After robbing a church and killing a priest, Pavel’s father is sentenced to death, his mother who was forced by her husband to help with the crime is sentenced to ten years in prison. Pavel and his sister Milada are now the responsibility of the borough. Milada, who is pretty and cute, gets taken in by the local countess but Pavel (who is around 12 at the time) has to stay with an abusive foster family and endure the community’s shunning of him, since everybody assumes that he’s going to turn out like his parents.
Ebner-Eschenbach’s writing style is, of course, a little outdated. Her book is not. She writes sensitively and sensibly about the life of the poor at the end of the 19th century (and it seems pretty realistic to me), even though she herself was noble and pretty rich. And in Pavel, she examines the relationship between individual choice and biological determinism, which is a still unanswered and interesting question.
Ebner-Eschenbach is one of those writers where you feel like that they really know humanity. She knows what people are like. The ugly stuff just as much as the good things. The way she portrays the villagers (and how individually sensible people quickly turn into a mob) is great, but her insight into Pavel is, quite frankly, astounding.
In times where nobody has ever seriously considered the traumas that lie in the continuing destruction of relationships (I don’t know the English terminology for that, in German, we say Beziehungsabbruch Trauma), Ebner-Eschenbach perfectly captures what it means for Pavel and Milada and shows two very different and very realistic coping approaches.
As I said before, the novel deals with the question of determinism vs. free will – and answers it quite decisively. [SPOILER] Pavel, even though he has the worst possible starting situation, makes it on his own and ends with his own house, his own field and a rather stable life. FREE WILL FTW! [/SPOILER]
Summarising, it is an interesting story and more up-to-date than one might expect. Recommended not only to people who are interested in Austrian literature.