Places: Steps

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1968

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Existentialism

Time of work: Indeterminate

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Central Europe

*Central StepsEurope. Apparent location of most of the novel’s episodes. A whitewashed village in an unnamed country appears to indicate backwardness and remoteness from twentieth century city life. From here, the anonymous narrator travels to the unnamed capital city of the country, where he impresses his rustic girlfriend with his credit card. The coexistence of two places in one country, in which life seems a century apart, creates the dramatic tension of the opening episode.

In a landscape characterized by dark, remote forests and isolated, backward villages, the protagonist encounters humans whose meager and harsh surroundings have rendered them particularly vicious. Sexual exploitation and abuse is rampant, as if humans react to a sullen environment with nothing but sexual depravity of their own. Because the places where they dwell appear cut off from the rest of the world, it is as if worldly civility and morality has not reached them there, either.

On the way to an airport to leave his native country to fly to America, the narrator feels a kind of existentialist nausea when he realizes that the place where he has spent twenty-four years of his life means nothing to him. He is saddened by the fact that the landmarks of his native city stir up no emotions in him. Place fails to create nostalgia in the protagonist. He moves from location to location without any attachment to his surroundings.

Volcanic island

Volcanic island. Located in what appears to be the Greek Mediterranean, the island is chosen to make the protagonist a complete outsider. The place literally illustrates humanity’s essential alienation, which is a key idea of the philosophy of existentialism. Here, the narrator can neither communicate with the world beyond the waves engulfing the island, nor talk to its remote inhabitants.

Sanatorium

Sanatorium. Tuberculosis treatment center at a resort in mountains that appear to be based on the Polish Carpathians. The juxtaposition of the mountains’ natural splendor and the unhappy fates of patients dying from the ravages of tuberculosis creates a setting in which human beings must confront their mortality in the midst of a stunningly beautiful but finally uncaring landscape. Many of the patients and attendants react to the dark message of the place with sexual escapades.

University

University. Unnamed institution of higher learning that suffers from the domination of the Communist Party, which has turned it into a sinister location in which the only places in which free thought takes place is the rest rooms. With their university perverted by politics, the students react to the pressures pervading the location by indulging in bizarre acts of revenge against one another.

Airplane

Airplane. While flying from his native country to America, the protagonist wishes to remain suspended in midair in this unreal nonplace forever. He prefers a fantasy location over any real place, and wishes he could defy both gravity and reality.

American city

American city. Clearly a stand-in for New York City in the 1950’s, the place of the narrator’s destination is described in bleak and disillusioned terms. The youth hostel where he stays is crowded and inhospitable. His menial work stripping paint off a ship moored in the city’s dirty harbor introduces him to the city’s seedy underside. The city’s alleys become the place for a criminal car game of daring, as the underworld takes over the place at night. Disillusioned by a place which makes him an outsider by virtue of language and economic prospects, the narrator envies the black residents who seem to live free at the margins of the city. Exaggerating his alienation by adopting the guise of a deaf-mute, the narrator plans a secret war on the city, whose features he imagines to be those of a living body that he can oppose and destroy.

The protagonist’s arrival in America is anticlimactic. Again, the place fails to stir up any special feelings. It merely appears of mundane and pedestrian nature. Every place fails to enchant the narrator.

Tropical American country

Tropical American country. Unnamed country to which the protagonist goes to become part of its political revolution. Behind the tropical facade of palm trees gracing the unnamed capital’s airport, there is violence and upheaval. However, the place holds no meaning for the narrator, who embraces an absurd existence.

BibliographyCahill, David. “Jerzy Kosinski: Retreat from Violence.” Twentieth Century Literature 18, no. 2 (April, 1972): 121-132. Discusses Kosinski’s belief that incessant violence can destroy the power of humans to create a moral society and describes Steps as the author’s plea that people turn away from that violence.Coale, Samuel. “The Quest for the Elusive Self: The Fiction of Jerzy Kosinski.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 14, no. 3 (1973): 25-37. Discusses the use in Steps of detailed, concrete impressions to simulate external reality. Compares the radical and secular art, with which Konsinski tries to depict the human struggle toward personal identity in the modern world, with techniques used by Franz Kafka.Howe, Irving. “From the Other Side of the Moon.” Harper’s 238, no. 1426 (March, 1969): 102-105. A detailed critical review that concludes that Steps is the hallucinatory self-displacement of a man looking too closely at his own experience.Kauffman, Stanley. “Out of the Fires.” New Republic 159, no. 17 (October 26, 1968): 22, 41. A critical review that considers the incidents of Steps as unified visions, subtly conceived as proof that the past is very much a part of the present.Lupak, Barbara. Plays of Passion, Games of Chance: Jerzy Kosinski and His Fiction. Bristol, Ind.: Wyndham Hall Press, 1988. Examines all of Kosinski’s work, including Steps. Includes a discussion of the ways in which the author’s life affected his work and points out how his novels differ from other twentieth century novels.
Categories: Places