The action of The Doll ends in October 1879. It is important to note that the same year saw the use of the word “anti-Semitism” for the first time. It was coined by a German journalist and publicist, Wilhelm Marr, who founded the Anti-Semitic League (Antisemiten Liga). The term itself was supposed to veil the attitudes of aversion, hostility and even hatred towards the Jews by means of applying pseudo-scientific language. In this way, an irrational malevolence was presented as the opposition to the “Semites” as a race. Anti-Semitism relied on the assumptions of the innate inequality of races and the right of the “superior” to rule the “inferior.”
Judeophobia appeared as a vent of social disquiet caused by the innovative and industrial transformation, and was stimulated by the development of a modern anti-Semitic ideology. The period when The Doll was set and written coincided with the activity of a leading anti-Semitism proponent, Jan Jeleński, the author of a pamphlet titled Żydzi, Niemcy i my (Jews, Germans, and Us, 1876) and the editor of the Warsaw-based weekly Rola, the first Polish-language newspaper with anti-Jewish content (1882–1912). Jeleński claimed that Prus was a covert Jew, named Głowasser, and called him a drummer of the Izraelita newspaper and all this Judeophiliac coterie.
The echoes of the ideas pushed forward by Jeleński, such as warnings against the Jewish expansionism and calls for forcing Jews out of economic and other domains of public life, reverberate in The Doll through some of the novel’s characters. It would seem that Krakowskie Przedmieście as a commercial street is particularly “under threat.” One of Wokulski’s shop attendants, Lisiecki, states at one point: How these swines of Jews creep into the Krakowskie Przedmieście! Why don’t they stay in Nalewki or Świętojerska? He gets castigated by Wokulski for this comment. Councillor Węgrowicz, a member and patron of the Polish Charitable Society, bewails the fact that Jews are going to make Krakowskie Przedmieście horrible. Another character to be poisoned by the anti-Semitic atmosphere is a socialist, Klein, who claims that they are strangers – and dangerous ones: we know them well, even though they are flirting with us […]. We know what they are capable of, if they had the strength. A wave of hostility towards Jews is rising in reaction to, first, the rumours, and then the fact of Wokulski’s shop being sold to Henryk Szlangbaum. This transaction provokes some almost emblematic anti-Semitic comments of pseudo-economic interest, all of which come down to the main argument cited by the anti-Semites of that time, namely the Jewish expansion that threatened the Polish economy. Those Jews will seize everything so that in the end it will have to be taken from them by force, to maintain stability, insists Mr Szprott, a travelling salesman, over beer. Rzecki himself refers to Wokulski and Szlangbaum’s deal as taking over our store in his conversation with Doctor Szuman, to which the latter retorts: He’s not taking it over, he’s buying it!
Indeed, it appears that even Ignacy Rzecki, one of the most noble-minded characters in The Doll, is increasingly affected by the anti-Jewish propaganda. When talking about Jews, the old clerk unwittingly keeps using coordinate clauses connected with the but conjunction, which tellingly makes the sentences concessive or self-contradictory, e.g. This Szlangbaum (I have known him for years) is of the Hebraic persuasion, but an honest fellow for all that; or (about Doctor Szuman): He’s a Jew from top to toe, but a true friend and a man with a sense of honour. A bundle of stereotypes comes out of Rzecki’s mouth when he tries to convince Wokulski that, with Jews, everything depends on humbug, double-dealing and trash, that they are forever following the same principle: give as little as possible, and take as much, both materially and morally. He continues: I don’t dislike them […]. But just look at what is happening here! Where don’t they worm their way in, where don’t they open stores, what don’t they reach out their hands for? And each one, as soon as he occupies some position brings in after him whole legions of his own people, by no means better than we are, often worse.
It is particularly striking to see anti-Semitic clichés used by Doctor Szuman, a Jew himself. When he is annoyed or excited, invective language virtually pours out: a whole pack of wretched Jews; Ah, those Jew-boys!… Always rogues, whether dressed in gabardines or dress-coats. He somehow manages to combine contempt with admiration into a paradoxical mixture: These Jews are a race of genius, but what scoundrels they are! Some of his statements seem to reiterate the motifs known from the period’s anti-Semitic press, e.g. the Jews’ alleged aim to gain universal domination (they’re a great people; they will conquer the world), or the vision of penetrating the masses of the Polish nation, corrupting their souls and turning Poland Jewish – the nightmare of anti-Semitists: We shall of necessity join with your common folk, we shall be the intelligentsia which today they don’t have… We shall teach them our philosophy, our politics, our economics, and they will certainly come out better with us than they have done with their leaders hitherto. Wokulski firmly resists Szuman’s ramblings and brings him back to Earth: You’d better think of honest equality with other people, not of conquering the world, and don’t try to cure other people’s faults before curing your own, which only make more enemies for you.
In 1887 (the year when Prus started writing The Doll), former Polish insurgents founded the Polish League in Geneva, Switzerland; six years later it was transformed into the National League by, among others, Roman Dmowski, whose faction broke off in 1897 to form National Democracy (Endecja). The ideology of this last movement was the overt culmination of anti-Semitic trends in the Polish nationalist circles. Prus’s novel thus appears to be an important record of the social atmosphere at the time when modern anti-Semitism was taking shape among Poles. In this context, Rzecki’s note on Wokulski’s former shop assistant, Lisiecki, sounds particularly ominous: Lisiecki has moved to Astrakhan on the Volga. On departing, he told me that soon only Jews would remain here, and the rest would turn Jewish.