[Ignacy Rzecki]: Good God, if you exist, have mercy on my soul, if I have a soul – as a soldier of the French Revolution once said. (464)
The plot of The Doll takes place during a time of crisis in traditional Christianity, especially dramatic in the Roman Catholic church. For several reasons, this crisis was particularly keenly felt in the Polish Roman Catholicism in the late nineteenth century.
The first explanation of this crisis stems from the historical context of partitions: especially on the Russian partition territories, due to a series of repressions, normal religious practices became impossible. The second reason was a depletion or an exhaustion of the formula of traditional patterns of faith, consisting of inflexible outwardly rituals (ritualism), lack of intellectual reflection and appealing to shallow, superficial emotions (fideism). This formula frequently failed to conceal the spiritual and moral emptiness of the age.
Such a version of religion was helpless when faced with modernity’s dramatic challenges – the scientific advances, the shaping of new mass world-views (liberalism, socialism, nationalism, anti-Semitism), the loss of influence suffered by both feudal classes and upper social strata (the aristocracy, the gentry), the emergence of new, self-aware classes, and strata (the capitalists, the bourgeoisie, the proletariat, the intelligentsia, the enfranchised peasants), and the predatory nature of early capitalism, which in Poland was also in a weak and dependent state. At the same time, poor and overcrowded Polish villages lost their significance, which also meant the weakening of the influence of rural forms of faith, mentality, and manners. Big cities were coming into existence, painfully and with great effort – like Warsaw, described in the novel by Prus, or like Łódź which Reymont focused on in The Promised Land. These, in turn, resulted in the emergence of urban versions of morality, behaviour, and religious practice. The Polish Church was completely unprepared to react to these challenges.
On the face of it, Catholic religious faith is omnipresent in The Doll. It is however, a faith in crisis – usually made banal, superficial, and outwardly, showing signs of wear and consisting of ritual forms which lack deeper meaning.
We can find evidence of this in hackneyed, clichéd phrases that are present everywhere but mean nothing at all. They do not signify any serious emotion or experience. That is why Prus makes his novels’ characters use them, in contexts which are far from religious. Here are a few examples:
‘My God…,’ [Wokulski] thought, ‘how stupid I must look with this money.’
‘Thank God,’ he thought, ‘that I’m the legal child of my parents…’
[Tomasz Łęcki], of course, is praying that his house fetches a hundred and twenty thousand …
‘Thank goodness! If only Starski doesn’t call just then,’ said Izabela, picking up the third letter.
However, the bourgeois anti-clericalism presented in Prus’s novel is also shoddy and farcical, consisting of little more than meaningless gestures and represented by Rzecki’s father and his friend, Mr Raczek.
Above all else, the Warsaw aristocracy and the well-heeled bourgeoisie seem to be devoid of deeper emotions or experiences in their religious practices. They seem to piously follow the formal rules of Catholic religiousness (Easter Holy Sepulchres, the blessing of the Easter baskets), but they essentially lack religion, experience spiritual emptiness, which they try to fill in a number of ways. The Catholic ritualism is, for them, also another occasion to display their social status, as well as a pretext for a fashion display. Hence the problem of Izabela’s new dress, or of her carriage – the problem of “being seen by the world” – which fills the whole space of the Holy Week, supposedly dedicated to spiritual renewal, pious practices and charitable acts. As for charity, it becomes a two-faced, farcical, and deceitful technique of creating a moral alibi, a smoke-screen of sorts, serving to mask one’s lack of sensitivity to poverty and misery of the people, as well as one’s irresponsibility, wastefulness and wantonness. What’s more, it becomes a pretext for a sort of display of power in the matters of social status and material potential.
Prus – with a degree of naiveté – counter-balances this false and superficial religiousness with a deep, meaningful and moving spirituality of the children and the common people. In The Doll, then, only the children and the simple folk are capable of understanding despair, misery, destitution – and of forgiveness. They are the only ones who truly commune with the tormented, killed, and resurrected Christ, and experience true joy and hope.
Moreover, even the positive protagonists in the novel – Ignacy Rzecki, Wokulski – share the spiritual emptiness. They, too, experience the common crisis of faith. Rzecki replaces faith with patriotic and Napoleonic myths, nostalgic memories of his childhood, war memories of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution, and finally – the minutiae of everyday life and the carefully followed daily rituals. Wokulski seems to be seeking a replacement for faith among the naïve “dreams of power” and the aspirations of nineteenth century science as well as in Parisian Spiritism or mediums. This is historically well-grounded: the first séances in Warsaw happened as early as in 1853 (for example in the Karaś Palace on Krakowskie Przedmieście), but the phenomenon gained more popularity in November 1893, after the arrival of a famous Italian medium, Eusapia Palladino. She was invited to Warsaw by a psychologist and philosopher, Julian Ochorowicz (commonly perceived to be the inspiration for the novel’s Julian Ochocki). Prus would mention this phenomenon more extensively later, in Emancypantki (Emancipated Women) and in his weekly columns Kroniki.
As for Izabela Łęcka – in trying to reconcile her inner emptiness with her sentimentalism and the remnants of Catholic faith with erotic temptations, she will make an attempt – perceived as morally reprehensible – to combine the Christian and the Pagan, the cult of Christ with the cult of Apollo.
For The Doll’s protagonists, however, there is no way out: plunged into despair, into nihilism leading to defeat, they observe, just as Frederick Nietzsche did (working on his first works at that time), that “God is dead.” Moreover: that there is no other, new God to be found.