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A- : enjoyable large-scale novel of late-19th century Polish society
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
The Doll centers around Stanisław Wokulski's infatuation with and pursuit of Izabela Łęcki.
Wokulski is a widower in his mid-forties when he falls head over heels in love with the young noblewoman.
Owner of a successful small department store, Wokulski is determined to win her -- but believes he needs a greater fortune, and greater social standing, to do so.
The Doll is built up around his efforts.
Otherwise they may suspect me of wanting to take advantage of them or -- still worse -- think I mean to do them a favour.Tomasz Łęcki, the down on his luck head of the family, isn't averse to a bit of mutual coattails-riding, happy to partner with Wokulski on some projects (even as Wokulski leaves him in the dark about just how much he's helping the nobleman out), rationalizing:
He understands that he will do more and gain a better reputation by helping an ancient family to rise again than if he were to rush ahead by himself.The Poland of the times is one where the class divides are still enormous -- and almost unbridgeable --, and Wokulski is looked down upon as a parvenu. Snotty nobility have great difficulty in accepting him -- especially also as he threatens to undermine some of their long-established lazy business practices (the false flag of national pride and interest held up as one excuse for maintaining them). Wokulski understands the game, but only plays along with it so far ("there isn't a scrap of affectation about you, sir" his barber notes -- while adding: "but that's bad !"). In a nice scene where Wokulski -- fully aware of what he is doing -- doesn't adhere to strict dining-utensil-decorum when at the Łęcki table (using a knife when eating his fish !) Izabela questions him:
"So you are an enemy of etiquette ?" she inquired.Izabela figures out that Wokulski is interested in her, but isn't quite sure how to feel about that. Her family's straitened circumstances have impacted her lifestyle -- and, she realizes, her marriage prospects --, much to her annoyance, but initially Wokulski's well-meaning (if not always well-executed) help irritates her. And as far as him being marriage material ..... She finds it difficult to see beyond Wokulski's public identity -- commoner, arriviste, tradesman. Subjective values strongly color her assessment, as Prus makes clear: she admits to herself that he's good-looking -- but:
Had this man possessed a large estate, instead of a shop, then he would have been very handsome; had he been born a prince, he would have been tremendously handsome.Izabela's pampered life has had her live:
from day to day, month to month, year to year, above other people and even above the laws of natureShe can easily get away with that as long as she is the daughter of a wealthy nobleman -- but once the rumors of the Łęckis decline and fall spread she finds she isn't the center of the attention she craves any longer.
Wokulski is also a torn man. "Since childhood I have lived like a caged bird", he complains; only his love for Izabela has finally freed him to take the risky leap to finding the happiness he wants -- and made the much greater and more successful man of him. (Of course, in fixating so on Izabela as the means of realizing his happiness he is also setting himself up for possibly devastating disappointment.) Even before he has come close to realizing his ambition -- being with Izabela -- it has led him to great success:
Well, it was for her that I made my fortune, that I gave work to several hundred people, and am increasing the country's prosperity ... For what should I be, were it not for her ? A small dealer in haberdashery ... Whereas now all Warsaw is talking about me.Two years into his dedicated pursuit -- "For two years I have thought of only one thing -- how to remove every obstacle from your path", he admits to her -- he wonders whether it has been worth it. A major part of it remains the inescapable class-struggle:
'The last two years of my existence,' thought Wokulski, 'have been passed in the pursuit of a woman I might even have rejected if I'd known her better. All my energies, studies, talents and huge fortune are absorbed into a single emotion because I am in trade and she is an aristocrat. Perhaps society, by harming me harms itself ?'Izabela's passions remain flighty, and the (re)appearance of other men from her past easily sway her attention from Wokulski. Her cousin Ochocki -- a scientist-dreamer -- knows he's ill-suited to marry her (as the family has suggested), but she can swoon over the likes of the actor Rossi, or the rakish Kazio Starski (about whom her father notes: "It's true that the lad is rather spoiled with everlasting gadding about the world, somewhat in debt too -- but he's young, handsome, healthy and wild about you" -- and he is, after all, a nobleman, which continues to be the main thing). Even as Wokulski demonstrates the lengths he's willing (and able) to go to, Izabela's romantic visions only find a limited place for him:
All night Izabela dreamed of Starski as her husband, Rossi as her Platonic lover number one, Ochocki as number two and Wokulski as the trustee of their fortune.If not quite coming to his senses, there comes a point where Wokulski finds himself retreating, and reassessing both approach and motivation:
sometimes a single word will change a plan, even a person ... Not to mention what a whole conversation can do ...Yet, even after another interlude abroad, in far more open and cosmopolitan Paris, he finds himself drawn back. The back-and-forth game continues, even as Wokulski sees that she can never truly, entirely be his, and that he'd be better off choosing another path (or woman). Yet he's constantly pulled back to Izabela: "I despise her so, and ... I still love her".
Even as Wokulski stands out in Polish business, as a man both willing to take risks and recognizing where to find rewards, and acting not out of petty personal reasons but for the bottom line (even as he also acts not out the obvious self-interest but for higher (though admittedly in part also entirely personal) ideals)-- "You are not a tradesman, sir, but a desperado", he is told (tellingly: abroad) -- he, and his sometimes misguided actions, are representative. As his friend and doctor says:
'What can I do to help him ?' he muttered, 'he's an incurable dreamer who will never regain his senses. He is moving disastrously towards material and spiritual ruin, like all of you, and your entire system.'But Wokulski isn't your typical self-destructive hero; Prus leaves him almost entirely in control -- over everything but his (romantic) senses. Wokulski continues to operate rationally, in practically every regard. He sizes up other women, too -- but also fears burdening them with his own unrequited longing, which he can never shake, even when he finally does distance himself from Izabela.
Just as Wokulski maneuvers to enter society -- as a successful businessman -- so he then maneuvers to extricate himself from his position -- and causes near as much upset. A misguided romantic soul, he did it all for a woman:
Ever since I was a child, I've been looking for some great and unknown thing: and since I used to see women through the eyes of the poets, who flatter them too much, I thought that woman was that great and unknown thing. I was wrong, and there lies the clue to my temporary lack of balance which, however, helped me make a fortune.Wokulski is tempted by other 'great and unknown' things -- an intriguing scientific discovery, for one -- but his passion is his undoing. He takes care of most everything he leaves in his wake -- providing money, support, and jobs to the needy all along -- but still fails the system that he crashed: his disentanglement -- from love, from business, from society -- is greeted with near as much opprobrium as his initial forays were.
The society that he entered, and left, is a damaged one, crippled by an aristocracy gone to seed -- but still demanding all respect -- and a rising Jewish merchant-class that is commercially successful but, as such, is increasingly resented.
The concerns about the possible consequences of the increased presence and prominence of Jews in business, and society in general, bubble underneath throughout the novel. The artistocracy subscribes to an obnoxious anti-Semitism -- that nevertheless doesn't prevent them from investing their capital with Jews, since they can't imagine any other way of making money: earning an easy, practically risk-free ten per cent return is more than they could manage on their own, not wanting to dirty their hands at anything commercial.
Matters are exacerbated by the growing divide between educated, assimilated Jews and the more religiously-obsessed: Wokulski's (Jewish) doctor differentiates himself from 'them', noting:
We're linked with them by race and a common position, but our views divide us. 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. As far as common enemies are concerned, they are excellent allies, but when it's the progress of Judaism ... then they are an intolerable burden on us.These conflicts do not come to a real head in The Doll, but are clearly among the problems Prus sees in the Polish society of his time, cracks that would widen horribly in later decades.
Much of how Prus expresses himself leaves an unpleasant aftertaste for contemporary readers -- the doctor continuing, for example, and saying:
That is why it is in the interests of civilization that the guidance of civil affairs be in our hands. The others can only dirty the world with their gabardines and garlic, but not move it ahead ....Similarly, Wokulski suggests, in response to the observation that 'There's going to be great trouble with the Jews':
There already has been a great deal, it's gone on for over eighteen centuries, and what's the outcome ? Very noble individuals have perished in anti-Jewish persecutions, and the only ones to survive were those who could protect themselves from destruction. So now what sort of Jew do we have ? Persistent, patient, sly, self-reliant, quick-witted, and commanding a mastery of the one weapon left to them -- money. By wiping out everything that was good, we have produced an artificial selection and protected the worst.This is pretty ghastly stuff -- though it should be noted that Prus treats the Polish aristocracy similarly harshly. Both groups are treated as more or less 'closed' -- separate units within larger Polish society (the ideal of which is: Wokulski, an outsider in both those circles) -- and while there are representatives of both groups who are positive figures, as a whole both are presented as corrupted (and, in the case of the aristocracy, superannuated) classes, sealing their own decline, if not doom, in self- and class-interested action that fails to consider the larger (and national) good. (It is in this that the novel most obviously shows it is from another era: while Prus' comically exaggerated denunciation of the aristocracy seems entirely benign to modern-day readers, passages treating Jews similarly are repugnant; in its time, both were presumably to some (and yet an entirely different) extent shocking but not odious).
Much of The Doll is told by an omniscient narrator, but there are also many chapters from: 'The Journal of the Old Clerk', Wokulski's trusted right-hand man, the clerk Ignacy Rzecki. He makes for a nice counterpart to the over-obsessed Wokulski -- though even the old clerks eye's are turned by a woman, in one of the novel's many sub-plots (having also to do with the house Wokulski (briefly) buys, and involving a lost husband, and a court case about the theft of a doll -- and with Rzecki wanting to convince Wokulski to take this woman as his wife, rather than obsessing over Izabela ...). Rzecki is set in his ways -- "In a quarter of a century, neither the room nor the ways of Ignacy Rzecki had changed" (and in a nice touch, when Wokulski expand his store and moves the clerk's quarters, he recreates that room for the old man down to the last stitch) -- and a welcome (usually) sensible voice, as even though Wokulski is, by and large, a clear-headed businessman, he is also (Izabela-inspired) impetuous -- and, ultimately, rather too lost in thought. (Prus does some high comedy, too -- notably with three politically active would-be students in the house that Wokulski briefly owns.)
Originally serially published, The Doll -- and specifically the will-they/won't-they back and forth between Wokulski and Izabela -- is a bit unevenly paced. In a way, the book has a more realistic feel than much of the fiction of the time because of that: it almost feels as if Prus changed his mind several times along the way about what was to happen next, rather than having it all (too) neatly mapped out. If parts of the whole -- notably that strange not-quite-romance at the heart of it -- aren't entirely satisfying, the story does take many interesting turns, and it is consistently engaging and entertaining.
If capricious Izabela is a bit thin for a heroine, Prus offers enough other strongly-written characters to more than compensate. Wokulski (and his passion) too are a bit too indeterminate to fully appreciate, but there are remarkably many moments when he or any number of the others are exceptionally well-captured, So, for example, Rzecki reveals himself perfectly in admitting (about Wokulski):
He writes dry, brief letters, says nothing about himself and sometimes makes me so miserable that I don't know what to do (not on his account, surely -- merely from habit).The Doll is a thoroughly enjoyable long novel that can stand comfortably next to the great European novels of the late nineteenth century. (Indeed, it is surprising that it has not made more of an impression beyond Poland.)
- M.A.Orthofer, 18 January 2016
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Polish author Bolesław Prus lived 1847 to 1912.
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