In Boleslaw Prus’ Mold of the Earth, the narrator juxtaposes blind and mechanical mold splotches on a boulder with human civilizations through the teachings of a phantom botanist. The narrator meets a certain botanist near the Temple of the Sybil in Pulway, Poland. The botanist explains that the mold splotches are not inanimate dirts, but living beings who “cultivate the ground beneath them for the next generation—they proliferate, colonize empty places, even fight one another.” Two years later the narrator finds himself again by the same boulder and notices differences in the shapes. The botanist nudges him, whispers a spell in the moonlight and everything is black, except for the boulder. The boulder has transformed into a globe illuminating similar splotches. As it revolves through the history of mankind, the continents exhibit the same patterns as the molds.
Why does Prus choose to place the botanist’s message in the vehicle of dialogue? Why doesn’t he make this a one-man rant?
Choosing to present this metaphor about humanity through dialogue allows the narrator to feel comfortable speaking with a guy who just studies dirt, instead of some god-like botanist. The mysterious presence of the botanist causes tension for the “uninitiated”—the narrator—the reader? He is not ordinary. He is God, or a god. Regardless of religious preference, he is a phantom being, and his peculiarity is given in the very first sentence. “One time I happened to be in Puławy with a certain botanist.” A certain botanist. This botanist.
“These two again, the yellow and the red, are fighting. At one time the yellow was the larger, but slowly its neighbor has displaced it. And look at the green one — how its grizzled neighbor is making inroads into it, how many grey streaks, spots, clumps can be seen against the green background?…”
“A bit as among people,” I interjected.
“Well, no,” replied the botanist. “These societies lack language, art, learning, consciousness, feeling; in a word — they lack souls and hearts, which we human beings possess. Here everything happens blindly, mechanically, without sympathies and without antipathies.” (Prus 36)
Here, in the passage above, the narrator makes the correct connection, but is rejected. It’s like saying: They are not like us, but we are like them. Paradoxical. Mold does as mold does, and we do too. Although we have hearts and knowledge and souls and things that separate humans from mold, because we are not in touch with them, bad things happen. The narrator acts as a personification of a society’s blind eye to the horrors of humanity. If humanity was connected with their souls then the world may be a better place. Less bloodied conflicts and mass persecutions.
Two characters create a conflict between truth and ignorance. The botanist’s message is inserted fairly early, and consumes almost a quarter of the story. If Prus left the piece to end without any more from the narrator, there would be no tension—no one to say “I don’t believe you,” or “I don’t want to believe you.”
“Is that supposed to be the history of mankind?” I asked the botanist who stood behind me.
He nodded in confirmation.
“All right—but where are the arts and knowledge?…”
He smiled sadly.
“Where is consciousness, love, hate, yearning?…”
“Ha! ha! ha!…” he laughed softly.
“In short—where are the human souls and hearts?…”
“Ha! ha! ha!…” (Prus 37)
Line by line the botanist’s long sad smiles dismiss the narrator’s attempts to salvage his hope for a blissful humanity. This line-by-line approach delivers the truth quickly, and dramatically by contrasting his quick questions that were inspired by the botanist’s teachings with drawn out melancholy.
Prus presents this dialogue from the first-person point of view so the reader might place themselves in the story and assume the role of narrator—the uninitiated. Prus wants the reader to become knowledgeable and current on the state of the world.
In the first meeting between the two characters, the botanist needs some coaxing to tell what he knows. The botanist concedes, claiming he “had before him an uninitiated person.” This uninitiated person is someone who lives, body and soul, in his or her own sphere and does not look for news of the world’s affairs. The uninitiated is not someone who studies cultures and politics and conflicts of the world. The botanist is trying to make people aware. It is a sad task, but important if future civilizations want to last without repeating history’s mistakes.