The Doll is a novel of such richness that one could open it on any page and find something fascinating. Let us take, say, the courtroom scene in chapter XXIX. If we read the novel superficially, this scene is mainly a comical resolution of the case of a stolen doll. Wanting to verify the testimony, the judge undresses the toy and… rips its head off. What is inside the doll? Sawdust, of course. Not to worry then, the doll does not feel a thing. However, on seeing this act of violence, Mrs Stawska’s daughter bursts into tears. Trying to discover the truth involves inflicting pain – even on a doll. The truth hurts. This is the theme of one of the novel’s most important scenes: the tale of the sleeping princess with a pin stuck in her head. The young man that wants to wake her up and removes the pin hears a plaintive moan: “Why are you hurting me?” Awakenings are painful.
The heroine, Izabela Łęcka, is compared to a doll. This does not initially occur to Wokulski, who is in love with her, but he cannot resist the urge to know more about the woman that excites his uncontrollable passions. He gets closer to her thanks to money acquired through speculation, follows her, spies and eavesdrops on her. He would like to probe into her and find out once and for all what is inside that woman. Sawdust? Perhaps not, after all. Perhaps she does have a soul and suffers like a real human being?
At times, Wokulski doubts it. He is also afraid of femininity, especially of its sensual aspect. When Izabela is a statuesque beauty that observes all the proprieties, her lover swoons in delight. When she displays weakness, sensuality, human stupidity, she cannot hope for understanding. Both Wokulski and Izabela are afraid of the world and cannot cope with human contact. Wokulski – unwilling to talk, unable to open up – hurts those who are friendly to him.
Izabela, stiffened by the rules of good breeding, makes mistakes for which she herself, and the people close to her, pay a steep price. She does not know the world and is afraid of it. She is also wary of Wokulski. This is not wholly surprising. In this merchant and nouveau riche, she sees a man on his way in. Someone who will destroy the world of principles, gentleness, beauty, a world that she loves and with which she identifies. Izabela belongs to an era in decline; Wokulski to the time of transition. Those who will seal the annihilation of that old world are just being born (Lenin in 1870, Hitler in 1889).
One wonders why it is easier to identify with Wokulski, or even Rzecki, than with Izabela. Perhaps because although the author allows us to enter his heroine’s thoughts, he does not treat her entirely seriously? Most often we see her mistakes, gaffes, awkwardness; we see her through the eyes of the jealous Wokulski, whose vision of a woman alarmingly narrows down to the dichotomy of angel versus prostitute. Two people defend Izabela’s honour: her friend Kazimiera Wąsowska and Julian Ochocki. They speak well of her. They can be trusted. The rest is gossip, envy, blind passion, and sometimes even authorial prejudice. Women are maligned in The Doll. Their intelligence, cognitive faculties, and honesty are doubted. It is not only men who look down on women: they themselves also have a low opinion of their gender. Mrs Meliton, whose husband used to hit her with a stick, firmly recommends treating women resolutely and brutally.
The marriages in The Doll are usually unhappy: husbands leave wives or lose their fortunes. Young wives lie to and cheat on old husbands. Old wives pester young husbands for love. Izabela’s friends confess embarrassing secrets of conjugal life to her and discourage her so thoroughly that the young woman starts fearing the necessity of marriage.
It is not only in marriage that communication is difficult. While those who inhabit the world of The Doll are able to correctly recognise some aspects of reality, they cannot analyse them and, ultimately, they go astray, not understanding one another. And it is knowing and understanding that they pursue the most. If Wokulski understands who Izabela is, he will understand the world that surrounds him – and regain the lost sense of meaning.
Who, then, is Izabela? Is she an impoverished aristocrat led astray by family pride, whose life is destroyed by daydreaming, as the realistic plan of the novel suggests? Or the lost half of a Platonic whole, a prelapsarian glimpse of a “better world,” as in the hero’s dreams? For this pair of would-be lovers, love is an opportunity of attaining harmony in a world that is falling apart. Izabela sees this harmony in the perfect beauty of a statue of Apollo, which – although cold and made of stone – is immutable and does not endanger the coherence of the world. For Wokulski, love is a prize for a tough life, a source of peace and rest, possibly of the kind that is promised by death.
The novel’s characters have glimpses of a different sort of knowledge about the human world. Visions of transcendent, supra-historical reality accompany both Wokulski, when he approaches his beloved, and Izabela, who has an inkling of a world of perfect harmony and beauty in her half-dreaming fantasies.
Nonetheless, dreamers are afraid of life, of its mutability and unpredictability. Some of them strive for calm, which is the torpor of death. Others try to grasp the illusion of paradisiacal happiness through the destruction of the world they dread. Wokulski, a neurasthenic who moves from the state of euphoria and manic activity to apathy and suicidal thoughts, chooses not love, but symbolic death, a state that he has been unconsciously striving after for years. Izabela, wary of marriage – at that time almost the only path to fulfilment available to women – does a lot to lose even that opportunity.
Both Izabela and Wokulski are incorrigible dreamers. Incapable of true love, their souls wounded, they fantasise about some ideal, heavenly world, and ultimately find themselves in a space outside of the novel, in our astonished and delighted readings.
The issue of truth is one of the main themes in The Doll. The characters look for the answer to the question: “What is the truth?” in their dreams, fantasies, and illusions. In the train scene, when Wokulski sees the cuddled up silhouettes of Kazimierz Starski and Izabela reflected in a glass pane, the question: “Is this true?” is vital. The hero believes it to be true. But is the reflection a real truth or only a shadow of one? Each character has his or her own answer to the question of truth. Wokulski, who is unable to accept the sinful nature of man, performs an act of radical transformation. The gesture of blowing up the ruins of the castle in Zasław can be interpreted as a sign that he is breaking up with the beloved, destroying not only his own memories, but also himself – or that by doing away with the past he is becoming a new person. Perhaps there is faith there that it is possible to change not only oneself but also human nature. If this is the case, Wokulski would belong to a group of dreamers who postulated changing human reality through the absolute destruction of the existing world. This interpretation might be reaching too far, but some signs seem to indicate that.
In his disillusionment just before his death, Ignacy Rzecki sees the world as a stage on which human puppets dance – not only unaware of their own fate, but also passive, propelled by a force that is beyond them. Izabela is left without an answer to the question of the mystery of her own fate. She is not the only one who does not know who she really is. The reader also has to give up the hope for a clear answer to the question: “Is Izabela a doll, and what is inside her?”
Trans. Marta Dziurosz