Agnieszka Bąbel

Agnieszka Bąbel

While reading The Doll, we encounter the motif of food over and over again. It can serve both as part of the realistic depiction of the characters’ daily life or as part of their own characterisation, conveying the author’s opinion on them. There are many eating-related realities of the nineteenth century that can be found reflected in the novel: the elite’s cosmopolitan cuisine, open to foreign influences; meals eaten out of home by working people; differences in eating preferences and table manners which highlight social barriers.

The Doll presents the eating habits of mostly merchants, petty bourgeoisie, and aristocracy. The very first pages of the novel show middle class representatives dining in a restaurant; they talk about J. Mincel and S. Wokulski’s company as seen through a bottle over Beef Nelson and beer. Then, on his return from Bulgaria, Wokulski is treated by Ignacy Rzecki to a home supper of ham, caviar, bread, and wine. Shop assistants working for Wokulski adjust their meal times to the fluctuating workload throughout the day (Towards one o’clock that afternoon, Rzecki […] disappeared into his room to eat dinner brought in from a restaurant; other clerks take lunch in shifts, and the manager is served his meal on-site). In his journal, Rzecki makes a note of a characteristic change that has taken place in his lifetime. When he was working for the old Mincel in his youth, both the shop owner’s family and clerks ate together in the shop, and meals were prepared by Mincel’s old mother; for example, she served three rolls and coffee in a white faience mug to everyone for breakfast. Holiday dinners brought everyone to one table in Mincel’s apartment, situated right over the shop. Several dozen years later, it goes without saying that every clerk needs to arrange for his meals individually, whether they are fetched for him from the restaurant (as in the case of Rzecki) or eaten out in the city’s many cook-shops, inns, and bars.

Significantly more details can be found about the menu of the Łęcki family, representatives of the impoverished gentry. Tomasz Łęcki and Izabela are shown at a regular dinner (their old servant Mikołaj serves soup followed by roast pork and chicken) and as the hosts of the dinner held to honour Wokulski (consommé, port-wein, sirloin and beer, pike – eaten by the guest with knife and fork as an intentional faux-pas! – followed by ice cream and rounded off with coffee served in the master’s study). The elitism, cosmopolitism and indifference to mundane realities in the Łęckis’ social circle can be illustrated e.g. with the menu and conditions that Izabela takes for granted. She drank from crystal, ate from silver and porcelain as costly as gold […] the same food – soups from Pacific seaweed, oysters from the North Sea, fish from the Atlantic or Mediterranean, animals from every country, fruits from all parts of the globe. Sometimes, a stranger happens to stray into this “enchanted world”: He might be a traveller who was said to have discovered a new part of the globe, had been shipwrecked on a desert island and even tasted human flesh. […] In the evenings, they amused themselves before, at and after dinner […] middle-aged ladies fought one another with hints and glances for the sake of the traveller who had eaten human flesh. Then they sat down to supper, at which mouths ate, stomachs digested and little shoes under the table talked about the feelings of frozen hearts and the dreams of unfeeling heads. It does not seem coincidental that joining this world of sybarites and hedonist consumers is the ultimate goal for Wokulski, who started his career in the food and drink trade as a waiter in Hopfer’s restaurant.

In the nineteenth century, receiving an invitation to partake of a meal was mostly interpreted as being accepted in the host’s social circle. Prus clearly highlights this special function of meals, starting with the tea held by Helena Stawska and her mother for Rzecki and Wokulski, through the invited dinner at the Łęckis’, to noble receptions and the celebration of having Wokulski’s new shop blessed by a priest – which, much to Rzecki’s dismay, is no longer a traditional ritual of prayer and sprinkling holy water followed by a simple treat of a glass of vodka, sausages and beer, but an impressive, costly dinner held for several hundred guests in the great hall of the Europejski Hotel. It is not without reason, then, that the crowd’s cheers for Wokulski (which bring tears to Rzecki’s eyes) are dismissed by their object himself with a brief disillusioned comment: They love the champagne.

Moreover, the culinary choices made by the novel’s characters add to their direct presentation, often drawing on some rather obvious or even stereotypical motifs (e.g. Henryk Szlangbaum is taunted by fellow shop assistants with remarks on the alleged garlic smell, a crude allusion to his Jewish descent). The food that the characters eat or the way they talk about it is often indicative of the author’s own attitude to them. And so, while flirting with Izabela, Kazimierz Starski tells her: a woman like you isn’t going to be satisfied with the daily bread of respect, or the cake of adoration… You need champagne, someone must bewilder you with cynicism…, to which Wokulski retorts in the same vein: you have none of the qualities of champagne…Your attributes are closer to those of overripe cheese which stimulates poor digestions which a plain flavour might cause to vomit. The most striking scene takes place in Izabela’s drawing room, when her guest describes the most elegant receptions during Lent (Christian fasting time). During one of them, after a rich feast (The supper, of course, is the usual thing – oysters, lobster, fish, meat), the dessert consists of poor people’s staple diet: buckwheat, served in the ordinary way, in silver bowls.

The scene is particularly telling when juxtaposed against the worry expressed by the jobless Wysocki to Wokulski during Lent: after the holiday there won’t even be a way to explain to the children why they’re not eating. The satiated and the starving in The Doll exist side by side, but there is an insurmountable abyss between them.

→ Europejski Hotel; → Alcohol; → Restaurants and Cafés;


  1. E. Ihnatowicz, Literacki świat rzeczy. O realiach w pozytywistycznej powieści obyczajowej, Warsaw 1995.
  2. D. Kałwa, Polska doby rozbiorów i międzywojenna, in Obyczaje w Polsce. Od średniowiecza do czasów współczesnych, ed. A. Chwalba, Warsaw 2006.