Women – and men. To a large extent, these two groups should be discussed together. The Doll is laced with Eros, and the interaction between the two sexes is by no means a byplay but part of the main plot, rooted in the author’s philosophical ideas. The male-female relationships are shown from three different perspectives: biological, instinctual and libido-driven (both sexes chase each other like dogs in heat). There is a romantic love for a woman whose idealistic image has been modelled on some fancy notions acquired from poetry at the opposite extreme of the biological scale. This is the sort of love that is divorced from the real qualities of the loved one, an affection both beautiful and blind, lofty and ridiculous at the same time.
Yet another important aspect to be mentioned here is flirtatious conversation – the meeting ground of biology and convention, forever swaying from one to the other. Flirting may be passionate and conducive to closer acquaintance, or convivial – blossoming in a subtle play of glances, double-entendres, and unexpressed feelings. Flirtatious conversation could fulfil a very important social and therapeutic role by venting tensions that build up for a variety of reasons, but only if it were accepted by all the characters of the novel. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Wokulski cannot stand flirting: he sees it as an opaque and unjust game of pretence. Therefore, he seems doomed to the torment (or perverse delight) of being subject to the impulses that arise from sexuality, high culture, and social conventions. It takes many years for Wokulski to find his bearings in all this confusion, with a lot of pain and suffering on the way. In the world of The Doll, he is no exception; only Mrs Meliton realises that flirting makes the world go round, and starts to earn her living by bringing lovers together and enabling the passage of intimate messages.
Only the novel’s male characters believe in romantic love, just to mention Wokulski, Rzecki (the platonic admirer of beautiful ladies) and, once, Doctor Szuman (a missed suicide). All women seem to fall into the flirting and biology-driven categories; some represent the “culture of lying.” Flirtatious individuals include Izabela Łęcka, Kazimiera Wąsowska, Ewelina Janocka and her sister, Felcia, a newcomer to the trade. Katarzyna Hopfer and Małgorzata Minclowa both virtually set traps for men. It is interesting to trace the motivation underlying the ever-present coquetry. In the case of the nubile widow Wąsowska, it is probably generated by her unquenchable temperament. With haughty Izabela, it is rather the matter of trying to increase her worth in the eyes of her suitor Wokulski (after all, being loved by a third party raises the value of the object of desire), but it could also be attributed to her fantasies about exciting adventures, projected on randomly chosen partners. While flirting with Kazimierz Starski, she may wish to be brutally seduced the way he treats his numerous lovers. The idea that women are actually attracted to rude force is referred to by Wąsowska when she claims that Wokulski would win Izabela in no time at all if he acted more decisively. Pale and anaemic Ewelina Janocka, the fiancée and then wife to Baron Dalski, cannot bring herself to give up her handsome lover and deliberately deceives the husband who has eyes for no one but her. Fela and Katarzyna Hopfer are on the lookout for their first admirers. Małgorzata Mincel loves Wokulski with her last wave of passion, putting herself at risk of ridicule or even death (she dies most probably of a severe allergic reaction to some rejuvenating agent she has administered to herself).
Prus is far from kind in the depiction of women: the novel’s womenfolk are made up of coquettes, two-faced busybodies (Countess Karolowa), and hysterical hypocrites (Baroness Krzeszowska). A different type of woman is represented by Helena Stawska, an excellent housewife, mother and daughter, caring for others all her life. She reveals her feelings for Wokulski to her mother, but does nothing to let the loved one know about them. Not fighting for her own happiness, she remains passive and apathetic only to move out of the picture altogether by leaving Warsaw. Yet another exception to the rule is Duchess Zasławska, though her advanced age more than explains her disinterestedness in the world’s most common and compelling game – the game of Eros. She sees through all its mean tricks and worries about Baron Dalski’s marriage; she also seems to warn Wokulski against becoming a target of ridicule or even a cuckold.
In fact, The Doll would read like a straightforwardly misogynistic novel had it not been for the narrative strategy adopted by Prus. The “meanness” of women is almost always reported by third-party characters (some of whom lack reliability), or comes up when the claim to truth is rather limited (in accounts of hallucinations or reflections in window panes). This is precisely how the “love affair” between Izabela and Kazimierz Starski is covered. There is something to it, but what precisely no one knows for sure. An equivocal situation in a brake riding through the countryside, some physical proximity on a train to Kraków, a private talk that makes mention of some rather intimate details… but are we certain that Wokulski sees everything clearly, or that he correctly understands an overheard quiet conversation in a foreign language he has just started to learn? Has Izabela been unfaithful to him, or is she capable of betraying him after they are married? We will never know – however, we may recall that she takes offence when Molinari approaches her with an indecent proposal and threatens never to let Kazimierz Starski through the door if he does not give up his advances after marriage. The only fact we can be sure of is that Izabela could never be equal partners with Wokulski. He is always ready to sacrifice more than her – in fact, to sacrifice everything. She is trying to get used to the idea of marrying him, but stays emotionally uninvolved, still thinking about other admirers, representatives of her own social sphere. She does not love her husband-to-be, or at least not as much as he loves her. She wishes to keep this dominance over him after their wedding: she expects unconditional admiration in return for her gracious kindness and presence. The reader does not know if Izabela is adulterous, but there is no doubt she plans to get Wokulski eat out of the palm of her hand, playing on the affection she never intends to reciprocate (True love is blindfold, she says to Kazimiera Wąsowska).
Of course, to wish to be loved and not to love, to demand love – and not to offer it in return could be described as wicked and scandalous. In a way, the above may be seen as the essence of “guilt” on the part of Izabela, but it is important to remember that love cannot be compelled. We often love the ones that do not deserve it and leave the ones that do. By its very definition, love is unjust, illogical, inherently flawed. This is what Prus could not bring himself to accept. He criticised the unrealistic, stupefying Romantic ideals and the social hypocrisy which tolerated illicit affairs, affected the piety and dishonesty of women worshipped like saints and acting like prostitutes; but in his heart of hearts, the author was always preoccupied with love, the impossibility of comprehending its mechanism, taming it with any other force, inscribing it within any coherent system.
Still, the author’s approach is slightly inconsistent. He holds playing with Wokulski’s feelings against Izabela, but he does not condemn Wokulski for his marriage to Małgorzata Mincel (whom he could give his loyalty but not true love). Wokulski’s marrying for money appears to be acceptable to the author, but not Izabela’s attitude: he implies that she should have appreciated her fiancé more. Only a shallow, small-minded person would not recognise Wokulski for his qualities – such is the conclusion to which the author seems to point.
A female character who does not entirely fit the stereotype of a coquette is Kazimiera Wąsowska. True, she attracts and electrifies men with her very presence (fine hair, statuesque figure, provocative way of dressing and showing off her assets), but she is also ready to cut through convention and talk openly with Wokulski about eroticism, male-female relationships and the realities of life. She is like an emancipationist in disguise (such notions were not aired in a respectable company at that time). Wąsowska desires freedom, including erotic liberty, and since an aristocratic lady of her standing could not voice these demands in public, she uses flirtation and faithlessness as a means to broaden the scope of her personal independence. Wokulski debunks this way of thinking and states, merchant-like, that a relationship between a man and a woman is like a partnership, where both parties should be completely honest and bring in the capital they promised (loyalty and fidelity at the least). Wąsowska’s point that men enjoy a much larger freedom is refuted by him saying that women’s modesty fills men with admiration, which constitutes a basic component of ideal love: they explain to us while we are still children that we are animals, and that the only way to become a man is to love a woman, whose nobility, innocence and loyalty help prevent the world from becoming totally animal. Prus implies that the emancipation of women, especially in the erotic domain, may only have negative social consequences. Men’s sexual freedom, resulting e.g. in increased prostitution, could be counterbalanced solely by the “female factor”: decency, impeccability, even angelicalness. This seems to be the only remedy to reclaim sinners and to save the world from degradation and destruction.
Wąsowska and Wokulski never reach a consensus, but they are similar in kind; courage, critical view of social norms, and unconventional behaviour is what they have in common. The author suggests that Wąsowska falls in love with Wokulski but never tries to win him because she knows that he could never love anyone else as much as he loves Izabela. That would mean that the energetic widow has something more than mere flirting in mind. She dreams about a deep, romantic, eternal love. Wokulski gains a lot from exchanging ideas with Wąsowska. First of all, he can compare his notions of love and marriage with those of a mentally liberated, unconventional woman; he can at last express his thoughts freely to a female interlocutor, which has not been possible even with his fiancée. Secondly, in an intimate conversation with a beautiful woman that is not an object of his affection, he can practice all the possible wooing tricks, even… arm-wrestling! This meeting enables the confrontation of ideas as well as of individual minds and representatives of both sexes. Up till then, Wokulski was just not getting through to Izabela, going out of his mind, getting struck dumb, descending into madness, or becoming overwhelmed with tenderness. He swayed from admiring her to being disappointed to the point of antipathy and back. With Wąsowska, he can cross swords on more or less equal terms: she invigorates him without subjugating him to her power so that he feels free again: I have regained my self, and belong to myself again.
Finally, Prus advances the discussion of the male-female relationships from the psychological and social planes to the civilisational level. Through the character of Doctor Szuman, the author voices the opinion that all Poles are predisposed to waste their resources (Your women are worth precisely as much as your men) and deplores the fact that erotic fantasies consume the energy needed to work. In the author’s monograph on practical philosophy, Najogólniejsze ideały życiowe (The Most General Life Ideals), it is not feeling and emotion but the will and ability to undertake objectively valid actions that is argued to crown human effort. The most valuable characters of The Doll spread themselves too thin: Wokulski abandons everything he has ever achieved, Julian Ochocki wastes his time on frivolous socializing (he gads around Warsaw with that pretty Mrs Wąsowska, to whom a good dancer means more than the greatest inventor). Overblown and misplaced affections thus lead to the civilisational catastrophe and the “secondariness” of Polish people as a society.
The author’s views on womanhood may thus be considered in the light of his reflections on practical philosophy, or discussed as a misogynist reaction to the then-developing emancipation discourse. One could also say that the emancipatory change of women’s position in the society results in the masculinity crisis, suffered by many male characters of The Doll. The novel could finally be read as a “piece of love discourse,” an attempt at formulating new love rules for the post-Romantic era.
- J. Bachórz, Introduction to B. Prus, Lalka, BN I 262, Wrocław 1991, 1998.
- M. Rabikowska, Sprawa kobieca w Lalce, czyli mizoginizm zneutralizowany, in Jubileuszowe „żniwo u Prusa,” ed. Z. Przybyła, Częstochowa 1998.
- M. Rudkowska, „Biedny Wokulski!,” in Świat Lalki. 15 studiów, ed. J.A. Malik, Lublin 2005.
- H. Markiewicz, Duże i małe zagadki Lalki, “Ruch Literacki” 2009, vol. 6.