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Majerová, Marie (1882–1967)

Majerová, Marie (1882–1967)

Czech novelist whose 1935 novel Siréna (The Factory Siren) is generally regarded as a classic . Name variations: Marie Majerova; Marie Stivinová; Marie Tusarová; (pseudonym) Marie Bartosova or Bartosová. Born Marie Bartosová in Úvaly, Austria (now Czech Republic), on February 1, 1882; died in Prague on January 16, 1967.

For a half century, the prolific writer Marie Majerová wrote novels and short stories which reflected her belief in the necessity of creating a society based on socialist ideals. Born into a working-class family, she grew up in the grimy industrial town of Kladno near Prague and was working as a domestic servant in Budapest by age 16. The poverty and exploitation of proletarian life that she experienced made her determined to rise above her station through education and literature. Majerová's first poem, "Pisen" (A Song), appeared in the Worker's Calendar (1901), voicing the bitter frustrations of many working-class mothers:

I hide all the poisons and anger in my bosom and in the corner, in secret, I keep vengeance.

During the next several years, she lived in Paris, Vienna, and Prague, completing her education and becoming active in both the feminist and Social Democratic movements. Her first novel, the largely autobiographical Panenství (Virginity, 1907), looks at the middle-class institution of marriage as part of the capitalist process of commodification: as a commodity, a woman's virginity enhances her capital value in a social system where the yardstick of worth is money.

While living in Vienna, Majerová moved in circles close to the Austrian Social Democratic Party and participated in the 1905 general strike that closed all the Habsburg monarchy's coal mines. Influenced by the Czech poet Stanislav Kostka Neumann and the circle of intellectuals gathered around the journal Novy´ kult (New Cult), she was at first attracted to the doctrines of social anarchism. These ideals are clearly reflected in her first collection of short stories, Povídky z pekla (Stories from Hell), published in 1907. A sojourn to Paris, however, during which she met leading writers of the day, including Romain Rolland, prompted a significant change in her thinking on political and social matters. Having found anarchist ideals to be inadequate, she joined the Czech Social Democratic Party in 1908. Published in 1914, her second novel, Námestí Republiky (Place de la République), reflected the new direction. The sufferings of World War I made Majerová more radical in her beliefs. In 1920, she published her third novel, Nejkrásnejsí svet (The Most Beautiful of Worlds), in which the bourgeois heroine abandons her familiar environment for the brave new world of Marxist revolutionary commitment. Convinced that capitalism had not only been the root cause of the war, but that it would bring on even greater suffering for humanity, Majerová became a founding member of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1921. In the same year, she published a collection of short stories entitled Muckeny (The Women Martyrs). These studies of bourgeois women made a point of the way in which women of the middle classes found themselves to be deluded by their own romantic ideals as well as by society's double standard of sexual morality.

The troubled decade of the 1930s proved to be the most artistically productive period of Majerová's writing career. Published in the depths of the Great Depression, her 1932 novel Prehrada (The Dam) was influenced by literary Futurism and Surrealism. The work presented a detailed blueprint for a revolutionary Marxist seizure of power in a crisis-ridden Czechoslovakia. Set three decades in the future, the plot indicts corrupt capitalists and their political lackeys for building a dam out of inferior concrete and thus endangering the lives of many thousands of innocent people. After members of the revolutionary underground spread rumors warning that the dam will soon collapse and bring catastrophic flooding to Prague's inhabitants, they arm the city's workers and seize power in a successful coup. Despite, or perhaps because of, the novel's incendiary message, it was both a critical and commercial success. The individuals most embarrassed by the book's popularity may have been a number of Marxist literary commentators, who criticized Majerová for misrepresenting the Czech Communist movement as a subversive element that would stoop to using rumors to foment a proletarian insurrection.

In 1935, Majerová published the work which is generally considered her masterpiece. Siréna (The Factory Siren) is a sweeping epic that traces three generations in the lives of the Hudecs, a Czech working-class family. Beginning in the 1850s and ending circa 1918, the novel is set in the industrial and mining center of Kladno that she knew so well from her early years. Siréna combines historical documentation with a novelistic form to create a detailed picture of the difficulties of proletarian life and the decades awakening of the family's political and class consciousness. A linchpin of the novel is the powerful personality of Mrs. Hudcovka, whose village origins provide the cultural energies essential for her to fill the roles of mother, wife, and daughter-in-law of the workers and revolutionaries who appear in the novel. Written mostly in a naturalistic style, the novel also includes lyrical elements, possibly reflecting the newly emerging Soviet literary ideal of Socialist Realism. One of the most striking features of Siréna is Majerová's use of regional dialects to create rich, convincing portraits of the workers. Her description of the 1905 strike, which she had witnessed as a young woman, resembles an eyewitness account and has been viewed by some critics as the novel's artistic high point.

Although even some Marxist reviewers of Siréna were not completely won over by all of its stylistic experimentation, which they regarded as "bourgeois" in its narrative technique as well as sometimes pedantic, the book was a success with the reading public. After the Communists seized power in Czechoslovakia in 1948, the work became required reading in the nation's schools, was extolled by the Marxist literary establishment, and was used as a standard text in the indoctrination of Communist Party cadres. By 1965, the novel had become an unchallenged classic. In that year, the 23rd edition of Siréna had a printing of 17,000 copies. The book was well known in the eastern bloc and particularly popular in the Soviet Union thanks to a Russian-language translation. It was also made into a film that was shown in Czechoslovakia and throughout the bloc.

Majerová again presented a portrait of proletarian life in her 1938 novella Havirská balada (Ballad of a Miner). Despite some critics who regarded its style as artificial and bombastic, it too became a classic work in the postwar years, when the goal of the Marxist government in Prague was the creation of a new and distinctly proletarian culture for the entire Czechoslovak Republic. During the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, which lasted from March 1939 through May 1945, Majerová withdrew into the inner exile that most Czech intellectuals chose as a form of spiritual resistance to foreign rule. After the country's liberation, she was hailed as one of the nation's artistic giants and in 1947 was awarded the title of National Artist of Czechoslovakia. Majerová became well known throughout the Communist bloc, with translations of her major works appearing in Russian-, German-, and even Chinese-language editions. She was convinced that Siréna, as it was first published, had not been sufficiently inspired by the spirit of Socialist Realism and so in 1947 revised the work to fall into line with this new aesthetic imperative. Most critics feel that the second version is much inferior artistically to the original of 1935. During these years, Majerová also wrote a new version of her 1914 novel Place de la République, omitting the character of the Russian anarchist Nasta who among other things strangled her cat in the original before departing for New Zealand, the book's socialist Utopia.

The creation of a Communist state in 1948 brought Majerová's works to center stage, and she became the Grand Old Lady of Czech proletarian literature. In her last collection of short stories, Cesta blesku (The Path of Lightning), published in 1954, all of the characters zealously follow the party line to help create an ideal socialist society.

Between 1952 and 1961, Majerová's collected works appeared in print as a set of 19 volumes. When she died in Prague on January 16, 1967, she was eulogized as a major personality of modern Czech literature. The collapse of Communism in Czechoslovakia during 1989, however, has dealt a major blow to her reputation. Some critics, including Peter Hruby, simply dismiss her as a "third-rate writer" who was decreed without debate to be "a national socialist classic" by the Czech Communist Party and regime. Others argue that despite her obvious flaws and deficiencies as a writer, Majerová remains an author of considerable significance. Regardless of such major differences in critical assessments, her impact on Czechoslovakia in the mid-20th century remains unmistakable.

sources:

Brusák, Karel. "Majerová, Marie," in Robert B. Pynsent and S.I. Kanikova, eds., Reader's Encyclopedia of Eastern European Literature. NY: HarperCollins, 1993, pp. 245–246.

Hruby, Peter. Daydreams and Nightmares: Czech Communist and Ex-Communist Literature, 1917–1987. NY: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Majerová, Marie. Ballad of a Miner. Translated by Roberta Finlayson Samsour. Prague: Artia, 1960.

——. Den po revoluci: co jsem videla v SSSR. Prague: Nakladem Komunistickeho knihkupectvi a nakl., 1925.

——. The Siren: A Novel. Translated by Iris Urwin. Prague: Artia, 1953.

Mihailovich, Vasa D. Modern Slavic Literatures. 2 vols. NY: Frederick Ungar, 1972–76.

Novák, Arne. Czech Literature. Edited by William E. Harkins. Translated by Peter Kussi. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, 1976.

Soucková, Milada. A Literary Satellite. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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