From Big Foot to Astrology: Uncovering the Interconnectedness of Olga Tokarczuk’s Novel and William Blake’s Work

In Olga Tokarczuk’s novel, “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead,” the death of Big Foot is one of the first major mysterious events in the novel and upon discovering his body, Janina, the protagonist, notices a deer nearby, which she believes to be an omen. This connection between the deer and the death of Big Foot echoes one of William Blake’s most well known themes: the interconnectedness of all living beings. In Blake’s work, he often emphasizes the importance of respecting, understanding, and valuing the natural world and Janina’s belief in the significance of the animals’ presence reflects this concept.

Furthermore, Janina has a fascination with astrology, and she attempts to uncover the truth behind the mysterious deaths in her village by looking at the stars and analyzing their influence on human behavior. For example, in the aftermath of the death of Wnetrzak, Janina creates an astrological chart for him, convinced that the positions of the planets and their features can reveal the reasons behind his passing. This approach is similar to Blake’s mystical and spiritual outlook on life, as he expresses in his poetry and art. For instance, in his poem “Auguries of Innocence,” Blake writes:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

This quote embodies Blake’s belief in the interconnectedness of the universe and the idea that seemingly insignificant things can reveal deeper truths. Similar to Blake, Janina often seeks to understand the deeper meanings and hidden truths of the universe by looking beyond the surface of everyday events and circumstances.

The novel’s focus on animal rights and environmental issues creates another link between the novel and Blake’s work. Janina’s belief that animals have the ability to have revenge on humans is an interesting idea that could have the effect of challenging our beliefs about natural order on earth. This idea reflects Blake’s own views on the relationship between humans and the environment, and is expressed in parts of his poem “The Tyger”:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In this poem, Blake seems fascinated by the beauty and power of the natural world, as represented in his description of the tiger, which comes through to be fierce and magnificent. He encourages us to recognize the dignity and complexity of nature, just as Janina’s belief in animal retribution encourages us to reconsider our impact on the natural environment and our ethical responsibilities toward other living beings.

Olga Tokarczuk skillfully weaves together elements of William Blake’s work, mystery, astrology, and concerns of nature into her story, and by doing so, the novel encourages readers to think about the interconnectedness of all living beings and uncover hidden universal truths. Through this exploration, we can better understand both the novel and Blake’s poetry and appreciate the complex relationships between the world and all living beings.

Animals or People?

In the novel, Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead, the narrator and main character Janina, has an abnormal view of the world and the people in it. Janina is an older woman living alone in rural Poland. She is a vegetarian with a strong connection to animals. Janina’s strange relationship with the few people in her life as well as her radical love for animals presents an interesting question that I will be diving into: Did people in her life harm her which led to a negative opinion of humans which forced her to turn to animals or did her initial love for animals lead her to dislike humans? 

Janina’s mother, grandmother, and neighbors have treated her poorly and often laugh at her and make fun of her which led her to turn to animals and the love they have to offer. Her failure to mention her past life, specifically the lack of detail we get regarding her childhood or family. The only information about her parents or family is when their spirits or their ghosts are in Janina’s boiler room which isn’t exactly concrete information. Janina is also often dismissed by her neighbors and she is rarely taken seriously which frustrates her. She told her neighbors helpful tips about growing a garden and they simply, “smiled, nodded and went on doing their thing”(146). Another time when she was talking to the police and providing them with evidence on certain cases, she got very frustrated because she’d felt that the police had dismissed her and labeled her as, “an old woman, gone off her rocker…Useless and unimportant”(195). If this is how she is being treated by human beings, no wonder she would turn and be on the side of animals. 

Since Janina lives in a rural area surrounded by wild animals, she became fond of animals in early adulthood which led her to neglect humans. Janina loves her dogs. In fact, she never even refers to them as dogs, instead, she refers to them as, “Little Girls”(61). Readers simply have to infer that she is referring to dogs because she talks about her dogs like they are humans. Where Janina lives is very desolate, she says it is, “far from the rest of the world”(20). She lives alone, far from everyone else, without any mentioned family members. Those are easy reasons to turn to animals for company and answers.

Overall, I believe that humans in her life have caused her harm which led her to turn to animals for company and answers. 

Dentistry and Vodka

Having finished the book, one question I was left wondering was why the dentist was even included in the story. It seemed odd to have such a bizarre character without having him significantly contribute to the plot. In hindsight, I think Tokarczuk included the dentist as a mirror of the government.

First is the alcohol the dentist uses to help sedate his patients before he works on them. Evidently, from the descriptions of the patients’ reactions, the alcohol isn’t doing much good to ease their discomfort, because the dentist isn’t providing adequate assistance. Similarly, I believe Tokarzcuk is arguing that the government, though its duty is to help the people, doesn’t provide adequate support to citizens when they have a problem, which is something that Janina experiences multiple times throughout the book. 

In addition, Janina describes the dentist only pulling out teeth for most of the time, instead of filling cavities or trying to prevent them. Again, the dentist mirrors the government in critiquing it for not doing enough to protect citizens, and only taking action when something drastically bad happens, similar to how the dentist only pulls out teeth once they are beyond saving. I feel that although the dentist personally doesn’t contribute much to the plot besides agreeing with Janina in her theory that the animals were the ones murdering all of the people, he does serve as a reflection and a critique of government.

White Women Tears

In the funny fake commercial called “Entitled White Women’s tears”, viewers see the harsh reality of how some white women take no ownership over their actions. The phrase, “white women tears” is essentially how white women can’t own up to their privilege of being white, as they are part of an oppressed group, being women. There’s also a stereotype that white women’s tears will get them out of any situation. If they are confronted with any unethical acts that they got away with because of their privilege, they can simply cry and now society must feel bad for them, excusing them from their actions. In our society, people of color, especially women, face immense challenges in their day to day. When white women are confronted with this uncomfortable environment that they often create, they feel attacked, and the “white women tears” come out. This leads to them taking no accountability for the actions they make. This commercial is a satirical play on this and while it’s hilarious, it brings attention to this issue. 

At the beginning of the commercial, the narrator introduces the audience (white women) to a solution to always being the victim in every situation. That solution is a bottle of Entitled White Women’s Tears. After introducing the product, the camera pans to a “real life customer “, Cindy (an absolute Becky) who talks about how before Entitled White Women’s Tears, she had to actually listen to women of color when they spoke about real issues and even had to change her racist behavior when asked. But now, with Entitled White Women’s Tears, she can tell women of color how they should be “approaching their own activism” and take their concerns as a personal attack when she’s getting called out for her behavior. The commercial shows a woman of color explaining her concerns with Cindy’s behavior and instead of addressing the issue, Cindy cries and calls the woman of color “mean” as well as showing the men who overhear the conversation asking the woman of color to leave the room for making Cindy cry. Unfortunately, this is very accurate, as women of color talking about their experiences are always looked down on and viewed as overly emotional. Oftentimes, Black women can be painted as “angry Black women” when they talk about their frustrations with oppression or show any emotion at all, yet white women can hear the horrors women of color face and make it about themselves. The next “real-life customer” we see is Amy (a total Karen) who talks about how she used to exhibit “socially acceptable behavior” but thanks to Entitled White Women’s Tears, she realized her time is more valuable than everyone else’s. She’s now able to abuse service staff and is seen calling the police even when she’s the one at fault. We see too many examples in real life of white women calling the police specifically on young Black men because they “looked suspicious” doing simple acts such as walking in their own neighborhood. Later, the commercial offers an in-depth explanation of what Entitled White Women’s Tears offers to customers, including Most Advanced Privilege Properties and Princess Syndrome, so white women can “weaponize crying whenever and wherever”. And a special mention is that Entitled White Women’s Tears is bottled in the “fear of a power dynamic that has rendered white women prone to legitimate criticism”. Many white women cannot admit that they systematically hold more privilege and power than women of color. So, when being criticized for participating in oppressive acts, they deny it because they don’t want to believe that they are a part of this power dynamic. This mindset is extremely dangerous. The commercial ends with telling white women to buy the product and never let someone hold them accountable for bad behavior again. The way the commercial was made is a way to show white women how ridiculous they sound when they act as the white women in the commercials do. This may just be good acting, but these things do happen. I think with a commercial like this, when the target audience is reached, it is hoped that they can reflect on how silly the women in the commercial look to ensure that they don’t act like this themselves.

Janina is no Better than the Rest of Them

A common theme in our society is the ostracization of people who are different. Whether we are inflicting or receiving, ostracization impacts each one of us. Janina, in Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, plays both sides.

At the start of the novel, you cannot help but feel bad for Janina. After all, she is a seemingly helpless old woman who has more compassion than the rest of her peers. However, while she faces torment from her fellows, she lacks compassion for them. You’d think if she experienced ostracization she would not act similarly to others. However, she inflicts the same criticism on the people surrounding her that is imposed on herself.

Janina is an outcast in society. She treats animals as equals while the rest of her town is out hunting them for sport. With this in mind, every time she shows the animals an ounce of respect, the others around her retaliate. While she does not deserve the criticism she receives, she is not making her situation much better.

Up until one point, I empathized with Janina. You put yourself in her shoes and feel nothing but sorrow for how she is treated. However, one of her actions completely altered my perspective. On page 159, she writes the first of three letters to the police, none of which receive a response.

Within this first letter, she outwardly presents her beliefs: the deceased were murdered by animals. Based on her perspective, I understand her reasoning. Despite this, I also find it utterly insane that with no regard for her audience, she would send such a letter. Her community is known to disregard and diminish her thoughts, frequently calling her crazy. Janina knows this. Still, she deemed it acceptable to send such a letter to the police.

She seems so ready, so eager to impose her ideas on her community without understanding. These people have had the same foundational beliefs for assumably their whole lives. I think it is ridiculous for Janina to expect them to completely alter their beliefs based on her account. Instead, I think she should have more sympathy for them. It is hard to step outside of the familiar and into the unknown. In spite of that, she finds little empathy in her heart, and her superiority complex looms large.

Comedy over Tragedy is Tragic

On a normal given day and I am looking for something to watch, usually my first thought goes to comedy. A romantic comedy because it is a feel good movie that doesn’t require me to think very much which for a lot of people is okay. Comedy keeps people stranger to the realities of the real world. Comedy teaches nothing but those who watch it stay happy and their mind is not taught to think any differently.

 I do understand, it is fun to stay in your own little bubble staying completely oblivious to anything else. There are many who believe that this is perfectly normal and fine. However, after believing this for so long I now beg to differ. 

Comedy doesn’t challenge the mind and therefore we never grow. With a tragedy we are forced to think about our lives and they force us to dig deeper than any comedy ever could. There is so much more depth and more layers compared to comedy which is very one dimensional. Comedy drags down the impact of the story. According to Aristotle he explains that, tragedy handles topics that are serious and important where comedy focuses mainly on human “weaknesses and foibles.”

Tragedy displays a complex understanding and introduces moral error through to transformation in a way that comedy cannot achieve and will not even attempt to.