More than average in height, a very shapely figure, copious blonde hair with an ash tint, a straight nose, a somewhat supercilious mouth, pearly teeth, ideal hands and feet. (34)
This is how Wokulski sees his idealised “Earthly angel,” the ethereal, blue-eyed Izabela Łęcka. Ignacy Rzecki admires the exceptionally beautiful Helena Stawska, a well-built, grey-eyed and brown-haired woman with an ample bosom, classical facial features and full red lips. Old Baron Dalski is enthralled by the delicate beauty of Ewelina Janocka, which he considers to be a reflection of her seemingly crystal-clear character. Men’s interest and desire is also kindled by Kazimiera Wąsowska with her deep black eyes, auburn hair and slim waistline, accentuated by tight-fitting dresses. Though a die-hard admirer of Izabela, Wokulski does not stay indifferent to the sensual appeal of Wąsowska: among all these pretty women, she was the prettiest and, still better, the most attractive… What a figure, what marvellous ankles and bosom and eyes, holding something of diamonds and velvet. Prus denied beauty only to Maria, a very young prostitute who stood out merely for her bleak pallor and telltale attributes of her occupation: rouged face, a tasteless velvet coat, and a gaudy hat.
All the various portraits of women in The Doll have one thing in common: they are all written with the focus on the effect that the subjects’ qualities have on men. Thus, female characters may seem ideal, attractive and intriguing, but there is no point looking for deeper thoughts in any of them. This is not what was expected of women at that time.
Completely different criteria are applied in the assessment of male beauty. Being handsome meant good deportment, which was seen as evidence of worthy parentage. This is what ladies speak of Wokulski: what features, what pride of bearing! Noble birth cannot be concealed, not even by rags. Helena Stawska, taken by his noble face and remarkable eyes, calls him a perfectly handsome man. Izabela Łęcka, for whom the paragon of male beauty was the Apollo Belvedere statue, usually thinks of Wokulski as an ugly man, with sharp facial features, a clunky figure and red hands. However, in Izabela’s rare moments of enthusiasm, Wokulski reminds her of a statue of a gladiator with his clear and decisive features, hair that seemed to stand angrily on end, a small moustache and beard, the figure of a statue, a clear and penetrating look.
The characterisation element that is far more important in The Doll than the stereotypical traits of beauty is body language. More out of conscious control than stylised looks and words, it reveals the characters’ true colours and emotions. As written by Józef Bachórz in his introduction to a recent edition of The Doll, Prus did not abandon the traditional strategy of briefly describing his characters’ appearance and behaviour, but he seems to have placed more emphasis on their gestures, facial expressions, quivering, blinking, lips opening in reverie, paleness giving in to a deepening blush – all this communicated more often than usual and based on specialist literature. Such physiological signs spoke louder than words about the characters’ pain, fear, anxiety, or joy.
- J. Bachórz, Introduction to B. Prus, Lalka, BN I 262, Wrocław 1991, 1998.