‘Evidently the time has come for us all to perish…’ the destitute man sighed. (74)
Poverty was a burning issue in the Warsaw of the second half of the nineteenth century. The city was flooded by immigrants and experienced a demographic boom, but it did not turn out to be the Promised Land for everyone. Dynamic economic growth and industrialisation were accompanied by pauperisation on one hand and the rising incomes of the bourgeoisie on the other. There were so many people roaming in the streets and yards, asking for alms, that Warsaw looked like a city seised by an army of paupers, wrote Prus in his weekly press columns Kroniki. As a matter of fact, the city declared war on this army. Its effects were ironically covered by Prus with these words: beggars are nervous. True, you may still see some gents kneeling in the street with little bowls in their hands; yes, you may, but they are not begging, they are just praying right there in the street and show the passers-by that it is them who are the owners of these bowls.
The Doll features some nameless beggars sitting by church doors, asking for the charity which God would repay to the charitable in the next world. There are also insolent loafers, drunkards, thieves, observed by Wokulski during his walk in Powiśle. But even this evocative kingdom of penury is plagued not only by the ruin most indolent and insolent, but also the ruin shamefaced that needs to be found and virtually imposed on with offers of help (as Prus puts it in Kroniki). The example of the latter is Wysocki, a cart driver whose horse has died. Having lost his horse, Wysocki can no longer work and support his family. When Wokulski asks him why he did not come to Rzecki to seek help, Wysocki replies: I dared not.
Wokulski helps Wysocki out. On seeing tears in the driver’s eyes, he reflects: How fortunate they are, all these people whose apathy is caused merely by hunger, and who only suffer from the cold. And how easy it is to make them happy! He himself is tormented by thoughts of Izabela. He cannot find his way to the source where he could quench his thirst and relieve his heartache.
In the social hierarchy, the poor are on the opposite end of the spectrum to the sated bourgeoisie and nobility. But it is precisely on their end that the real joys of life, truth and honesty can be found. Wokulski, who has tried to be a socialite, concludes that these poor and ignorant people are at the same time the most admirable material.
- B. Prus, Kroniki. Wybór. Vol. 1. 1875-1900, selected by S. Fita, Warsaw 1987.