“...he who suffers sees the back of God…Maybe it means that he who suffers has special access to God, by a side door, he is blessed, he embraces some sort of truth which without suffering would be hard to comprehend. So in a way, the only person who’s healthy is one who suffers, however strange it might sound. I think that would be in harmony with the rest.” - pg. 113, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
Religion is a highly difficult and complex topic to cover and has been for ages. This is true in Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, so I will do my best to be as objective and true to the text as possible. Even still, religion and faith are personal things, and your interpretation is your interpretation, and will probably differ from mine. Either way, we can begin.
Janina is shown quite quickly to be an astrologer, and devoted to her practice. She is also shown to not adhere to any labels regarding her faith and doesn’t seem to associate with any organized religion. Her disdain for organized religion parallels William Blake’s views, and with him being a key figure in Janina’s philosophy, it makes sense. William Blake considered himself a Christian but never joined any organized sect, while Janina doesn’t seem to associate with Christianity. Blake was greatly influenced by the Swiss theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, who was also mentioned in the book.
Janina has a few general principles, but primarily she values the near equality of animal and human life. At certain points in the text she even seems to regard animals as more pure or divine creatures than humans. This divinity she also applies to nature in general. I interpreted her views as being consistent within Christianity and with other religions, but she often conflicts with the primarily Catholic population of where she lives.
She’s regarded as an outsider and interacts with very few people, most of whom are her friends. Most of those outside this close circle of trusted people regard her as just a crazy old woman, they reduce her to very little, which isolates her from the rest of the world, but it also lets her get away with more eccentric behavior, leading up to her actions which are revealed at the end of the book. Her friends see her as an equal and tend to have respect for her ideas, they also tend to be outsiders or wanderers themselves. She clearly opposes the majority of what general society represents, and general society rejects her in turn. It’s not exactly a healthy way to live, but she chooses to stick to her morals, which is certainly respectable.
Now this is all true of Janina the character, but what is the reader meant to take from this? Well, I believe the book is intended to make us empathize more with social outcasts, especially people regarded as just eccentric old ladies. The only thing preventing this from being a complete interpretation is the dramatic ending of the book. If you’d like to not have it spoiled, you can skip the rest of this section. I believe the ending, rather than taking away from this meaning actually contributes to it. It shows how those who are outcast and looked down upon are likely to revolt or push back against society in some meaningful way, it may be construed in their minds as the moral thing, as in Janina’s case, though this could also be her system of belief at play as well. Either way, Janina is a peculiar but sympathetic character, who has an ironclad set of beliefs and sticks to them, she has empathy for nature, animals, and people who are similarly distanced from society, and even though we would probably regard her actions as entirely immoral, from her standpoint, it may have seemed like the only option.