The Doll 
by Boleslaw Prus, translated by David Welsh.
Central European University, 683 pp., £9.99, September 1996, 1 85866 065 3
Show More
Show More

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.

Poland entered the 19th century divided between the three neighbouring empires of Russia, Prussia and Austria, with Warsaw as the seat of the Russian governor. In 1830, the failure of the November Uprising sent a generation of Romantic writers, including the national poet Adam Mickiewicz, into exile. Eighteen years later, the so-called Springtime of Nations brought no rebellion to Russian-occupied Poland, but thousands of Poles left the country, some of them joining Kossuth’s Hungarian uprising. A further Polish rebellion took place in 1863 and quickly collapsed; many of the participants were subsequently interned in Siberia and northern Russia. Prus, whose real name was Aleksander Glowacki, fought in that uprising as a 15-year-old and was wounded, captured and briefly imprisoned.

The Doll is set in 1878-9, with Wokulski, Rzecki and their friends as ageing ex-revolutionaries. Wokulski began life as a waiter, whose determination to better himself won him a place as a student at the City College. But in 1863 he abandoned his studies, and soon found himself sentenced to seven years of Siberian exile. Returning to Warsaw, he was unemployed for six months before finding a place in the department store; he then laid the foundations of his fortune by marrying the previous owner’s widow. When the novel opens he is in Bulgaria, making huge profits out of the Russo-Turkish war (though it seems that he never trades directly in arms). Soon he has moved from store-owner to investment banker, buying and selling domestic property, engaging in shipping transactions in Paris, and importing cheap Russian textiles regardless of the protests of the local manufacturers. A rouble millionaire, he now controls much of the wealth of the Polish aristocracy.

In his commercial transactions (we get a great deal of them), Wokulski curiously combines ruthlessness with sentiment, and driving ambition with fits of absent-mindedness. He is, when it suits him, a visionary and enlightened employer and a generous patron to the poor and oppressed. So why is his life such a tragic waste, and why should he throw in his lot with a decaying aristocracy? In a healthier society his energies and idealism would surely have led him into politics, and Rzecki, his most loyal supporter, constantly deludes himself that there is a secret political motive for Wokulski’s manoeuvrings. But a political career was impossible for Prus’s hero, not only because of the situation in Warsaw in 1878-9, but because of the literary situation in which the novelist was writing. The most his characters can do is to reminisce about selected events in the past and to wring their hands over their country’s fate; but even these oblique references to Polish history and politics fell foul of Tsarist censorship.

We are not told which passages the censor objected to in the original edition, but the present translation, based on the modern Polish text, restores all but one of them (the missing passage appears as an appendix); Prus apparently changed the plot, so it could not be easily reinserted. Without the appendix, it would be hard to understand the belated and unexplained introduction of a new character, the Moscow financier Suzin, who is Wokulski’s principal backer and patron. In fact, the two men had been comrades in Irkutsk during Wokulski’s exile. Both the period of exile and the events that led up to it are largely omitted from this otherwise copiously detailed narrative. Whenever the ex-revolutionaries relax in one another’s company they talk about the past, but the past represented in the novel is not necessarily the one that was uppermost in their minds.

Instead of the 1863 uprising, we get lengthy accounts of the campaign of 1848-9 and the war of Italian liberation ten years later. In both cases, Austria was the enemy, so presumably the Russian censors raised no difficulties. Rzecki, the crusty old stager, now rests all his hopes on developments elsewhere, and his diary entries (which form an essential strand of the narrative) invariably begin with a review of world news. Through him we hear of Bismarck’s latest alliances, the Austrian attacks on Bosnia and Herzegovina, and British colonial wars, from Afghanistan to South Africa. An inveterate Bonapartist, Rzecki records everything he hears about the prospective Napoleon IV, who escaped from France after his father’s fall in 1870 and went on to become a graduate of the Woolwich Military Academy. The Prince’s death in the Zulu campaign of 1879 is a sad blow to the old clerk.

Rzecki’s diary is, in some respects, an ominous document. He reminds us that there were widespread intimations of a general European war in the later 19th century, and that many people would have welcomed one. As a boy, he was drilled by his father to leap out of bed at the shout of ‘To arms!’ When he writes in his diary that ‘the political situation grows increasingly serious,’ his tone is not alarmed but exultant. A ‘great war’ means a prospect of liberation, not of indiscriminate slaughter. His other main political concern is with the growing power of the Jews and the rise of Polish anti-semitism. The idea that ‘there’s going to be trouble with the Jews’ is one of the novel’s most persistent sentiments.

Wokulski himself is not an anti-semite. He does business with the Jewish trader Szlangbaum, another former comrade from Irkutsk, and he gives Szlangbaum’s son a job in his store. Eventually, he ignores the protests of his aristocratic clients and sells all his business interests to the Szlangbaums. (In fact, having decided to sell, he has no choice, since nobody else can raise the necessary capital.) The novelist’s own opinions are probably voiced by Wokulski’s Jewish friend and adviser Dr Szuman, who warns of the coming conflict between the university-educated, assimilationist Jews (of whom Szuman himself is one) and the ‘reactionary’, Orthodox Szlangbaums. Here, views which might well be regarded as anti-semitic are put in the mouth of a Jewish character: ‘We have education, they – the Talmud; we, sense – and they, cunning; we are rather cosmopolitan, they are particularists, who see nothing beyond their synagogue and council ... This is why it is in the interests of civilisation that the guidance of affairs be in our hands. The others can only dirty the world with their gabardines and garlic, but not move it ahead.’

In the absence of an omniscient narrator, Dr Szuman, the apostle of rational progress, is often called on to guide us through a maze of conflicting opinions. Through him, we come to see Wokulski as a quintessential Polish Romantic, ‘always searching for something outside reality’ – and destined never to find it. Wokulski’s abject love for a high-born woman is one of the great Romantic themes, as prominent in the work of Mickiewicz as it would be in Yeats. Not only does the financier’s extravagant devotion to Izabela make him a dull and ineffectual suitor, but it is seen as archaic and out of key with the times. (‘Throw off the medieval troubadour,’ one of his confidantes advises.) A middle-aged Romantic with no remaining political hopes, Wokulski turns to money-making in the hope of closing the social gap between himself and his beloved. The only other purpose in life that he can conceive, his one wholly unfulfilled aspiration, would be to devote himself to scientific experiments.

In Paris, where he goes on business, he is besieged at his hotel by a constant stream of visitors, and by temptations of all sorts. There is even an escort service but Wokulski is not even momentarily diverted by this. Instead, he falls under the spell of the mysterious Professor Geist, who claims to have discovered a metal lighter than air, and somewhat resembles another twisted scientific genius, the Professor in Conrad’s The Secret Agent, who is a walking bomb dedicated to the total destruction of civilisation. Prus’s more benign but no less megalomaniac professor asks to be shown ‘one city in which men’s brains are not cramped by some dogma or other, and I’ll make it the capital of the world and the cradle of a new race of men’. In the end, Wokulski gives a fortune to a young Polish scientific dreamer, whose more rational proposal is to invent a flying machine.

Szuman explains Wokulski’s contradictions by saying that he is really two men, ‘a Romantic of the pre-1863 kind, and a positivist of the ’70s’, but this is too simple. Not only does Wokulski combine Romantic poetry with scientific romance and archaism with futurism, but he is a capitalist and the owner of a department store consecrated, as Zola would put it, au bonheur des dames. He became a capitalist because the time of revolutions had passed and it was the only way within his reach to power and glory. He is the literary hero of his time and place, a version of the ideal 19th-century man, whose fate it is to be born in Poland.

Prus’s Poland is a rentier society in which the aristocratic class still functions, however ineffectually, as a focus of national aspirations. The Doll is amply populated with princes, barons, counts and their ladies, in varying states of idleness and financial need. Wokulski is known to them as an upstart, a nouveau riche who once worked as a waiter, and yet he is also one of them since his grandfather owned, and lost, an estate, while his uncle, an infantry officer, was secretly loved by a duchess, who remains a friend to Wokulski’s ambitions. The duchess invites him to her country estate and asks him to erect a memorial (with an inscription from Mickiewicz) to his uncle. It could be that Wokulski’s fascination with the aristocracy is the result not of love or Romanticism but of simple heredity. But there is also a strong sense that, in a more progressive and bourgeois nation, his wealth and manifest energies would have led to actual ennoblement or, at least, to readier acceptance at the highest social levels. As Izabela’s aunt at one point reminds her, ‘such social relations are comme il faut abroad.’

Language is a crucial, if understated, issue in The Doll. Of the various languages of Warsaw, Russian is never heard in the novel, and German, Hebrew and Yiddish barely so. The aristocrats like to address one another in English or French, and their spiritual home, needless to say, is Paris. Wokulski’s dogged perseverance in taking lessons from the red-whiskered Mr William Collins, teacher of English, pays off at a crucial moment in the plot, when he overhears a conversation not meant for his ears. Wokulski also spends a great deal of time roaming the streets of Paris between business meetings, in a state somewhere between that of the provincial tourist armed with his Baedeker and the flâneur. Yet he is in other respects the archetypal international businessman of the late 19th century, travelling first-class all over Europe and constantly firing off telegrams.

The telegraph and the railway come together at the climax of his love affair when, travelling by night with Izabela and her family, he bribes a country stationmaster to provide him with an urgent telegram as a pretext for precipitately leaving the train. Then, in a finely melodramatic scene alluding to the great railway tragedies in Dombey and Son and Anna Karenina, he tries to commit suicide by throwing himself in the path of an oncoming express. But, tragedy turning to tragi-comedy, he is dragged from the track.

On an earlier occasion that recalls famous set-pieces in Tolstoy and Zola, Wokulski goes to the races, in a desperate frame of mind, to watch a horse he has bought in order to impress Izabela. Here, as always in Prus, the descriptive passages are perfunctory and dramatic tension is sustained largely through dialogue and interior monologue. The race is an anti-climax, won by the favourite, but immediately afterwards Wokulski is jostled by a baron, whom he challenges to a duel. The duel scene is a second potential set-piece, quickly defused, but leading to a marvellously whimsical dialogue between the victorious financier and the baron, who has been wounded. The latter, looking (as he says) ‘like an old monkey with the mumps’, having had a tooth shot away and a hole made in his cheek, very reasonably asks what their quarrel was really about. Wokulski charges the baron with having insulted Izabela, the baron instantly makes his apology, and they part the best of friends. The baron is delighted to find that a man in trade should be such a good shot.

We see Wokulski in other typically 19th-century roles. Recovering from his suicide attempt, he shuts himself away for weeks with a handful of books, an aesthete rejecting the external world for prolonged immersion in the Arabian Nights and the illustrations of Gustave Doré. Finally, after he has thrown up his business career and disappeared abroad, we see him in his last incarnation as a dynamitard – if indeed it was he who set off the massive explosion at the castle where his uncle and the duchess once held their secret meetings. By the end, this ironic chronicle of 19th-century heroism has taken us from the age of Romanticism through the onset of high capitalism to a Fin de Siècle of decadence and pointless terror.

Until now, Boleslaw Prus has failed to make much international impact. The Pharaoh and the Priest, his first work to be translated into English, appeared in 1902, during the novelist’s lifetime, but the record of translations since then has been sporadic. The Doll came out in France in the early Sixties, and in the United States ten years later; only now is it readily available in England. In the early years, Prus was overshadowed by his now forgotten compatriot Henryk Sienkiewicz, author of popular historical romances such as Quo Vadis and Children of the Soil, who won the Nobel Prize in 1905. Introducing the present edition, Stanislaw Baranczak claims The Doll as ‘the Polish novel of the 19th century’. Surely its time has now come.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 19 No. 8 · 24 April 1997

Norman Davies has attempted a total history of Europe (LRB, 20 February) yet seems unable to mention Romania without making either factual errors or snide remarks. He ascribes interwar Fascism in Romania to the nature of folk belief there (a quaint solecism); calls the place the ‘North Korea of Eastern Europe’, with ‘nowhere to go’, and ignores or misrepresents the major facts of its modern history and culture. It is sad that Davies, who is so eloquently aware of the ideological dangers of Great Power history, from the Greek to the Allied version, has succeeded, not in reshaping Europe’s story, but in retelling it so as to add Poland to the pantheon of civilisation while doing down smaller countries further away. Neal Ascherson – whom Davies calls a ‘fellow spirit’, but who at least had the grace to apologise when he wrote a book about the Black Sea that ignored the Romanian and Bulgarian parts of its coast – does nothing to alert your readers to this state of affairs, but instead valiantly attempts to defend a book that he confesses is error-bound.

Also, why does Patrick Parrinder (LRB, 20 March) think that The Doll by Boleslaw Prus is the ‘least-known major 19th-century novel’, when scholarship (well, Hugh Seton-Watson et ego) is unanimous in according this wreath to O Faclie de Paste by Ion Luca Caragiale, a Romanian? Does the fact that the former is slyly inserted into the canon by Davies have anything to do with it?

Alex Drace-Francis
London SW1

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences