#language & literature
A late 19th-century love story, considered by many critics and literature scholars to be the greatest Polish realist novel. Unlike many acclaimed works of the past, it is still adored by many readers. At the same time, being a part of Poland’s official school curriculum, as well as a historical and demanding novel, it’s also one of the most resented Polish books.
At first glance, The Doll is a story of unreciprocated, obsessive and ill-located passion. The main character, Stanisław Wokulski, is a middle-aged, self-made man. He is an ex-freedom fighter who climbed out of poverty and years of imprisonment in Syberia to become a millionaire. After his return to Russian-governed Warsaw, Wokulski tries to woo a beautiful aristocratic young lady, Izabela Łęcka. He also tries to do something good in a broader sense for society, his kinsmen and for the poor. According to Bolesław Prus himself, the novel’s main theme is idealism: how it changes over generations and how hopeless, yet necessary, our attempts to do good and achieve something meaningful are.
It is also a novel about a midlife crisis, the cruelty of time and lost chances. Wokulski seeks things that he had to give up when he was younger. In order to become a rich trader, he had to sacrifice his ambitions in natural science. Now, instead of becoming another Maria Skłodowska-Curie, he sells umbrellas and purses to bored rich ladies. Wokulski lacks fulfilment and self-respect, love and happiness. Eventually, all of this lack, hunger and surplus of passion brew into obsessive love. Reaching towards Izabela Łęcka, this aristocratic girl from a palace, he climbs toward the upper layers of society. In that aspect, The Doll is a predecessor of the legendary The Great Gatsby, with its human pursuits, combined with issues of dignity and shame, complexes and class struggle.
Psychologically, the novel is sharp, emotional, passionate and bitter. It sparkles with humour, the presence of which actually handicapped its initial critical reception. As a writer and journalist, Prus belonged to a Polish cultural movement called Positivism. It preached a lack of passion and romantic nonsense. It promoted pragmatism, hard work and dry-minded seriousness. Prus’s sarcasm and his focus on the inner life of characters seemed bizarre, frivolous and even malicious to some critics.
The Doll could be read as the chronicle of man’s suffering at the hands of a woman, but it’s not that simple. Prus sympathised with 19th-century feminism and even wrote a novel, Emancipated Ladies, about suffragettes. Even the title of the novel is somehow misleading.
According to Prus himself, the titular doll refers to one of the novel’s subplots, not to Miss Izabela. It’s an accusation towards an oppressive social system that puts individuals in humiliating culture-determined roles, with ‘angelic’ and idealistic girls consciously raised as fragile and useless, wearing tight corsets and always ready to faint, ready to be sold to filthy old men. In addition, Wokulski is not just looking for love. He is longing for a purpose, be it something grand and spiritual or a commonplace reason to open his eyes in the morning. Wokulski’s pursuits are deeper – and more difficult – than mere sex and social recognition.
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He’s a well-written character, full of vivid conflicts and subtle shades. He is a successful, cold -minded, strong-willed businessman and a sharp thinker, but he has the hidden soul of a romantic – irrational, doubting, and at times drifting toward madness.
Such a split was probably Prus’s personal experience. Prus was an ex-freedom fighter himself, but he’d managed to avoid deportation to Siberia. He studied science and struggled with poverty. He also suffered from various mental disorders and panic attacks, including agoraphobia. Which, as the poet Stanisław Barańczak pointed out, is quite a paradox for a realist writer and observer of social life. The split in Wokulski’s soul could be seen throughout the whole of Poland during this era, as it was torn between hostile identities. One, with Romanticism on its banners, asked for all to fight the invaders and tyrants, for personal sacrifice. The other identity, Positivism, put all human hopes in science, business and trade and asked for the slow development of Poland under occupation so that it might catch up with the West.
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But there are different, deeper layers in The Doll. More hermetic and mysterious than a costumed love drama. Some claim that it’s a universal, timeless treatise on initiation, awakening and spiritual journeys, like Hesse’s Steppenwolf or Mann’s The Magic Mountain, or even The Matrix. Wokulski is around 40, the age at which a human being, according to psychology, often faces their own mortality and starts to seek a final answer. He doesn’t ask ‘Who am I?’ but rather ‘Why am I here?’ or ‘What’s the point of life?’ or ‘Is this whole life a…’ – put your own word here, dear reader. Miracle? Nightmare? Circus?
The Nobel Prize-winning author Olga Tokarczuk, a great admirer of The Doll, once wrote an essay about it called The Doll and the Pearl. She interprets the love plot through the frame of Jungian psychology, as some form of mystical projection. Wokulski adores Izabela because she makes him complete. When he looks into her dreamy eyes for the first time, he is suddenly reminded of the deep silence on the Siberian plains: ‘Sometimes they were so quiet, that you could hear the spirits heading back towards the west.’ The beautiful mysterious Izabela is an image of his own soul, his anima, scattered and forgotten during years of study and moneymaking. Later on, the story leads Wokulski to the mysterious Professor Geist, an inventor, guru and Trickster figure, who allows him to travel even deeper. But I’ll give no spoilers.
What makes this book so unique is its intimate, very personal perspective. The author belonged to the ultra-rational late 19th century. In his writing, Prus was always a sober-minded propagator of science and progress, not a mystic nor ‘spiritual seeker’. He didn’t have an ‘official’ language nor categories to speak about ‘inner’ things. In that sense, his era was a strange moment of interregnum. In the 19th century, the old forms of religion and spirituality were being seriously weakened and contested, but new ones were not available yet. It was before counterculture, even before Freud! So in order to express Wokulski’s insights and struggles, Prus had to use simple words that were at the same time universal, intimate and modest. His own. Somehow, The Doll stood out beyond the current time and its fashions. And perhaps that’s one of the reasons that this book has aged so well.
Yet, the spiritual inner aspect doesn’t overshadow the rest of the story. As Olga Tokarczuk claims, Wokulski is like a stain in a Rorschach test; he allows us to see what we need to see. It is one of those books that evolve together with the reader and can be reread at various stages of one’s life.
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The Doll has some great characters, but let’s not forget its impressive world-building. For Polish writers and literature scholars, it’s the gold standard of realism, mimesis at its peak. This realism applies to both the internal and external surroundings. Perhaps the most impressive quality of the novel is its scope. Rich and detailed, it shows both individual and society. Society ranges from decadent aristocratic palaces, with their leisure classes, to famous descriptions of Warsaw’s poor district, Powiśle, a 19th-century favela. Prus shows the birth of nationalism too, and the complicated relations between ethnic Poles and Jews. Just like the creators of the highly lauded TV show The Wire, Prus spent years working as a newspaper journalist. He had internalised a huge amount of research.
But you can also see how the character of Wokulski is part of a pattern in 19th-century pop culture. Like the Count of Monte Cristo and Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin, he is a mystery-clad millionaire, capable of dragging people out of poverty. This theme was very popular back then. According to Italian novelist Umberto Eco, the millionaire was the 19th-century’s version of Superman. Eco believed it had something to with the harshness of capitalism. In a world without social care and social justice, with children sold as slaves, the mysterious millionaire character brought hope to audiences. On the other hand, this supernatural motif suggested that justice and compassion are just a fairy tale, therefore justifying the inhuman status quo.
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As for the style of the prose, The Doll is 19th-century realism at its best. Prus had a great eye for detail; his vivid pictures of courts and crowds recall the works of Charles Dickens. With his wry psychological insights and ironic wit, Prus is also similar to Anton Chekhov. And, much like Chekhov, he has some mercy on readers – he doesn’t feed us with nihilism or cruelty. As mentioned earlier, Prus had an amazingly broad scope, as if he were made of many writers combined. And yet, this novel was almost unknown in the rest of the world. It was written in a minor language, by a writer from a defeated, nationless people. How many Basque writers do you know? Prus died in 1912, two years before World War I started and four years before Poland returned to the world map like a persistent phoenix. Yet, in the case of his contemporaries Sienkiewicz and Reymont, international recognition was possible, so perhaps the reason he was overlooked could be something else.
In global literature hierarchies, Prus may still be underrated. Sometimes it gives us Poles who enjoy reading this peculiar feeling of owning a real treasure, something really unique, underground and indie, unreachable to wider audiences. Nevertheless, The Doll is available in English and many other languages. There is also a fine Polish movie based on the novel as well as a decent TV series. The movie was made by Wojciech Jerzy Has, a director famous for oneiric poetic moods as well as great scenography and shots, a fitting choice for source material of this scope.
Written by Wojciech Zembaty, April 2020
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