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I would like to know what "They can’t bear to see us having fun" means in the following sentences:

At mealtimes I sat with Karolina and Beata, a friend from lectures. She was short and round-faced and busty, quick to laugh and quick to be frightened. She told us she was getting married right after the camp was over, to a guy from the year below.

‘You’re not pregnant, are you?’ asked Karolina, looking concerned.

‘God, no!’ cried Beata, blushing a little.

‘Because you know you cannot trust condoms,’ Karolina said, pretending not to notice Beata’s deepening colour. ‘Some of those old hags in the shops pierce them with the tiniest of needles and sell them on like that. They can’t bear to see us having fun. So really, you need the pill. If you want to, I’ll take you to my doctor. She’s a woman and she won’t ask if you’re married.’

In this novel which is set in the 1980's in Poland under the socialist regime, where homosexuality was socially unacceptable, the protagonist Ludwik (a university graduate) left Poland in 1981 to live in the United States of America. And he remembers what it was like back then in Poland, where he went to the agricultural camp (which was mandatory for college graduation). At the camp, he sat with his friends Karolina and Agata during mealtime. Agata told them that she would marry a guy from the year below after the camp.

In this part, I wonder what Karolina had said. Does she mean that old women in the shops selling condoms pierced them with needles because they wanted to prevent young people from having fun, enjoying? (This is my wild guess.)

I am an English learner from South Korea, so thank you for your patience in advance as I may not know obvious things. I would very much appreciate your help. :)

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Yes, Karolina means that the women selling condoms do not like it when people use those prophylactics. This is probably because Poland was, and to a large extent still is, a conservative country. Religious observance in Poland is very high compared to the rest of Europe. Over 92% of Poles are Roman Catholic, and about 80% of them still go to Confession at least once a year.

A tenet of Catholicism is that artificial birth control is intrinsically evil. Any sex act that is not "open to life", i.e., that forecloses the possibility of conception, is impermissible. Hence, using condoms is against the Catholic faith. The "old hags in the shops" would strongly disapprove of the use of condoms, and they would pierce them with needles so that they will be ineffective as contraception.

Another tenet is that sex is permitted only within marriage, and only for the purpose of procreation. When Karolina says that the old hags "can't bear to see us having fun", she is also talking about the prohibition against premarital sex. She says the women in the shops disapprove of unmarried young people having sex, and so they pierce the condoms with needles to increase the likelihood that the woman will get pregnant and so be punished for indulging in sex outside marriage. (Getting an abortion is nearly impossible in Poland.)

As you note, Karolina is also ascribing envy as a motive for the women's behavior. When she claims "they can't bear to see us having fun", there is the implication that the "old hags" themselves are just past any enjoyable sex life, and so try to destroy the sex lives of young people by sabotaging the means of having sex safely.

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  • Dear verbose, thank you so much for the detailed and profound explanation. I first found it odd that the sellers themselves would pierce their products, but I now understand there were envy and Catholic conservatism hidden behind the "old hags" piercing the condoms with the needles! (Perhaps they didn't want to sell condoms after all; would it be possible that they sold it because the government made them to, under this socialist regime...?) It is very interesting to learn about the history and culture of Poland through expressions in the novel. I sincerely appreciate your help. :) Dec 18 '20 at 12:27

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