Jerzy Sosnowski: Links to “The Doll”

Mrs Meliton had him [her husband] taken off to the cemetery, and once she was sure he was well and truly buried, got herself a dog. (p. 176)[1]


In the writer’s jubilee year, expressing the highest praise for his masterpiece is part of the ritual. In this sense such praise is a truism, whose sell-by-date is limited. This is because treasures, presented to the public during celebrations, will – like with the change of an exhibition – be put away again the following year. What we should do, however, is unearth The Doll, bring it out from under layers of trite complements and boringly well-known interpretations. This does not mean, though, that they are all deprived of depth or are wrong, but because they do not explain the fascination I share with a certain number of readers. The Doll has been with me for many years. I continue to read it, to delve into it. For me it is a masterpiece that nobody can match; nothing like it has been written since, being also sometimes an inspiration for me and at the same time a world I sink into with unusual delight.

Having been invited to take part in this debate, I felt liberated from the commitments of a historian of literature and that it maybe is an opportunity for me to try to understand this fascination, openly accepting the role of a present-day reader and even to a certain extent that of a student or apprentice. That is why I decided to quite consciously commit the sin of presentism, i.e. to show some contemporary contexts, contemporary links which activate themselves when we read this novel (today, in 2012), not paying any attention to the fact that in reference to the hypothetical awareness of the author or, speaking more safely, to the probable horizon of the imaginings of the author, some of them are an obvious anachronism. In fact, I have the impression that with many things Prus was simply lucky, in other words, the nineteenth-century author did not have full control over many aspects of the story of Stanisław Wokulski, Izabela Łęcka, and Ignacy Rzecki.



Exactly a hundred years after The Doll was first published, at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, many of us were extremely taken with the series Twin Peaks, directed by David Lynch and Mark Frost. Among the many reasons for this fascination was the way the division between what was fictitious and what was real was redefined, or rather done away with altogether. Here I have in mind certain artifacts that appear during the second season of the series, such as the published Secret Diary of Laura Palmer (also available in Poland), the search of which was one of the motifs of the plot; cassettes that were supposed to have complete recordings for some Diane that had been prepared by Special Agent Dale Cooper; the Twin Peaks telephone directory, whose subscriber – for an additional fee – could supposedly include his name together with a (fictitious) telephone number; and finally, a guidebook of Twin Peaks, published in a well-known series (maybe Pascal’s?), from which it was possible to find out about the town’s history and geography, its best restaurants, accommodation, transport systems, and, of course, tourist routes, without mentioning that the town itself did not exist. The fiction of the series went far beyond its framework and the copy of reality took on further copies until the phantom being of Twin Peaks was actually enriching the image of the United States, the narrative of the US.

When out walking in Warsaw, we can come across something very similar. In the entrance to the yard next to the Bolesław Prus Bookshop there is a plaque telling us that Ignacy Rzecki lived there, while on the opposite side of the street, where the Harenda Hotel used to have its café, there is a similar plaque with the information that Stanisław Wokulski’s new flat was in the vicinity. Despite the passage of time,  new hypotheses continue to appear concerning the prototypes of The Doll’s characters. Although Prus is not the author of these facts, he is their perpetrator, because they continue the well-known strategy of extremely carefully weaving fiction with the reality of Warsaw of 1878–79. Thanks to information we can find throughout the text, it is possible to establish quite precisely the dates of different incidents (e.g. Wokulski’s return from Moscow on 27th November, 1878, “the very day that the house in Wspólna Steet collapsed” (p. 515), and also addresses (the tenement building where the Łęckis’ flat was, for example, which was situated within the relatively short distance somewhere between Plac Trzech Krzyży and Wilcza Street), as well as the routes taken by our heroes (Powiśle!). The Doll has provided our culture with simulacra and has turned out to be a simulacrum in itself.



Let us remain for a moment more with David Lynch. In his Wild at Heart, a film from 1990, there is a scene, analysed numerous times by film specialists, in which the main character Lula speaks about how she has been raped many years previously by “Uncle Pooch,” while we watch her recollections on the screen. “One thing is sure,” says Lula, “mother never found out about this,” but what we see is her mother running into the room where the teenager is crying and lecherous Pooch is dressing in a great hurry, and then is being hit by the mother with a handbag. The narration conducted by the presented image does not correspond with the narration of the words uttered, which leads the viewer into a cognitive impasse. Which version are we to believe? What is the status of the different information included in the work?

In The Doll, although it naturally does not make use of pictures, we have innumerable inconsistencies of this sort. What the different characters say about one another does not make up a logical whole either on the level of opinions or on the level of facts. Those who love the novel are well acquainted with the controversies concerning the circumstances of the death of Wokulski’s wife, and also with the ardour with which he practised his religion during his marriage, both becoming the subject of the author’s polemics with Aleksander Świętochowski. Less often, however, attention is paid, for example, to the fact that the version generally quite often accepted by readers (after that of Florentyna, Izabela’s companion) concerning Wokulski’s red hands being supposedly the result of having suffered frostbite in Siberia does not correspond with what Rzecki had written in his “Journal of the Old Clerk” about the unusual colour of his hands before he was sent to Siberia.

The traditional reader is provided with two ideas in order to dispel tension of this sort. One was introduced by Prus himself: we are to conduct a “verification of sources,” as in historical research, reconstructing the degree of credibility of the different informants. The second idea is the lucid statement that Prus did not pay due attention to at least a few details (letting, for example, Baron Krzeszowski’s servant Konstanty become Leon, or telling Wokulski to go to Berlin via Bydgoszcz, at the same time giving details of this journey, which were clearly taken from data provided by the Warsaw-Vienna railway system). However, for the viewer of Wild at Heart – and also of other films that have appeared since – The Doll actually tells us that we have contact with reality only through a story about it, while thinking about bringing different inspections of it to an objective common denominator of facts is pure fantasy. This is especially so as both the information we receive from the different characters is not fully reliable as well as the traditional world presented to us by the third-person narrator (just to recall here the numerous spiteful comments on Izabela that do not find confirmation in the opinions of people who know her well and also wish Wokulski well, such as Mrs Kazimiera Wąsowska or Julian Ochocki).



“One of the best Polish scores from the 1990s” was how Marcin Gmys described Paweł Mykietyn’s 15-minute composition “3 for 13.”[2] It consists of three parts, created for thirteen performers playing what can be presumed to be a Bach fugue, “presumed” in the sense that the mind of the listener, searching for order, only hears bits of this fugue unexpectedly pulverised onto many instruments responding to the prevailing silence, or rather from sounds played in a more and more compact manner, the listener reconstructs the outlines of a fugue, creates for him/herself its after-image, its acoustic phantom, although in fact it is never actually performed. “3 for 13” is a fugue which does not exist, a melody only suggested to the imagination of the recipient, a composition that has been taken to pieces.

If, however, we treat The Doll as a 19th-century realist novel, if we compare it to Nad Niemnem (On the Banks of the Niemen) by Eliza Orzeszkowa or to Émile Zola’s  Une page d’amour (A Love Episode), it seems to be the effect of a similar mechanism. We do this in an obvious way, reconciling the portraits and the characters’ fate, despite the previously described fact that the information we have received does not make up into one whole. A series of illusions and disillusions – Izabela is an affectionate women under the spell of social conventions or a stupid snob?  Does there exist progress, justice and Providence or do the vile people of this world win? Do we act according to our free will or are we like wound-up dolls? Stanisław went to Paris or did he kill himself in Zesław? – leads the reader into a state of mental oscillation (this mechanism was described forty years ago by Stanisław Eile[3]) which results in us having at least two interchangeable stories: one being an encouragement towards heroism, the other spreading decadent doubt.

We try to concentrate on one version, probably led more by our inner needs than by what we glean from the text, and we argue with others about Izabela, about Wokulski’s fate, about determinism, the Jewish issue, Professor Geist’s discovery, etc. In the spring of 2012, in the comments on my blog, a heated discussion broke out on the relations between the sexes, in which Wokulski and Łęcka were treated as if they were living human beings who were well known and understood, and whose future was quite explicit, although definitely not the same for the different commentators.



Miazga (The Pulp) is one of the infrequent, but always intriguing, and as yet last examples in the 20th century of a novelistic sub-genre that could be called a “sack novel.” This is a work around whose more or less lucid plot we can find just about everything: poems and fragments of plays, a writer’s diary and notes on the biographies of characters, independent essays and stories, notes from the press and excerpts from other literary works[4]. Historians of Polish literature perceive this form as having its origins in Karol Irzykowski’s Pałuba, Tadeusz Miciński’s Nietota, and Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz’s Nienasycenie (Insatiability). One may argue whether the much later novel Bieguni (Flights) by Olga Tokarczuk, called however by the author herself a “constellational novel,” is also not such an example.

Of course, in The Doll, we do not come across intrusive comments made by the author or of excerpts that are totally disconnected from the plot and the style of the whole work. However, there is one exception, that of the “Journal of the Old Clerk.” The first reviewers of The Doll already drew attention – and with disapproval – to its erratic status in the book, to its pages appearing and disappearing in a way that was anything but obvious, and to chapters written in the third person and divided aleatorically. Piotr Chmielowski, for example, wrote that “These excerpts are written in such a way that they could just as well be removed from one place and put into another.”[5] Let us add a few other peculiarities. First of all, Prus mixes up conventions, starting with science fiction that was just coming into being (in the fragments concerning Geist’s works), through images representing everyday life – also coming very close to reportage which was something very new then (the description of Powiśle has its counterpart in a reportage written by Prus himself in Szkice warszawskie [Warsaw Sketches][6] and ending with melodrama. He mixes styles in a nonchalant manner. If we were to read the humorous scenes with the students to somebody who had never read the novel before and then immediately afterwards Wokulski’s interior monologue in a train on the outskirts of Skierniewice, he could have difficulties in believing that they come from the same work. The author draws the portraits of some characters in such detail that the 20th-century psychological novel could easily refer to it. Others are reduced to caricatures, additionally being accorded names, such as panna Upadalska [Mrs de Gins Upadalska] or pan Szastalski [Mr Szastalski][7] that clearly refer to telling names traditionally used in 18th-century comedies.

Let us also recall the complaints of Antoni Lange: “It so happened that I first read Vol. II and III, and only later Vol. I, whose content I had been told in a few words: ‘you haven’t missed anything.’ The second time I read the book, I did so in the following order: Vol. I, III, II, and again I did not feel anything was amiss. The third time, I read the work in its correct order, i.e. Vol. I, II, III, and I saw I could read The Doll in any chosen order … the sum total does not make up the whole, just like human organs taken separately, even when sewn and put together, do not make up a whole human being.” Surprisingly similar words, although stronger, were uttered twenty years later on the subject of one of the first “sack novels” in Polish literature, i.e. Miciński’s Nietota: “An original book! You can read it as you like: from the beginning, from the end, from the middle, from top downwards, or the other way round, from left to right or from right to left … . The result will always be the same: you won’t understand anything.”[8]

This does not look like a coincidence. “Sack novels” are usually accused of being badly composed as their reviewers are too lazy to try and find any hidden order in them. The Doll, liberated from the corset of “well-built novels,” proclaimed the way which would be taken by the avant-garde writers of the following century.



Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth is the picture of an American artist from the 1940s, which reminds us of the work of Edward Hopper.[9] Our first impression is that we are looking at a cheerful, realistic painting: on a slope we see the back of a young girl who is about to rise from the ground while leaning on her hands. She is looking at a house in the distance that is bathed in sunlight. However, the closer we look at the picture, the more anxious we become. The girl’s arms are unusually thin and when we look even more closely, they appear to be strangely wrinkled. Her figure, suggesting a teenager lying lazily on the grass, gradually takes on the features of an old, handicapped woman who is trying desperately, but at the same time unsuccessfully, to get up. But maybe it is a doll, having just been brought to life by the questions: “Dost wish something entirely new? Dost wish an existence which in one moment can experience more than all stones through millions of ages” (p. 640),  trying, still rather clumsily, to see what its body is capable of. Looking at what seems to be a realistic show, we suddenly realise that we do not really know what we are looking at. And with this cognitive anxiety, the picture opens up towards metaphysics.

When analysed as a detailed, realistic image of the social and economic life of the 1870s, many convincing observations concerning The Doll have been made, although there are no Russian sign boards, nor any Namiestkowski Palace in Krakowskie Przedmieście Street, or practically any prostitutes in Warsaw’s Old Town, etc. At the same time, however, after Prus’s death, there appeared an obituary entitled – not without reason – “A Mystic of Realism,”[10] written by the above-mentioned Tadeusz Miciński. The Doll appears to be a novel open to existential and metaphysical matters. At the moment when the world is as we see it – it being impossible to verify our stories – among different narratives, there appears something undefined, unnamed and impossible to name (maybe a gnostic parable as Olga Tokarczuk wanted[11]). I admit that I feel less and less enthusiasm for parable novels that shorten the road to metaphysics through omitting our sensual and intersubjective experience. Meanwhile, The Doll seems to be totally immersed in such an experience. Not being sure what we have actually read, what is actually happening to the characters and who they actually are, we are, however, granted a certain metaphysical uncertainty.



The Evolution of Desire by David M. Buss is one of the fundamental works that, on the basis of evolutionary psychology, addresses melodramatic myths. Set in the tradition of sociobiology, and indirectly of 19th-century Darwinism, more on the relations between the sexes is unfortunately explained than the reader brought up on the romantic vision of love would like.[12]

The Doll is full of  illustrations of Buss’s theories. The interests of the sexes that go beyond the individual are to a large extent divergent. Women manipulate men so as to secure appropriate material conditions for themselves and their offspring, masking this with romantic declamations; men let themselves be manipulated, seeing their desire as an expression of ideal feeling, not perceiving the strategies of their partners. In the manuscript of The Doll, in a paragraph which was unfortunately discarded, Prus wrote that it seemed to Wokulski when he was standing on a hill in the Botanical Gardens that he could see “Miss Izabela in the arms of Starski. They were no larger than a couple of cats.”[13] But even without this sentence, the only question we can ask Prus concerning this matter is not: “Aren’t illusions of love true however?” but “haven’t these, of course false illusions, some function (maybe close to what Schopenhauer wrote in his The World as Will and Representation, clearly patronizing, for example, an end to the walk in Powiśle). Even Mrs Stawska will sensibly get married to Mr Mraczewski.



The poem “Tygrysia piosenka” (A Tiger Song), published in Marcin Świetlicki’s debut collection, ends with the bitter words: “Mercy / belongs to us.”[14] Earlier there are three stanzas in which we have descriptions of three types of exprience: the bitterness of a person humiliated in the army by a “certain corporal,” the bitterness of a man betrayed by his “former great love,” and the bitterness of an employee cheated by his employer. When I think of the feelings I still have, despite the passing of time, for The Doll, I find – with some embarrassment – that I primarily feel grateful for it expressing the bitterness of existence. The description of a negative feeling neutralises it, allows us to overcome the feeling of loneliness and to distance ourselves from the dark thread which continues to be woven in our life. The Doll brings catharsis, because when we also enter into surprising contact with contemporary cultural experience, it expresses what is painful in our existence: the experience, which goes beyond culture, of unfulfilled hopes, the hopelessness of our efforts, of betrayal and… of contrariness. Yes, of contrariness, because the wish to blow up the stone, over which Miss Łęcka is idealising her memories of her strange fiancé, of escaping from the reality of “yawning ladies seeking charity” and “weeping and praying monsters” (cf. p. 123) to a world in which there is no bitterness, in which it would be possible to find some sense is contrarious.

Because Stach, of course, did not kill himself in Zesław. His, our, experience was given a name, so it exists, we exist.

Trans. Aniela Korzeniowska


  1. This and all further quotations are taken from Bolesław Prus, The Doll, trans. David Welsh, New York: New York Review Books, 2011 [translator’s note].
  2. The quotation comes from the booklet accompanying the CD – Paweł Mykietyn. Speechless Song. Polskie Wydawnictwo Audiowizualne 2008, but it faithfully reflects the general – and in my opinion well-deserved – enthusiasm for this work.
  3. Stanisław Eile, „Dialektyka ‘Lalki’ Prusa, Pamiętnik Literacki, no. 1, 1973.
  4. An attempt to classify this sub-genre can be found in: Włodzimierz Bolecki, Poetycki model prozy w dwudziestoleciu międzywojennym [A Poetic Prose Model in the Interwar Period], Wrocław: Ossolineum, 1982.
  5. After Józef Bachórz, Introduction to Bolesław Prus, Lalka, p. xxix. This introduction, just like the footnotes, will give delight to every enthusiast of this novel.
  6. Information from the footnote on p. 172 in the Polish edition of The Doll that was used for the purpose of this essay.
  7. David Welsh, the English translator of The Doll, did not create equivalent telling names [translator’s note].
  8. I am quoting here from Lange’s review (from 1890) after the above-mentioned Introduction by Bachórz (p. xxx). The anonymous review of Nietota (maybe written by Teodor Jeske-Choiński) was published in the journal Kronika Powszechna, no. 1, 1910.
  9. On the links between Wyeth and Hopper, see Rolf G. Renner, Edward Hopper (1882-1967): Transformation of the Real, New York, Taschen, 1999.
  10. Tygodnik Ilustrowany, no. 22, 1912.
  11. Cf. Olga Tokarczuk, Lalka i perła, Kraków, Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2001.
  12. David M. Buss, The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating, New York: Basic Books 1994. I wrote more on this subject in the essay entitled „Pobojowisko (nie ma animy, amen)” [A shambles (there‘s no anima, amen)] included in the book: Jerzy Sosnowski, Ach [Ah], Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie 2005.
  13. Trans. A. K.
  14. Marcin Świetlicki, Zimne kraje [Cold Countries], Kraków 1992, p. 52.