11 January 2017

Meet My Protagonist: Thaddeus Dombrowski in The Gate of Dawn

By M.J. Neary

I am very thankful for this opportunity to share some obscure insights into the gender dynamic in the Polish-Lithuanian community as explored in my novel The Gate of Dawn. In light of the recent political developments, "patriarchy" and "male privilege" have been frequent buzz words. Any time we talk about any sort of privilege or -archy, it's implied that there is a flip side, an alternative. One particular group is presumed to be in a position of advantage, but there is a possibility that the roles will flip. My readers will find it refreshing that in today's post I will talk about an essentially matriarchal society and the awkward place men held in it. 

As an insider - my biological father being a Pole - I can ponder how Poland's history and geographic location affected the distribution of power and responsibilities between the genders. Sandwiched between two strong and menacing neighbors, Germany and Russia, Poland had been run over, occupied and partitioned. It went on and off the map, though the sense of Polish ethnic identity remained. Over the course of the centuries, certain gender-specific expectations developed. Boys grew up with the idea of being "little soldiers". They were either trying to stage a liberating rebellion, or they were being drafted to serve in the army of one of the occupiers. Either way, they were not expected to have long lives. And the women who loved and married them were assumed to keep it in the back of their collective mind. The odds of them becoming widows with small children were rather high, so they had to be equipped to carry on. Women who were not ready to embrace those risks were better off becoming nuns. Because there was such pressure on boys to be "brave little soldiers", they were to some extent excused from the burden of making decisions in times of relative peace. Men were not expected to become level-headed, practical, disciplined or good with money. Those responsibilities usually fell on women. Boys fight - girls do everything else. It is my personal belief, shared by many other people, that Poland as a nation owes its survival to the tenacity, resilience, and adaptability of its women. 

Here are some images depicting Polish manhood:


Thaddeus Dombrowski is one of the main characters in The Gate of Dawn. He is the demure, impractical, guilt-ridden husband of the female protagonist, a German heiress named Renate Lichtner. Their marriage is arranged by Renate's dying father and at first appears to benefit both sides, but as with many hasty arrangements, things go horribly awry. Aged thirty in the beginning of the novel, Thaddeus is exactly twice as old as his child bride. Those thirty years had been filled with sorrow and bereavement - he had buried his wife and four children. Despite the sorrow, he retains some juvenile naivete. Having spent his whole life on a remote rural estate called Raven's Bog, he is not a very worldly man. The novel takes place in the 1880s, twenty some years after the abolition of serfdom in Eastern Europe. Thaddeus, born into landed gentry, feels guilty about all the atrocities his peasants had suffered in the hands of his tyrannical father and believes it is his mission is to atone for the sins of his ancestors. He rejects social hierarchy and treats his servants as family members. His fifteen-year-old bride, on another hand, is very cosmopolitan and erudite. She is a German who was born and raised in the dynamic and diverse Vilnius. She is keenly aware of the socioeconomic and ethnic pyramid. The sight of her aristocratic Polish fiance eating and drinking with his Lithuanian servants appalls her. Renate certainly does not believe that all people are equal and deserve to sit at the same table and eat the same food. She endorses the notion of Russian and German supremacy over Poles and Lithuanians. All the more appalling she finds his impracticality and lack of business skills. After a string of crop failures, Raven's Bog is in danger of being confiscated by the Russians for failure to pay taxes. Russian imperialist agents kept a close eye on struggling properties. If the original owner proved to be incompetent, they would confiscate the land. And that's just the kind of mess young Renate walks into. The inheritance she brings into the marriage provides temporary relief but does not solve the underlying issue of her husband having no clue on how to cultivate the land and negotiate profitable prices. 

Thaddeus Dombrowski is a quintessential Polish man. The archetype is still relevant. He is deeply religious and exuberantly sexual, though his sexuality, as one can imagine, is confined to marriage and directed at procreation. He does not shy away from hard physical work or pain. He is quick to embraces self-sacrifice and martyrdom. In addition to impracticality, his flaws include a propensity for self-destruction and alcoholism. Polish men are known for being accident prone. It's an unflattering and darkly humorous stereotype, but it's rooted in reality. Because Polish men are taught that being able to withstand physical pain and grin through injuries is an attribute of masculinity, they often neglect safety measures. Throughout the novel, Thaddeus suffers several freak accidents that could have been easily prevented. His male servants are guilty of the same.  

This is how I envisioned my protagonist. This is a still from a film based on Adam Bernard Mickiewicz's novel that also has a protagonist named Thaddeus. 


In social situations, women clearly take the lead. When a woman speaks, her man must remain silent. Unless a man is talking about war or religion, he should sit quietly with his eyes downcast. Arguing with a woman is both disrespectful and demeaning. A real man must not engage in conversations of philistine nature. He must preserve his strength for a potential military engagement. He must be seen but not heard.