Magdalena Tulli Women, Jews, and an Unhappy Country
Magdalena Tulli

It appears that The Doll has survived the passage of time quite well. If not fully, it is not because of how it was written – taking into consideration when it came into being, its structure is quite modern – but because in the meantime something has happened to the world. It has experienced two wars, the like of which neither Prus’s characters nor his readers would even have been able to imagine. Moreover, he took in ideas that were concerned with psychoanalysis and existentialism. In other words, if during the times of The Doll, he was somewhat contrary, he later became contrary to the extreme, to such an extent that his old-fashioned contrariness seems to us today to be simple and naïve. Here I will be concerned with what we can learn from The Doll that would be of interest to us today.

But first, on what we cannot learn. For example, we cannot learn that the Russian Tsar is the highest authority in the country in which the plot is set. We have to use knowledge gained elsewhere to understand why Stanisław Wokulski, despite his abilities, did not complete his studies, why he has frostbitten hands –  which in the eyes of Izabela Łęcka is something unpleasantly common – and why he did not have any papers proving he was a member of the gentry, and had to pay for them. Also why Ignacy Rzecki has such an obsession on the subject of Napoleon and his offspring, and why in the past he joined the Hungarian infantry. A foreigner would not guess why all these people are unhappy, why they are so anxious and irritated. Prus does not explain this. He did not write The Doll for foreigners, and they repaid him for that by not reading it. From the novel it is difficult to find out anything about the author’s own opinions. The characters talk a lot about politics and the economy, and reveal their attitude towards women and the Jews. The author, presenting us with a whole range of attitudes, does not betray which ones he shares, although sometimes his ironic tone may point to those he does not share. The only comments that come from the author himself are a few that are discretely immersed in the text and concern the emptiness of life.

The plot takes place in 1879. For us to better imagine what this means, it is worth recalling that it will still be forty years before Poland regains independence. Most of the characters will not live to expreience this success. Nearly twenty years have passed since the January Uprising took place, not quite ten years since the French-Prussian War, whereas from the times of Pan Tadeusz, i.e. since that “year of years,”[1] it is nearly seventy years. Thus the events take place in the deepest darkness of never-ending bondage, in times when nobody remembers what it is like to be in a free country and noone even dreams of such freedom.

In the novel, the word “country” appears many times, while the characters often talk about what is good or not good for the “country.” This “country,” in the emotional sense, is Poland, whereas in the administrative sense, it is a “country on the Vistula,” and Warsaw is a provincial, garrison town on the western edge of the empire. It is an unhappy country, but also the only one our characters have. Everywhere else they will feel out of place. Although feeling attached to one’s country is not a Polish specialty – this is also experienced by the English, French, the Germans, and everybody else – the novel’s characters feel that their country is something totally indispensable to them. Sometimes I cried out in my sleep like a child: ‘I want to go home …,’[2] writes the old clerk in his journal. Wokulski, when asked about this by Rzecki, speaks about nostalgia which eats into him when he is travelling abroad: ‘For what?’ … ‘Well, for everything … for home… .’

Besides attachment, the inhabitants of this country have certain duties towards their homeland; one can even say that it is these very duties that mark the degree of this attachment. They are anything but clearly defined as they, in actual fact, boil down to announcing certain opinions and presenting certain attitudes. The uprisings were a failure, everything has been lost, so it seems that any activity has no sense whatsoever. What remains are only emotions.

Mr Łęcki was the one aristocrat who was carrying out his duties towards his country, and doing so in a conscientious manner. [Which means that he played cards from nine to twelve in the Merchants’ Club, so, for patriotic reasons, he fraternized with the lower classes]. Countess Krzeszowska was looking at dressing-cases in Wokulski’s shop: ‘Tell me young man,’ said the lady to Klein, raising her voice, ‘are you not ashamed to stock such expensive trifles when our country is ruined?’

The duty of the inhabitants of this country is to fall into despair. The prince, who expresses the views of his social class, says, ‘I’m not concerned with factory owners, but with our country, our unhappy country…’ And somewhere else, also in reference to the prince: … to hold committee meetings, to encourage trade and to grieve, grieve continually over his unhappy country is, in his opinion, a citizen’s duty towards his country. ‘Have you reflected on this problem as a citizen?’ the Prince asked, pressing his [Wokulski’s] arm. ‘As things are, we have so little to lose… .’

 In another place in the novel, in order to avoid bringing shame upon himself, he frequented and even invited to his house various committees, spent twenty or even a hundred roubles on various charitable public causes and above all continually grieved over the unhappy position of his country, ending all his speeches with the phrase: ‘Gentlemen, let us first of all consider how to elevate our unhappy country…’ The phrase “our unhappy country” appears umpteen times throughout the novel. However, an “unhappy country” in reference to Poland appears to be a completely foreign concept to a French one-horse carriage driver: ‘A fine country, a rich country… Gee up, Lisette … !’

So the country is unhappy, but the nation is also helpless, listless, lacking in energy and will. Maybe its inhabitants are in need of something: ‘Only the Germans and the Jews get rich from Army trade; we Poles haven’t the brains for it’, says Mr Deklewski, who meets up with Rzecki for a beer. To revert to the subject we were discussing when we were interrupted. Do you think it would be a good thing to establish a Polish factory of cheap linen?…[asked the Prince]. Wokulski shook his head: ‘I doubt if it would succeed,’ he replied. ‘It is difficult to conceive of large factories for people unable to make small improvements in those already in existence …’

And God knows what such a man mightn’t do for his country if only the ladder were not moved away at every step he takes, and if he did not have to waste time and energy uprooting himself every time. – Rzecki noted down.

From The Doll it is also possible to find out how Prus’s contemporaries understood patriotism. Rzecki recalls an episodic character described as a “respectable merchant”:  For although I am a lieutenant of the Hungarian infantry, I couldn’t comprehend in what way German calico is better than Muscovite calico. But there was no talking to my merchant. The brute raised his eyebrows, shrugged and waved his hands about so that in the end I thought he must be a fine patriot, and I a dummy, although when he was filling his pockets with roubles and imperials, hundreds of bullets were flying past my head.

Wokulski opens letters in which he finds offensive insinuations. One called him a traitor, another a flunkey who had acquired so much skill in servility at Hopfer’s that today he voluntarily put on livery. And somewhere else something even more familiar, that we always have to suspect somebody of betraying his country or of thievery!

This “unhappy country,” together with its own ways, has its toxic characteristics. Languidness and helplessness also finally hit Wokulski, whose great store of energy evaporates. Then it occurred to him to ask what he had squandered his powers and his life on? ‘On struggling with an environment into which I didn’t fit. When I wanted to study, I could not, because in my country scholars aren’t needed—only peasants and store clerks. When I wanted to serve society by sacrificing my own life if need be, fantastic dreams were put forward instead of a practical programme and then—were forgotten. When I sought work, I was not given any, but shown an easy way to marry an old woman for her money. When I finally fell in love, and wanted to become the legal father of a family, the pastor of a domestic circle, the holiness of which everyone acclaimed, then I was placed in a situation from which there was no way out. So much so, that I don’t know whether the woman I was crazy about was an ordinary flirt whose head had been turned, or perhaps a lost soul like myself, who had not found her proper way. Judging by her behaviour, she is an eligible young lady looking for the best possible husband: when one looks into her eyes, she is an angelic spirit, whose wings have been clipped by human conventions.’

Here we get to the second issue, to that concerning women. We can talk about women in the category of expectations or in a manner of stating facts, and they will be stories not having anything at all in common. The first is about angels, the second about cheats. Let’s start with the expectations.

He also noticed that Mrs Stawska was never concerned about herself. When she finished in the store, she would think about Helena, or help her mother, or worry about the servant’s problems and those of many other people, mostly poor and unable to show their gratitude by anything. And when these were lacking, she would peep into the canary’s cage, to change its water or sprinkle grain. ‘The heart of an angel!’ thought Wokulski. Somewhere else he states that Mrs Stawska is a “perfect lady.” In general, women are nobler than men: not only do they commit fewer sins, but they sacrifice themselves far more often than we do.

And this is what the Prince says, My dear cousin, you have an unusual bird in hand. Hold him, pet him, so he will grow up to be of use to our unhappy country…

So, ‘[d]on’t you think there is benefit to society in the cultivation of refined feelings and elegant manners?’ asks Izabela. And Wokulski answers:

Of course, but that role in society is played by women. Nature gave them more sensitive hearts, more lively imaginations, more subtle minds — it is they … who preserve elegance, kindliness in manners in everyday life, and can arouse the most elevated feelings in us. Woman is the lamp whose light gilds the road of civilisation.

Now it is time for some confrontation with reality: Dr Szuman to Wokulski: They urge you to seek ideals, be an ideal ascetic yourself and not only obey but even create some artificial condition or other. What’s the result? A man, usually less trained in these matters, becomes the prey of a woman who is trained for nothing but that purpose. So women really rule civilisation!’

And Szuman somewhere else: ‘if a man is spiritually a fly, a woman is still more so, for she has no wings or feet? Education, tradition, perhaps even inheritance make a monstrous thing of her with the pretence of making her a higher being. And this idle monstrosity, with its crooked feet, compressed trunk, empty brain — nevertheless has the task of bringing up future generations of mankind. So what does she instil in them? …’ And the tradesman Węgiełek quoting Wysocki: ‘When a woman’s good, she’s good, but when she’s wanton, she’s no good.’ ‘Good God!’ he [Wokulski] exclaimed, ‘when am I to pay off these women? … An amusing country, this, to be sure, where the women play first violin, and there are no matters of interest, apart from happy or unhappy love!

‘Heaven protect us from lady customers! Perhaps I lost my taste for marriage by seeing ladies in the shop all the time. The Creator, when He formed that miracle of Nature known as Woman, cannot have realised the misfortune He would bring down upon tradesmen,’ joked Rzecki in a patronizing manner.

Mrs Meliton to Wokulski:  ‘I am sorry for you,’ she repeated, ‘I am a woman and I know women are not to be gained by sacrifice, but by power.’ In another place, she writes to Wokulski thus: “Remember this: women like being embraced so much that it is sometimes necessary to trample them underfoot in order to intensify the effect. The more ruthless you are in this, the more certainly she will fall in love with you.” And later in the same letter: “Remember that women are only the slaves of those who can hold them fast—and indulge their caprices.” To gain a great victory over a woman one must be both ruthless and shameless, says Rzecki to Wokulski.

‘Oh, what an abject race of creatures women are … They play with us, though their limited minds can’t even understand us …’ says Julian Ochocki, one of The Doll’s nicest characters. In another part of the novel, he develops the subject: ‘Good God, I don’t know a single woman in whose constant company I wouldn’t turn stupid in six months.’

‘We’re taught to regard women as angels, and we treat them so. But if they are primarily females, then we look even more stupid and feeble in their eyes than we are,’ says Wokulski to old Baron Dalski, who has been cheated by his young fiancée.

It is Mrs Wąsowska, called by the narrator “widow,” who speaks in the name of such rarities as rebellious women. Her surname is meaningful. Although she is a woman, she does not belong to those who are submissive, nor is she the angel-type. In contrast to Mrs Helena Stawska, she is all too ready to see to her own needs, and only cares for others if it gives her pleasure. In this she is more like a man from whom angel-like sacrifices are not required. This is what her rebellion is all about. Of significance here is the fact that it is only her that Ochocki treats with respect: ‘I swear that of all the women I know, you are the only one worth anything! …’ And the same Ochocki on another occasion: ‘After all, that is why women everywhere are slaves—they attach themselves to those who despise them.’  But Mrs Kazimiera Wąsowska does not go too far; she does not speak about rebellion – without the status of a “widow” she would not even be able to allow herself such a form of rebellion as to refuse “sacrificing” herself – but in a rather roundabout way complains about the lack of cohesion in the expectations towards women. She thus speaks to Wokulski: ‘When a woman, at a certain stage in her life, dreams of an ideal love, you mock her illusions and demand a flirtation, without which a girl is boring, and a married woman stupid. Not until she — thanks to your collective efforts — allows banal proposals to be made, glances at you fondly, presses your hand — only then does some medieval moralist in a cowl emerge from a dark corner and solemnly curse her, created though she is in the form and likeness of a daughter of Eve.’

Mrs Wąsowska’s presence is invaluable because it is with her that the characters can conduct such discussions. Definitely not with empty-heads, silly geese or angels. Wokulski speaks to her thus: ‘Madam, don’t let’s pretend we don’t understand one another. You know that a woman is as holy as an altar to a man who loves her. Right or wrong, that’s how it is. Now, if the first adventurer to come along approaches this divinity as if she were a chair, and treats her as though she were, and the altar is delighted by such treatment, then…Do you understand me, madam? We begin suspecting that the altar really is a chair. Have I made myself clear?’

The author did not miss any opportunity to confront the opinions of Ochocki with those of Wąsowska: ‘Ah, these women, with their sickening coquetry.’

‘Is yours any better?’ asked Mrs Wąsowska.

‘We are allowed …’ ‘You are? Proud fellow!’ she was indignant, ‘so speaks a progressive man in the age of emancipation!…’

‘May the devil take emancipation!’ Ochocki replied. ‘Emancipation, indeed! You women would like to have all the privileges of men, but no obligations. Open the door for them, vacate the places man has paid for, fall in love with ’em, and they …’

Wokulski says cruelly, I should have learned about women, not through the spectacles of Mickiewicz or Krasiński or Słowacki’s poetry, but through statistics, which teach us that every angel is one-tenth a prostitute.

However, he sees a rather interesting solution to the problem: When a woman won’t need to pretend to love or flirt with every man, then at once she will discard those she doesn’t care for, and will go to the man who suits her taste. Then there won’t be any deceived lovers or deceivers, relationships will be formed in a natural manner.Let us take note, however, of the phrase will go to the man who, and then Wokulski’s solution will show us its rather strained limitations.

Another large and interesting topic in The Doll is that of the Jews, and attitudes towards them. Belonging to the category of Jews may be substituted by a surname:

‘Yet I’ll repeat that the Jews are buying that store of yours.’

‘What Jews?’

‘Goodness knows — the Szlangbaums, Hundbaums — how should I know? [Here, in a rather contemptuous manner, Szprott is playing with words – Schlang being a snake or serpent, whilst Hund a dog].

In the same way, politicians today change their beliefs every quarter: once they all believed in Bismarck, yesterday it was Gambetta and today it’s Beaconsfield, who until recently was a Hebrew – notes down the old clerk.

There were different names given to Jews, some more offensive, some less. But when Wokulski had gone in, he [the Łęckis’ butler who owed Jews money] pushed and tumbled the Jews out, with ‘Begone, Yids! Begone!

From a certain point of view, the Jewish issue is similar to that of women. It is worth noting that the kind-hearted Rzecki, in comparison with his drinking mates, never declaring himself to be anti-Semitic, speaks about the young Szlangbaum in the following manner: Previously he called himself a Pole, today he flaunts his Jewishness. Previously he even believed in nobility and disinterestedness, but now he talks of nothing but money and social contacts.

Rzecki is the spokesman for the attitude of the society, although what he says is gentler, because he is a good man. In brief, the assumption that lies behind the quoted utterance is: a Jew, just like a woman, should satisfy certain additional requirements. Not everybody is allowed to make a fuss and start a fight. A Jew is good when – like a woman – he is quiet and humble. He should remain silent even when he is being hurt. It is appreciated if he is pro-Polish but it does not mean that he will be accepted. But in contrast to women, thanks to his humility, he will not be treated as an angel. If he satisfies all the conditions, he may count on his unassuming presence being barely tolerated by his neighbours. A good Jew must come to terms with this and, to a certain extent, identify himself with those who feel contempt for him. He must feel some contempt for himself if he wishes to have a common tongue with those who feel contempt for him. Rzecki talking with Dr Szuman: ‘What’s this, has anti-Semitism got into you, too?’ [asks Szuman].

‘No; but it’s one thing not to be an anti-Semite, and another to work for the Jews.’

So who will work for them, then? For although I’m a Jew, I don’t wear their livery. …’

‘Don’t you care for ice-cream, Mr Szlangowski?’ And he replied: ‘I prefer sausages, but without garlic. I can’t abide garlic.’

Garlic and onions, which the young Szlangbaum is renouncing so energetically, are symbolic vegetables. Lisiecki says, ‘Break with the Jews,’ Lisiecki put in in an undertone; ‘the boss is quite right to get out of those wretched deals. Sometimes I’m ashamed to give change, the money smells so of garlic…’

Despite his access to everything Polish, Szlangowski loses his job in another Christian firm and comes to Wokulski.

‘Staś,’ he said humbly, ‘I will drown in Nalewki Street unless you help me.’

‘Why didn’t you come to me before?’ Staś asked.

‘I did not dare. I was afraid they might say of me that a Jew will creep in anywhere.’

Does this look like oversensitivity? Hardly, if we listen to what Lisiecki has to say on a different occasion:

‘How these swines of Jews creep into Krakowskie Przedmieście! Why don’t they stay in Nalewki or Świętojerska?’

Or Węgrowicz: ‘as if there weren’t enough Jews in Warsaw! Three or more of them will get together, and make Krakowskie Przedmieście horrible. And it is in Krakowskie Przedmieście that Wokulski’s shop is located.

Young Szlangbaum of course knows his presence in this shop only annoys people. The Jewish situation becomes more and more tense. Rzecki notes down in his journal: In general, I have noticed over the last year even people who, a few years ago, called them Poles of the Mosaic persuasion, now call them Jews. And those who recently admired their hard work, their persistence and their talents, today only see their exploitation and deceit.

‘If I weren’t afraid my children would become Jewish, I’d go and settle down in Nalewki once and for all,’ [said Szlangbaum seeing the change].

‘Then why, Henryk,’ I asked him, ‘don’t you get christened and have it over with?’ recalls the old clerk in his “Journal”.

‘I’d have done so years ago, but not now. Today, I understand that as a Jew I am only despised by Christians, but as a convert I’d be despised by Christians and Jews alike.’

It was wrong to call himself Szlangbaum, but Szlangowski was just as bad: wrong to be a Jew, wrong to be a convert…Night is falling: a night in which everything looks grey and uncertain.

And this will be the end of the story about young Szlangbaum: ‘Can he be suspecting me, watching me?’ passed through Szlangbaum’s mind swiftly [concerning Rzecki], and rage seized him: ‘Yes, my father is right…Everyone is against the Jews today. Soon I’ll have to let my hair grow and put on a skull-cap’

Wokulski does not succumb to these public feelings. The following is a conversation held within a circle of company shareholders trading with Russia. ‘You gentlemen know’, Wokulski began, ‘that Warsaw is a trading post between Western and Eastern Europe. Here part of the French and German merchandise intended for Russia is collected and passed through our hands…We might have certain profits from this trade…’

 ‘Were it not in the hands of the Jews,’ said someone in an undertone from the table where merchants and industrialists were sitting.’

‘Not at all,’ Wokulski retorted, ‘the profits would accrue if our trade were properly handled…’

No other character has more respect and understanding for the Jews than Wokulski. This is how he justifies what is understood as the Jews’ national vices: Very noble individuals have perished in anti-Jewish persecutions, and the only ones to survive were those who could protect themselves from destruction. So now what sort of Jews do we have? Persistent, patient, sly, self-reliant, quick-witted, and commanding a mastery of the one weapon left to them — money. By wiping out everything that was good, we have produced an artificial selection and protected the worst.’

As we can see, Wokulski’s respect also has its limits.

Happy and in a good mood because he has been invited to lunch by Tomasz Łęcki, Wokulski is walking along a street: He smiled to see a sand-carter and his load weighing down a wretched nag and its long cart, while a spectre begging seemed to him a very pleasant old lady. He enjoyed the whistle of a factory, and would have liked to talk to a crowd of delightful little boys who were throwing stones at passing Jews from a roadside hill.

If we wonder where the supplies of contemptuousness that are available to us come from, the answer is: from a hundred and fifty years ago, kept intact, as if taken out of a freezer. And where did they come from then? From the fact that the unhappy country was really unhappy, that it lacked freedom and was humiliated. The unhappy country gave back what it received. Humiliation is a terrible burden; people do not want to carry it and usually try to pass it on to someone else. And not to somebody stronger, from whom they had to accept it. There is not much choice here. Throughout the world, wherever this burden appears, it is handed over to the weaker sex and to strangers who do not have an army at their disposal.

Today we find ourselves in a different, more advanced spot concerning the three problems which carry the titles of: “Unhappy country, helpless nation,” “the Jewish issue” and “the female issue.” We have been able to tell each other many things. The language we use today is capable of much more than in the past, and we are now able to talk about things that was impossible before. However, despite two wars, which nobody could have even dreamt about in the past, despite Freud and the existentialists, despite the fact that we have become contrary to the extreme, these three slogans of our public life are more or less the same today, although our situation is actually quite different. We live in an independent country, the Jews have disappeared, the emancipation of women has taken place. However, these three issues are still the subject of our disputes today, they form our emotions, and it is this that is an interesting symptom of our illness. Contemptuousness mixed with the feeling of having been hurt turns out to be medicine that has not healed us but has made us become addicted. It turns against those who humiliate, still using up their strength and faith in themselves. It holds our country in the same small space in which it has been suffocating since 1879, or even longer.

Trans. Aniela Korzeniowska


  1. 1812. See Adam Mickiewicz, Pan Tadeusz, trans. Kenneth R. Mackenzie, Book XI, 1812, p. 484 (London: The Polish Cultural Institute, 1986) [translator’s note].
  2. This and all further quotations from The Doll are from Bolesław Prus, The Doll, trans. David Welsh, New York: New York Review Books, 2011 [translator’s note].