Beginning and End of the Universe Motif in Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

As one reads Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, many motifs begin to surface throughout the novel; one such motif is mentions of the beginning and end of the universe, as well as the continuous passage of time outside of a human lifespan.

For example, while Janina watches the weather channel:

So is it true that we live on the surface of a sphere, exposed to the gaze of the planets, left in a great void, where after the Fall the light was smashed to smithereens and blown apart? It is true. We should remember that every day, for we do tend to forget. We believe we are free, and that God will forgive us. Personally I think otherwise. Finally, transformed into tiny quivering photons, each of our deeds will set off into Outer Space, where the planets will keep watching it like a film until the end of the world.

page 20

While she looks out over the Plateau, imagining what it used to look like:

There could have been nothing but grass here – large clumps of wind-lashed steppe grass and the rosettes of thistles. That’s what it could have been like. Or there could have been nothing at all – a total void in outer space. But perhaps that would have been the best option for all concerned. 

As I wandered across the fields and wilds on my rounds, I liked to imagine how it would all look millions of years from now. Would the same plants be here? And what about the colour of the sky? Would it be just the same? Would the tectonic plates have shifted and caused a range of high mountains to pile up here? Or would a sea arise, removing all reason to use the word ‘place’ amid the idle motion of the waves? One thing’s for sure – these houses won’t be here; my efforts are insignificant, they’d fit on a pinhead, just like my life as well. That should never be forgotten.

page 26

While confronting hunters near her house:

At that point I felt a surge of Anger, genuine, not to say Divine Anger. It flooded me from inside in a burning hot wave. This energy made me feel great, as if it were lifting me off the ground, a mini Big Bang within the universe of my body. There was fire burning within me, like a neutron star.

page 30

While working on her astrology charts:

At this very moment, as I write, there’s a planetary configuration on this table, the entire Cosmos if you like: a thermometer, a coin, an aluminium spoon and a porcelain cup. A key, a mobile phone, a piece of paper and a pen. And one of my grey hairs, whose atoms preserve the memory of the origins of life, of the cosmic Catastrophe that gave the world its beginning.

page 67

And while she sits in prison, reflecting on life:

Sparks come from the very source of light and are made of the purest brightness – so say the oldest legends. When a human Being is to be born, a spark begins to fall. First it flies through the darkness of outer space, then through galaxies, and finally, before it falls here, to Earth, the poor thing bumps into the orbits of planets. Each of them contaminates the spark with some Properties, while it darkens and fades.

page 100

This motif is one of the many ways Tokarczuk’s writing gives us insight into the unique inner workings of Janina’s mind. She sees everything as part of a whole: a complex system that makes up our world. This perspective is part of where her compassion for animals comes from; to Janina, every human and animal life plays an equally important role in the larger equation of the universe. The other side of that coin is her view that morality and the greater system is more important than individual life, which becomes part of her rationale for murdering the hunters.

Additionally, in a few instances Janina references the Big Bang (a “cosmic Catastrophe”), in reference to herself and her own emotions. This idea ties into the other ways Janina likes to describe herself as one with nature and the universe. She manages her pain by picturing herself reborn as a jellyfish, convinces herself she can communicate with the animals that live nearby her, has dreams about visits from dead relatives, are describes her anger as a fire or a universe-beginning explosion. Janina doesn’t just see the world as a divine system, she also sees herself as uniquely in tune to that system. She very well may be more reflective and in touch with nature than other characters in the novel, but the reader can also see this cognitive distortion grow throughout the book and eventually become something dark and dangerous.

On yet another layer, the mentions of an aging and dying universe that will long outlive both Janina and humanity as a whole could be seen as a parallel to her own aging and struggles with her Ailments. She is grappling with the reality of illness and inevitable death, so it makes sense that she would reflect on the world’s lifespan and the ways her community will outlive her. Her age gives her a unique perspective not always represented in novels, and part of the way that manifests is her ability to look at things on a larger scale that couldn’t be fathomed by a younger narrator.

And finally, the motif could also be said to reflect the way Janina finds the bad in good things and the good in bad things. She once refers to herself as seeing the world “through a dark mirror,” and one could argue that thinking of the world as born from destruction and headed towards inevitable decay is an example of this kind of pessimistic mindset. But alternatively, the reader could think of it as Janina’s way of finding joy in “Catastrophe.” Finding beauty in a universe born from destruction requires a unique optimism that our narrator seems to possess, despite how she describes herself.

Working on each of these levels and more, this motif helps build several themes throughout the novel. It can evoke interconnectedness, strong emotion, inevitable death, or creation from catastrophe, all of which shed light on Janina’s unique perspective on the world and Tokarczuk’s unique writing style. This was one of my favorite motifs of the novel, and I hope others find it as interesting as I did!

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