Józef Bachórz

Józef Bachórz

In The Doll, there is not even one family that can be decribed as an essential constituent of the national community, effective in ensuring its continuity through the storms of time. According to the ideals represented in Polish Romantic literature, such a family would be a microcosm of the homeland – just like the archetypal Lithuania from the epilogue to Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz, that land where a servant is more devoted to his master than in other countries a wife to her husband (trans. George Rapall Noyes); or from the poet’s The Books and the Pilgrimage of the Polish Nation, where Lithuania is said to unite with Poland like a betrothed bride with a bridegroom, two souls in one body, and their men of war [called] each other Brothers (trans. Krystyn Lach-Szyrma). True, Pan Tadeusz does not seem to depict a happy and complete family either, but Soplicowo residents truly look out for each other, and the work’s protagonists Zosia and Tadeusz make a well-grounded marital match.

The family was apotheosised in many Polish novels written between the uprisings against foreign occupiers. Its paragon can be found depicted as the respectable Strzyckis of Józef Korzeniowski’s Kollokacja (Collocation, 1847), Józef Ignacy Kraszewski’s Boża czeladka (Godly Family, 1857) and many other literary works that describe gentry households as the mainstay of Polish culture and moral values, passed on from one generation to the next. This is the tradition drawn upon in Prus’s lifetime by, among others, Maria Rodziewiczówna and Henryk Sienkiewicz (notably at the end of his historical novels and in his Children of the Soil, published in 1894).

However, even towards the end of the Romantic era, there were signs that the concept of these “Polish gentry’s nests” had eroded. Sons rebelled against their fathers yet again, and a distrust of domestic myth-making took hold. The youth’s defiance of authorities can be found in books read at an impressionable age by Prus and his contemporaries, e.g. Edmund Chojecki’s Alkhadar (1854) and Walery Łoziński’s Zaklęty dwór (Enchanted Manor, 1859). The rebellious attitude was then continued by Young Poland detractors of the gentry ethos such as Stanisław Brzozowski and Stefan Żeromski, who were already familiar with The Doll.

It does not seem coincidental that the novel’s protagonist never thinks back to his childhood home; his disturbed father provided him with no support and needed to be cared for himself. Duchess Zasławska had her youth poisoned by her high-handed family, depriving her of a chance to find true happiness. Izabela Łęcka receives no intellectual dowry to speak of, and the financial one dwindled through years of careless spending. The prematurely deceased daughter of the forever indebted Baron Krzeszowski and his hysterical wife would have faced a rather miserable life, as do the numerous noisy children of the Łęcki’s house manager Wirski, a déclassé gentleman.

In fact, all families in the novel are in a way flawed, maladjusted or dysfunctional, even the ones who seem to have taken care of instilling some moral values in their children. This point can be illustrated with the examples of Ignacy Rzecki’s old Warsaw commoner family (his father, a former soldier, taught him to read, write, gum envelopes and do military drill, but also inculcated in him a virtually fanatic faith in the Bonaparte dynasty) and the marriage of Helena Stawska (whose husband fled abroad after being falsely accused of murder). The Jewish family of Henryk Szlangbaum is also not without its problems, as he tries to assimilate completely in the Polish society. Another Jew, Michał Szuman, chooses to be lonely already in his youth, right after his failed suicide attempt (provoked by the death of his Christian fiancée whose family made her life unbearable to prevent their marriage).

The Doll can be easily discussed as a novel about the crisis of the family, about sons and daughters raised without mothers (not a word is written about mothers of Wokulski, Rzecki and Izabela), about widows and widowers, spinsters and confirmed bachelors, divorcées and divorcés. It also shows that such broken families fail to provide their members with conditions for necessary rest, well-being and self-fulfillment. Neither are they founts of morality or bulwarks of the social and cultural order. The message in The Doll is the direct opposite of a commonly held belief that the state of the society depends on the state of its constituent families. Prus appears to be saying that it is precisely the other way round: family life is conditioned by the society’s state, organisation, material resources, culture and education, in brief: its potential for development. It is true that positive or negative vibes may drift from people’s homes into the society at large, but much more significance should be ascribed to the cadence of the outside world that penetrates the hearth and home. If disturbed with class prejudice, anti-Semitism, envy and jealousy, the family pattern may disintegrate, causing dangerous pathologies.

The novel contains but a few direct examples of proper family relationships. They are usually found among commoners (the Wysocki brothers) and mothers (Jadwiga Misiewicz, Helena Stawska, carpenter Węgiełek’s mother). The potential to build a better, more meaningful relationship is seen to lie not in traditional stereotypes, but in social and professional life, the affinity of views, and a sense of shared responsibility. Rzecki and Wokulski are bonded by friendship much stronger than family ties. Doctor Szuman and Wokulski are close to each other since they suffer a similar degree of discrimination. Julian Ochocki and Wokulski share a passion for science; Mr Klein and students share ideological beliefs. Jews are brought together because they feel threatened and have material interests in common; Polish nobility – because they want to keep their “caste system” in place. Still, all these relations somehow do not add up to a healthy, well-functioning social “organism.” In 1890, Prus pointed out that the main aim of The Doll was to present our Polish idealists against the background of society’s decay (trans. S. Barańczak). He continued: This disintegration is caused by the fact that the good go to waste or leave while the bad are doing well, and the illustration of this deplorable turn of events is the fact that outstanding individuals stumble across thousands of obstacles (Wokulski), honest people lack vital energy (Prince), the man of action is surrounded by common distrust and suspicion, etc. The most destructive element of the Polish communal life is a strict, and restrictive, social stratification which makes people waste their time and effort on tactical tricks, false alliances and underhand actions. This tense atmosphere is particularly favourable to the spread of prejudice, gossip, suspicions and lies. It is not the family that can remedy these ills, but those who stand at the helm of the nation, i.e. the noble elite. The problem is that the elite does not show any sign of improvement itself.

→ Marriage; → Suicide; → Jews;


  1. B. Prus, Słówko o krytyce pozytywnej, in T. Sobieraj, Prus versus Świętochowski. W sporze o naukowość, krytykę pozytywną i Lalkę, Poznań 2008.