Jarosław Ławski

Jarosław Ławski

‘Puppets! … All puppets! They think they are doing as they choose, but they only do what the springs command, blind as they are!’

When the jockey fell over on the dancing couples, Mr Ignacy mourned. ‘No one can help others be happy,’ he thought, ‘but they can ruin other lives just as well as people.’ (672)


The Doll is an ironic novel. Ironic – in a special sense. It could be said that irony holds together all the levels of the represented world, from the narrator through characters to the depiction of nature. The novel’s irony is highly original, specific for Prus.

The author’s contemporaries saw Prus as an ironist that was sometimes “fierce” and sometimes “gentle.” The reviewer of The Doll, Kazimierz Ehrenberg, commented on the maxim that appears at the end of the novel, Horace’s non omnis moriar ( I shall not wholly die), with an indignant Is it irony?; the message of the book struck him as pessimistic and reverberating with Romantic echoes. Ehrenberg was right to bring the irony of The Doll into focus, but he definitely did not hit the nail on the head with his remark that Wokulski is modelled on the figure of the Romantic hero and therefore doomed to failure. So, what is special about this non-Romantic irony of The Doll?

The represented world meets all the conditions that allow for the Romantic irony to occur. It has self-aware, intelligent characters who skilfully use their rich vocabulary for ironic word-play. Only a truly mature culture could fashion Prus the author, his narrator and characters such as Wokulski, Rzecki, and Doctor Szuman.

The Polish people boasted a mature culture capable of ironic touches already in the first half of the nineteenth century. That was the time of the so-called Romantic irony, characterised by dynamism, the urge to turn everything upside down and to bring down the world of evil and falsehood. Still, the destruction was to occur only to make space for the new and the better in the universe, culture and the spiritual man. Rhetorical irony was employed to fight the occupiers with verbal fencing and polemic arguments.

However, the irony in The Doll, including the ironic remarks of the narrator, is of a different nature. It appears at diverse levels of the represented world. There are characters who are ironic all the time, as well as ironic personas (e.g. Doctor Szuman). Situations may also be full of irony, as in Prus’s descriptions of love adventures on the part of “Ladies and Women.” Superb ironic tones enliven the characters’ dialogue e.g. in the final scene, where Julian Ochocki reveals the intentions of Izabela Łęcka to Doctor Szuman: ‘Just think of it,’ he concluded, ‘she is going into a convent.’ ‘Izabela?’ Szuman inquired. ‘Come, does she intend to flirt with the Almighty Himself, or merely to relax after all this excitement, so as to get married with a firmer step?’

Prus the ironist often uses free indirect speech, and his characters tend to pronounce words of wisdom laced with gentle irony. At the beginning of the novel, while playing with mechanical toys in Wokulski’s shop, Rzecki reflects on the human condition: It’s vanity, all vanity!

The image of a wind-up toy as a metaphor for Everyman with his mistaken belief in the power of free will, reason and heart, is an echo of Romanticism. No other anthropological figure exposes the human delusions of individual and collective freedom. It could even be claimed that the novel’s protagonist, a self-made man in so many respects (finances, social position, authority), undergoes a particularly harsh trial of disillusionment. This ordeal transports Wokulski into the sphere of tragic irony.

The Doll also features a certain type a creational irony: the subversive use of an intertext. When Prus has aristocrats quote from The Bible to support their trite declarations of charity, he puts the lines in quotation marks. When the quotations are used by characters that represent the Biblical simple man, they are not marked as such. In general, any ideals, projects, efforts and obsessions (e.g., Rzecki’s Napoleonic enthusiasm) are held up to ironic scrutiny.

The author’s irony often borders on satire, sometimes turning into cynical sarcasm (represented in the novel by Doctor Szuman). The portrayal of Zasławek is commonly interpreted by critics as idyllic and utopian, but it may as well be read as satirical or even grotesque. Prus often comes close to referring back to eigtheenth-century satire tradition, or its aesthetic forerunner (grotesque).

Mostly, however, the outlook on life presented by Prus is characterised by ironic distance combined with a certain tenderness, derived from the tradition of eigtheenth-century sentimentalism popularised by Laurence Sterne. This is the fond perspective of a man both officious and ironic, but not meaning to do any harm to anyone. People – these poor creatures who destroy one another in their helplessness – are looked upon with empathy and distance. The irony of Prus and The Doll’s narrator is a decisive affirmation of the inescapably ironic nature of life and the world, full as they are of illusions and contradictions. It is different from the Romantic irony by the quality of jadedness, symptomatic for the times of degeneration and decadence; hence the incongruity with Romantic irony, combined as it was with egotistical melancholy. Still, the narrator’s eye discerns not only the sadness stemming from the fact that it is what it is, and it it cannot be otherwise, but also reaches to the higher level of awareness: the awareness of the author that the world is worth observing and describing, despite all its shortcomings. It is interesting and valuable. If depicted in the form of a novelistic masterpiece, the disintegrating world may be read as a subtle, disguised way (and an ironist always take disguises) of praising the world and the man with art and language that are mature enough to allow for such tender, lofty, ironic writing.

In The Doll, irony is not used as an expression of hopelessness, it does not signal any apocalyptic premonition. To the contrary: it denotes that, as long as we live and can be ironic about our existence, the world is not lost. Through all the mistakes, triumphs and defeats, the world changes – just like the novel’s Wokulski. The world and life itself are open-ended, Prus the ironist says. This could be the meaning of the last-page non omnis moriar; this is the summation of the author’s ironical knowledge rephrased in a subtle and wise manner by Rzecki and his famous a mere nothing. The world is a mere nothing, and still, it is worth observing and describing with the repetition of a mere nothing. This is the original formula for Prus’s narrative and existential realism, laced with heavy, though sympathetic irony. A mere nothing! – and yet so much! Because, in The Doll, even the thought of death and death itself is submitted by Prus to subversive irony, turning them inside out and thus weakening their effect, just as it is reflected in Wokulski’s internal monologue:

For what, after all, is the horror of death? An illusion! To die means not to be anywhere, not to feel anything, and not to think of anything. How very many places I am not in, today; not in America, Paris, the moon, I’m not even in my store, and nothing troubles me. And how many things have I not thought of, and am not thinking of? […] So what can be disagreeable in the fact that not being in millions of places, but in one particular place, and not thinking millions of things, only one particular thing – that I should stop being in this one place and thinking of one thing? […] [A]ll this life, full of agitation and torment, is but a capital folly.

→ Humour; → Fin de siècle;


  1. J. A. Malik, Lalka. Historie z różnych światów, Lublin 2005.
  2. J. A. Malik, Świat Lalki: 15 studiów, ed. J. A. Malik, Lublin 2005.