Anna Janicka

Anna Janicka

[T]he pain intensified. ‘I suffer, therefore I am,’ thought Wokulski, and he smiled. (599)

Contrary to popular stereotypes on positivist novels, The Doll is a profound study of individual and social misery.

Almost all the characters in the novel (not to mention some representatives of the animal world) experience pain and suffering. It never leaves Rzecki, who is overwhelmed by the “vanity fair” of the world around him, so full of the ever-present cheap trash; it plagues the unlucky ones who do not have the slightest hope of requited love (Helena Stawska, cynically-minded Doctor Szuman). Suffering may bring many bitter disappointments as well as an irresistible urge to inflict pain on others.

Subjugation to foreign powers can also be described as a sort of suffering – the one which shapes the life of the Polish nation, their ideas of the world and ways of perceiving the reality; it determines their interpretation of the past and their own place in history. Sometimes, it may even distort these national perceptions, so the novel questions the Romantic notions on the messianic and heroic role to be played by the Polish nation.

Tensions and conflicts between the representatives of different social groups and classes, depicted at the very moment of a painful historic transformation with the author’s genuine insight and attention to detail (the decline of the gentry, the increasing poverty and helplessness of lower social classes, frictions and antagonisms of ethnic and ideological nature in Wokulski’s store – quarrels between clerks, often caused by the feeling of wrong and injustice) are yet another potential source of suffering

Most importantly, suffering turns out to be Wokulski’s primary existential experience at all stages of his life. He feels wretched already as a young man dreaming of a scholar’s career but doomed to waiting tables at Hopfer’s restaurant. When middle-aged, he is heartbroken because he cannot win the woman he loves, despite enjoying widespread popularity and admiration. Eventually, he agonises over the nature of the world and the meaning of life.

The essence of suffering thus conceived – in Schopenhauer’s terms, the very essence of existence – is revealed in the parable-style story of a stone that occurs to Wokulski during his stay in Skierniewice as a sort of epiphany, a moment of sudden illumination: And he had become a man. He lived a few dozen years, and in the course of them he longed and desired more than the dead world could know in all eternity. In an instant, the protagonist realises the meaning of life and the substance of humanity, with the suffering at its core. Once he starts to analyse the issue, its ontological and eschatological depth starts to become apparent: it not only unveils the order of things, but also becomes a tool for self-discovery and a source of self-knowledge.

Read in this light, The Doll appears to be primarily about the search for the New Man. The novel presents the author’s idea of genesis through suffering, and attempts at recounting the process of forming and then enabling a self-aware life for a person such as Wokulski: the one conscious of all dimensions of existence, free of illusions and false hopes, heading for the unknown – and accepting the inevitability of an unpredictable end.

→ Society; → Wokulski, Stanisław;


  1. Z. Przybyła, Lalka Bolesława Prusa. Semantyka, kompozycja, konteksty, Rzeszów 1995.
  2. A. Janicka, Stanisław Wokulski – pozytywistyczne powroty do bezsilności, in Jubileuszowe „żniwo u Prusa,” ed. Z. Przybyła, Częstochowa 1998.
  3. A. Mazur, Jeszcze o kamieniu w Lalce Bolesława Prusa, in Jubileuszowe „żniwo u Prusa,” ed. Z. Przybyła, Częstochowa 1998.