To arms!

Patrick Parrinder

  • BuyThe Doll by Boleslaw Prus, translated by David Welsh
    Central European University, 683 pp, £9.99, September 1996, ISBN 1 85866 065 3

Is every fictional character a kind of doll? Thackeray presented his characters as puppets, which he took out of the box at the beginning of the novel, and shut away again at the end. E.M. Forster spoke of round and flat characters, as if they were two types of doll; the flat ones could be made lifelike by shaking them vigorously. The gulf between childhood toys and adult reading is bridged by fantasy tales such as Pinocchio, where the puppet comes to life, and Hoffmann’s ‘The Sand-Man’, in which the beautiful Olympia turns out to be a mechanical doll. Contemporary popular fiction swarms with robots, mannequins, genetically engineered androids and talking computers, not to mention human beings who behave in programmed and entirely predictable ways.

We ought to distinguish, however, between Thackeray’s puppets, which are an extension of the human hand that holds the strings, and manufactured dolls and wind-up models, which lead automatic lives. The movement from handmade to factory-made toys in the 19th century roughly parallels that from realism to naturalism in fiction: the one preaching lessons in human limitations and human vanity, the other displaying characters whose lives are determined by the machinery of heredity and environment. Boleslaw Prus’s The Doll – first published in 1890, and perhaps the least known major 19th-century novel – stands midway between these tendencies.

The novel’s protagonist, Stanislaw Wokulski, rises from obscure beginnings to become the owner of a Warsaw department store which has a large mechanical Cossack in the window. On Sundays, Rzecki, the chief clerk responsible for the window displays, likes to sneak into the deserted shop, take out all the clockwork toys and set them in motion together. The result is a glorious cacophony of waltzing couples, circus clowns, a crowing cock, clockwork mice, a climbing bear and a model train with dolls as passengers. The image of the novel as magic toyshop is an obvious one, and Prus’s characters often seem to be the playthings of social forces – heredity, environment, the beast in man, the Zeitgeist.

Yet these characters are free agents, or aspire to be. Wokulski acts as a spokesman for Social Darwinism and the gospel of work, while Izabela, the aristocratic beauty who may or may not be the ‘doll’ of the title, is first seen reading a novel by Zola. Wokulski is in love with Izabela and gains considerable power over her, but, besides being a heartless flirt, she can never get over the fact that she first saw Wokulski in the haberdashery department, and on the wrong side of the counter. The portrayal of the department store as a hotbed of sex and class-consciousness anticipates the English Edwardian novelists, but this is also a study in the pathology of obsessive love, a love which is a kind of enslavement and forces the sufferer to react in entirely predictable ways. Wokulski, an intelligent and sensitive man, is aware of his predicament and given to tortured self-analysis. Nor does he lack colleagues and friends to tell him what to do. Will he ever act on his realisation that he would have had no difficulty in rejecting his beloved if he had known her better?

Though it centres on a single obsessive relationship, this is a novel of many currents, with a wide range of characters and more than one narrative point of view. At first, it is hard to grasp its unity, such is the polyphony of what is essentially a novel of dialogue rather than description. The variety of voices and the abundance of ideas doubtless reflect Prus’s long apprenticeship as a humorous columnist and feuilletoniste for the Warsaw papers. The Doll contains many subtle literary allusions, as well as references to contemporary Polish and European history and politics. In retrospect, Prus can be seen to have written a prototype of the 20th-century ‘post-colonial’ novel, in which the characters are mimic men and the puppet-masters are always elsewhere. One reason Izabela, Wokulski and the others are dolls is that they lack cultural authenticity and political freedom.

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