Broken fingers mean less than a broken heart. One sticks one’s finger into various risky places – into a wounded side, between pages of a novel – one’s finger breaks the boundary of the other, which is how the other is formed again. The other is a faceless material, so let us give it form. Wokulski asks, like an apostle from Hendrick ter Brugghen or Caravaggio’s paintings: “Is this really you?” – although he actually should ask “Is this really me?” He cannot answer this question until the very end, when even he is abandoned by The Doll’s narrator – that is because he lacks internal boundaries, he is like Julian Ochocki’s balloon, lighter than air, although evidently heavier, absorbing the world and the narrative, equivalent to others and yet functioning as a point where all lines – Ignacy Rzecki’s thoughts, Helena Stawska’s affections, aristocrats’ and financiers’ debates – must meet. Florentyna thinks that Wokulski can be anything, can display several facets at once, take on several guises. Everybody else can be summarised in one sentence, whereas Wokulski, if he can be compared to anything at all, would resemble a landscape which it takes the whole day to cross, and where one meets plains, mountains, deserts and bodies of water all in one day.
One of the first important questions in Prus’s novel is how new people appear over old horizons. These people namely appear as shadows. The giant shadow that appears in the barred window and tries to peer into Rzecki’s room is the same shadow whose presence Izabela Łęcka experiences for the first time. Scared and confused, Rzecki does not recognise the man – how can you recognise anyone by their shadow? From the very beginning, in the theatre, in which life is a play, Wokulski’s shadow grows, and he is convinced that his decisions are what makes the strings move, whereas he himself is unknowingly hanging by a string. We see him from a window, changing into another garment to avoid recognition. He must become somebody else, which is why Rzecki does not recognise him at first. The old clerk’s gaze focuses on the new man over an old horizon, a man compressed to the maximum and framed by bars – this man is the embodiment of everything the clerk had lost, it is his impression of Hungary and the face of Katz, both at once. It can be said that for as long as Wokulski’s shadow grows, Rzecki is able to find shelter. When the shadow disappears and Wokulski regains his accurate size, Rzecki must die. He is not able to undertake a journey to himself. Wojciech Has demonstrated this in his cinematic version of the novel. What he didn’t show was the moment when all illusions are shattered. Theatre puppets may think they do what they want, but they only do the bidding of the mechanism, which is as blind as they are.
How does it happen, though, that Wokulski, being everything, can feel like he is nothing? Is it not the case that each ragged man appeared to him to be somebody calling to be saved – that in each person from below him, from the boulevards of thrash, he saw himself? Not a poor clerk, who can scarcely make the beginning and the end of his day meet, but himself – the man he bid farewell in the theatre, the scientist, the enthusiast naturalist. When Dr Szuman, like an observant Settembrini, asks Wokulski about the time when his enthusiasm for these pursuits fades, Wokulski surely reels from this like from an axe’s blow to his head. This is why he tries to grab hold of the strings he himself is pulling – despite his feeling that Łęcka should be in control of them – and he tries to cut them. But before this happens, his internal ego enters a colonial phase. He tries to annex Łęcka, which is why he surrounds her. We know he buys off the promissory notes, the family tableware, the tenement house, convinced that he needs to attain Łęcka’s hand so that he can climb up to the whole rest, regain his balance, become absolutely calm and, in a way, larger. The balloon grows. Wokulski is like a child in a tantrum, ready, upon thinking of Łęcka’s marriage, to stuff the whole world full of dynamite and light the fuse. He wants to form a new man, but the effort breaks his fingers. He meets something stronger than himself, something which wants to become weaker nonetheless. This is what Wokulski does not understand, as he hands Łęcka the pin. Pierce me. I want to become your slave; I want to lie at your feet like a rug, like a tiger’s hide. “It seems to me I’ll die at her feet,” he thinks, and indeed, attaining her will be his death, although it might seem to him that the only thing he’s after is life. Łęcka is also after her tiger, although she would prefer it to be caged. The man she is after is surrounded by the rattling of machines, clouded by “the depths of the lake of black smoke and white steam.” A man with whom she would lose all control. The remarkable thing is that the characters without definite boundaries are convinced that they are ruled by someone else’s command, governed by a superior, insurmountable force. This is the case with Wokulski, Łęcka, Rzecki, and a certain character in one of Czesław Miłosz’s poems. Łęcka finds herself unable to lose control next to somebody who believes he is driven by fate. The fact that everybody is dependent on one another means that they do not have to confront the thing they are so panically trying to outrun. Is it the void? This does not appear to be what they fear – the void is, in a way, a cathartic moment. It is a space for returning to a long-abandoned correspondence one had with oneself. For the moment, one seems to be missing – the carriage taking one back to oneself is occupied by four people, but why must three people plus oneself make four altogether? The apartment one occupies becomes somewhat larger, or has one become smaller? Wokulski must cut off the head of the doll, representing himself, to see his own surname inside. Something in him must die, leave the stage, and take a seat among the spectators. This is where Prus leaves us, inviting us to leave the stage as well.
Trans. Marta Dziurosz