her boyfriend Jiří asked her to marry him right after he had allowed himself to be recruited into the Prussian Army. She mentioned that they needed their parents' blessing – and she was away from home at the time, having come to see Jiří on Prussian territory. Jiří's uncle praised her piety and told her not to go back home, lest her parents try to talk her out of staying with Jiří. He said he would stand in place of her parents and that they would give her their blessing afterward. She accepted and when after the wedding she went to see her parents, her mother was very upset that her daughter would be leaving home in order to follow a soldier to a foreign land. However, her father blessed the union, reasoning that the young couple were responsible for their choice and telling his wife that she had also left her parents to marry him.

    • The Grandmother's daughter Johanka, who lives in Vienna, writes her a letter asking for her consent to get married to a man called Jura, who is Croatian. Although the Grandmother is a little disappointed that she has not chosen a Czech, she freely gives her her blessing, recognizing that the two of them have chosen each other, and taking some joy in the fact that he bears her husband's name (Jiří and Jura are both forms of George).

  • Kill the Cutie: In the last chapter we learn that Countess Hortensie, the teenage ward of the Princess, died in Italy not long after her marriage to her drawing teacher, having given birth to a baby boy that the Princess tearfully introduces to the Prošeks on her next return to her Bohemian estate.

  • Parental Marriage Veto: In the last chapter, the author mentions that the Miller's daughter Mančinka came to the Grandmother for assistance when her father wanted to prevent her from loving a poor but handsome young man. As per her custom, the Grandmother intercedes for young love; the Miller accepts Mančinka's suitor, and later, when the latter prospers, is grateful to the Grandmother for having changed his mindset on the matter.

  • Slice of Life: There is no overarching plot; a number of stories pertaining to specific characters are interspersed with descriptions of the Grandmother's visits with the children to the locals and of various Czech folk customs.

  • Stalker with a Crush: Piccolo, an Italian in the Princess' retinue, won't leave Kristla and other local girls alone. This earns him a physical attack from Míla and his friends. Lucka, the mayor's daughter, is in love with Míla, but he loves Kristla, and spiteful Lucka conspires with her father against Míla. His attack on Piccolo, combined with the Mayor's disfavor, results in Míla not getting a job as a hired hand and his becoming liable for military service.

  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The novel is inspired by things familiar to the author from her childhood on the estate of Wilhelmine, Princess of Courland and Duchess of Sagan. While there are things taken from life, they are put together into an all-around fictional whole. Two of the stories that are among those most true to life are the Grandmother's backstory about how she went to join her boyfriend in Kladsko and married him after he had been recruited as a soldier, and the story of the madwoman Viktorka, which was based on that of a local character. However, the lovers Kristla and Jakub "Míla" are inspired by real people who were not in a relationship. As for the way the Grandmother's family is portrayed, this is essentially Wish-Fulfillment. While the author portrays the Grandmother as bringing harmony to the family and even to the whole community and living out her life in peace in the country cottage occupied by her daughter's family, in Real Life, the family lived in a flat and the author's grandmother, Marie Magdalena Novotná, only stayed for some time (or only made visits). There were issues between her and her daughter and she ended up leaving for Vienna, where she lived with her daughter Johana and eventually died.

  • When I Was Your Age...: Discussed. Kristla tells Anča that the Grandmother has told her that one shouldn't take one's dreams to be omens; Anča replies that the Grandmother is not the Gospel, to which Kristla retorts that for her, the Grandmother's words are Gospel truth, as she gives everyone good advice and is said to be a perfect woman. Anča comments: "I take her that way as well, but, but I'd bet on my little finger that when she was young, she believed the same things that we do. You already have such old people; Mother is constantly complaining about us; she claims that the youth of today care only about joy, dancing and merriment, and completely lack reason. Supposedly this was not the case in her day, and yet I know for sure that our great-grandmother was not a hair better in her youth, and when we are old women, we will also sing to the same tune." The Grandmother herself defies this trope; multiple times, she justifies children's mischievous behavior with the phrase "we weren't any better ourselves".

  • Wild Hair: The local madwoman Viktorka has unkempt black hair and a general disheveled appearance. After Viktorka dies, lying in her coffin, the Grandmother and the children see her hair combed for the first time.