Agata Grabowska-Kuniczuk

Agata Grabowska-Kuniczuk

Several drunkards, or criminals, were dozing in the sun, there were two women street-sweepers and a loving couple, consisting of a leprous woman and a consumptive man without a nose. They looked like phantoms of diseases unearthed here, rather than human beings. (75)

The Doll is set in the Warsaw of the late positivist era, when the optimistic hopes of technological and scientific progress are already on the wane. Illusions of success are being dispelled, shattered by the realities such as atrocious living conditions of large groups of the population. The time sees a rise in civilisation diseases resulting from the lack of personal hygiene and poor diet or even starvation and destitution among the lower classes. Doctor Szuman believes that this is the root cause of their high mortality rate, their short lives and their debility.

The novel lists the diseases that are spreading among the inhabitants of the Powiśle district: consumption (tuberculosis) and syphilis (the infection is not named directly in the book, but the passage quoted at the beginning of this entry clearly points to its characteristic symptoms). Rzecki recalls camp fever afflicting soldiers during the 1848 Hungarian Revolution in which he took part together with many other Poles. Even more serious epidemics are mentioned as well, such as typhus that decimated Russian troops during the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War, and – closer to home – caused suffering to Jadwiga Misiewicz. When Varsovians learn about plague that has broken out in Wietlanka, it is like a bolt out of the blue: ‘The plague? Here in Warsaw? There now, Helena, didn’t I tell you? Ah, we’re all done for! During the plague everyone shuts themselves up indoors… They pass food to you on poles… They pull the dead bodies out on hooks!’

Rzecki himself often complains of ill health: ‘I’m so poorly […]. Apparently I have heart disease… But it’ll pass, it’ll pass.’ He actually gets worse after the disappearance of Wokulski, when his political illusions are finally dispelled and he has an argument with the new store owner. Wokulski suffers from constant mood swings, hallucinations and fear (He walked on and was afraid to look back […]; he seemed like a crushed worm dragging its entrails behind it). His obvious episodes of apathy (falling into a strange lethargy) are interwoven with euphoric highs. Just like Rzecki, who does not care whether he is running a fever or not, Wokulski makes light of his symptoms and does not believe that any treatment may be effective (he dismisses Doctor Szuman with let me alone).

Many other conditions and illnesses, from mild to severe, are also mentioned in the novel. They include: paralysis (which has affected the husband of Baroness von Ples for five years); yellow fever (an infectious viral disease transmitted by mosquitoes); lithiasis (Napoleon III is said to have been suffering from gallstones); parotitis (I look like an old monkey with the mumps, says Baron Krzeszowski); and tapeworm infection (cured with cascara). The representatives of aristocracy are haunted by migraines, idiosyncrasy, and a variety of nervous diseases. The nineteenth century introduced new characters who are subject to nervous breakdowns, irritability, and poor nerves. The latter are the weak point of, for example, Countess Karolowa (Here you have Countess Karolowa all over! Nerves, nerves…), Małgorzata Mincel, and – most loudly and frequently – the miserable Baroness Krzeszowska.

Eye conditions and disorders are quite common in The Doll. Bad eyesight afflicts Rzecki, who needs his eyeglasses to read the timetable for the day, and – in his half-lit room – squints and draws Wokulski to the window before he is able to recognise him. Baron Krzeszowski, whose left eyelid tends to twitch nervously, has to adjust his pince-nez all the time (the fact that it slips just before he shoots at Wokulski during the duel is the reason why he misses). In Paris, one of café customers stares insolently at Wokulski through his monocle. Old Henryk Szlangbaum often wears his eyeglasses on his forehead so that he can move them down over his tired eyes the moment he needs them. The old Duchess also puts on her spectacles to look closely at Wokulski during their talk in Zasławek.

When coming down with various conditions and diseases, affluent characters – such as Tomasz Łęcki and Baron Dalski – call physicians for consultations and travel to the countryside or abroad to water spas (in a passage cut out by Tsarist censors from the chapter entitled “First Warning,” added to today’s editions in an appendix, merchant Suzin suggests that Wokulski should consult a doctor and go to Karlsbad to regain his health). The wealthy also attend hypnotism sessions as patients of Professor Palmieri in Paris. In the novel, Prus mentions two real-life doctors of eminence, Ignacy Baranowski and Tytus Chałubiński, who allegedly advised Baron Dalski to take care of himself by getting married, which was supposed to considerably improve his general health. The old Baron obsessively tries to prevent catching a cold (for example, when travelling, he kept covering up his throat, checking that the window was tightly shut and continually changed his seat in the compartment for fear of draughts).

Poorer people tend to self-medicate with all sorts of home remedies. Mr Raczek marries Ignacy Rzecki’s aunt so that this pious lady can rub ointment into his back on a regular basis, and customers come to Mincel’s shop to buy liquorice for a penny. In fact, herbs and spices were then commonly used as treatment agents. Liquorice and castor oil were said to relieve mild gastric problems, whereas asafoetida (also known under a less appealing name of “devil’s dung”) calmed the nerves.

The Doll includes references to animal diseases as well. Rzecki’s dog, one-eyed Ir, seems to be constantly unwell, and horses appear equally diseased (Mr Miller, the director of a riding school, gets upset when accused of selling a horse with cholera; there is also mention of the weariness of horses pulling heavy carts along, and the sores where their horse-collars had drawn blood).

Sometimes it is too late for treatment, and the disease ends in death. Tomasz Łęcki dies of apoplexy after a long history of cardiovascular problems (I had a slight attack due to the heat and my vexation. […] The blood ran to my head… but it is better now). Persistent dejection finally takes its toll on Rzecki: he was seized on all sides by oblivion and darkness, or rather by a profound blackness, in which only that window gleamed, like a star of ever-diminishing brightness. Finally that last star went out, too. Still, it is comforting to know that Prus originally gave this last chapter a heartening title: “Non omnis moriar…” – “I shall not wholly die.”


  1. S. Orgelbranda Encyklopedyja powszechna, Warsaw 1859-1868.
  2. J. Bachórz, Introduction to B. Prus, Lalka, BN I 262, Wrocław 1991, 1998.
  3. J. Tomkowski, Mój pozytywizm, chapter 4, Wszyscy chorujemy na nerwy. Neurotyczni bohaterowie Prusa, Warsaw 1993.
  4. S. Milewski, Codzienność niegdysiejszej Warszawy, Warsaw 2010.