The Novels of Zsigmond Móricz in the Context of European Realism

A Thematic Approach

by Virginia L. Lewis (Author)
Monographs XII, 154 Pages


The Novels of Zsigmond Móricz in the Context of European Realism is the first English-language monograph on one of Hungary’s—and Central Europe’s—most important modern authors. Using a thematic approach that privileges literary characters as stand-ins for real human beings, Virginia L. Lewis investigates Móricz’s thematization of individual agency in seven realist novels that form the foundation of the author’s reputation as a major twentieth-century novelist. Lewis does an outstanding job of showcasing the research results of the many Hungarian scholars who have studied Móricz’s narrative output over the past century, while also bringing decidedly new perspectives to the table in introducing the author to an English-speaking audience. Utilizing the theoretical impulses of scholars such as Horst and Ingrid Daemmrich, Margaret Archer, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Ibrahim Taha, among others, Lewis forges a new and productive path in Móricz scholarship, while also making his oeuvre accessible to a global audience. Any reader with an interest in Hungarian and Central European narrative will find this study enormously useful for the revelations it brings regarding Móricz’s poignant and brilliant critique of the corrosive influence of commodification and greed on human agency in modern society.

"Informed by theory and grounded in a critical understanding of Hungarian social history in the first half of the twentieth century, Lewis’s engaging study of the realist novels of Zsigmond Móricz compels readers to think in new ways about questions of human agency amongst Hungary’s lower and middle classes as this played out against the backdrop of capitalist transformation and pronounced social conflicts and injustices in the decades leading up to World War II. Skillfully structured around succinct analyses of seven of Móricz’s key texts, Lewis’s book addresses a sizable gap in the English-language scholarship on one of Hungary’s greatest writers, and will be a welcome addition to the libraries of literary scholars and social and intellectual historians alike."
—Steven Jobbitt, Associate Professor of Central and Eastern European History, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Canada

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. The Commodification of Sex and the Repression of Agency in Sárarany (Gold in the Mud)
  • 2. Accommodation and the Destruction of Agency in Az Isten háta mögött (In the Godforsaken Hinterlands)
  • 3. Greed, Fire, and Agency in A fáklya (The Torch)
  • 4. Money, Value, and Agency in Légy jó mindhalálig (Be Faithful unto Death)
  • 5. Nature as Agent in Úri muri (“The Gentlemen’s Spree”)
  • 6. Corruption and Agency in Interwar Hungary: Rokonok (Relations)
  • 7. An Orphan’s Might: Commodification and Agency in Árvácska (Orphalina)
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

←x | xi→


I am deeply grateful for the collegial support and mentorship of Professor Horst S. Daemmrich, who encouraged me and my work devotedly from my graduate school years at the University of Pennsylvania until his passing in 2021. Northern State University supported my efforts to write this book with the granting of a Sanford Faculty Development Award. I am also grateful to the many fellow scholars who listened to my conference papers on the topics addressed in the following chapters, and for their feedback, at recent meetings of the Hungarian Studies Association of Canada, the American Hungarian Educators’ Association, and the European Studies Conference held at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Lastly I thank the staff at Peter Lang Publishing for their support and patience as I muscled my way through the writing of this book during the trials of a global pandemic.

←xii | 1→


A substantive study of the works of Hungarian author Zsigmond Móricz in English is long overdue. Móricz, who lived from 1879 to 1942, penned a significant body of works ranging from poetry and drama to autobiographical pieces and fairy tales, and is best known for his numerous prose texts: novels, novellas, and short stories, of which some 30 and more are regarded as classics. Having secured a reputation as an able writer of poignant short stories such as “Hét krajcár” (“Seven Pennies,” 1908), and monumental historical novels as illustrated by the Erdély trilogy (“Transylvania,” 1922–1935), Zsigmond Móricz is most famous for the many realist novels written largely between 1910 and 1941 that address Hungary’s provincial society with its destructive social conflicts, economic backwardness, and inept political climate that failed to produce needed reforms.

Monographs on Móricz in Hungarian abound—they started appearing well within his lifetime and have been written and published in a fairly steady stream ever since, with a few of the most prominent examples being László Németh’s commemorative volume Móricz Zsigmond from 1943 (Budapest: Turul), Mihály Czine’s ←1 | 2→monograph Móricz Zsigmond from 1968 (Budapest: Gondolat Kiadó), Péter Nagy’s thoroughgoing study Móricz Zsigmond published in 1975 and then again in 1979 on the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth (Budapest: Szépirodalmi Könyvkiadó), Károly Rádics’s biographical study Móricz Zsigmond élete leveleinek tükrében (“Zsigmond Móricz’s Life as Reflected in His Correspondence,” Budapest: Orpheusz) from 1997, and the 782-page tome Móricz Zsigmond by Zsófia Szilágyi, published in 2013 (Pozsony: Kalligram). Film versions of Móricz’s works also found an audience as early as the 1930s: István Székely’s screening of Légy jó mindhalálig (Be Faithful unto Death, 1920) from 1936 remains a highly regarded classic; and during every decade since, anywhere from 3 to 10 works by the author were produced for television or the cinema, including Frigyes Bán’s filming of Úri muri (“The Gentlemen’s Spree,” 1929) in 1950, the harrowing film version of Árvácska (Nobody’s Daughter, 1941) produced in 1976 by László Ranódy and Gyula Mészáros, and more recently, renowned director István Szabó’s production of Rokonok (Relations, 1932) from 2006.

Móricz’s literary reputation rests first and foremost in his innovations as a prose author of rural life in eastern Hungary—he was in fact the first Hungarian author to demystify peasant life and free it from the romantic associations accorded it by authors such as Mór Jókai (1825–1904) and Kálmán Mikszáth (1847–1910). Though Móricz himself was not, strictly speaking, a peasant, his father, a farmer and contractor, belonged to the peasantry, while his mother was the daughter of a Calvinist pastor. Móricz’s profound awareness of the injustices afflicting the rural poor, alongside his appreciation of the peasants’ enormous cultural contributions, both strengthened during three summers in 1903–05 when he collected folksongs and folktales across Szatmár county for the Kisfaludy society, form the wellspring of the powerful social criticism leveled in his greatest novels, all of which have been translated into one language or the other, and often several languages, thus reaching a significant international audience. Although, as Paul Lendvai noted in 1999, more translation work is needed to do justice to the significant oeuvres of Móricz and similarly important twentieth-century Hungarian authors,1 the number of English, German, and French translations available of Móricz’s novels and stories successfully ←2 | 3→testifies to his international reputation. This fact makes the absence of any significant English-language study of Móricz’s literary accomplishments all the more regrettable. To date the only free-standing “book” in English on Zsigmond Móricz is the 38-page introduction Zsigmond Móricz: The Greatest Hungarian Writer 1879–1942, authored by the Kulturális kapcsolatak intézete (“Cultural Relations Institute”) and published by Művelt nép in Budapest in 1952. The present study represents a meaningful starting point in addressing this lack of critical attention to Móricz in the English language.

Selecting a corpus of texts to focus on as an introductory window onto Móricz’s achievements presents obvious challenges given the size of his oeuvre. Though he possessed extraordinary gifts as an author, there were times when Móricz wrote just for the sake of writing, thus the quality of his prose is not always even: lesser works such as Harmatos rózsa (“Dewy Rose,” 1912) followed on the heels of masterpieces like Az Isten háta mögött (In the Godforsaken Hinterlands, 1911). Any attempt to indulge in comprehensive coverage of the author’s life accomplishments would result in a ca. 800-page tome such as Szilágyi’s book mentioned above, which sets the current standard for Móricz scholarship and thus ought by rights to be translated directly into English at some point. An introductory foray into the achievements of Hungary’s foremost populist author must restrict itself to a manageable corpus that privileges his best works and, ideally, centers around a coherent focus. While Móricz was an accomplished short story author, his novels stand out as his most valuable contributions to modern Hungarian literature. And while his historical novels represent monumental accomplishments, fully appreciating their significance requires an insider’s knowledge of Hungarian history. These are some of the reasons why the present study is devoted to the author’s realist novels on more or less contemporary, social critical themes centering around individual agency. In order to offer coverage of the bulk of Móricz’s career, works have been selected that cover the years between his first major publication in 1908, “Hét krajcár,” and his death in 1942. Thus the following texts will be studied in this book:

Sárarany (Gold in the Mud, 1911)

Az Isten háta mögött (In the Godforsaken Hinterlands, 1911)

←3 | 4→A fáklya (The Torch, 1918)

Légy jó mindhalálig (Be Faithful unto Death, 1920)


XII, 154
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2023 (January)
agency Hungarian literature realism narrative commodification money greed gentry peasant Zsigmond Móricz antihero The Novels of Zsigmond Móricz in the Context of European Realism A Thematic Approach Virginia L. Lewis
New York, Berlin, Bruxelles, Lausanne, Oxford, 2023. XII, 166 pp.

Biographical notes

Virginia L. Lewis (Author)

Virginia L. Lewis, Professor of German at Northern State University, earned her Ph.D. in 1989 at the University of Pennsylvania, having studied under Horst Daemmrich. She has written numerous works on German, Hungarian, and global literature, and translated novels by Zsigmond Móricz into English.


Title: The Novels of Zsigmond Móricz in the Context of European Realism