The Doll takes place over an eighteen-month period during 1878-9 and looks at Polish society, with most of the focus on the growing conflict between the upper classes and the emerging tradesmen. Two ideologies are contrasted in the novel—the older Romantic ideal and the newer Positivist outlook. From the New York Review Books’ page:
Prus’s work centers around the stories of three men from three different generations: Wokulski, the fatally flawed and hopelessly love-struck hero; Rzecki, the methodical and romantic old clerk; and Ochocki, a bright young scientist who hopes for universal progress in the midst of a darkening political climate. As the stories of the three men intertwine, Prus’s novel spins a web of encounters with an embattled aristocracy, the new men of finance, and the urban poor. Written with a quasi-prophetic sensibility, The Doll looks ahead to the social forces of imperialism, nationalism, and anti-Semitism that would soon hound the entire continent.
I think the last statement might be a little strong, but they did qualify it with “quasi”—Prus makes it clear that there are no easy solutions to the many problems raised in the novel. Furthermore, he recognizes that advancements, economic or social, come at a cost. As I noted in my first post, the book has its flaws, especially when Prus is a bit heavy-handed on his message, but I still highly recommend it.
I focused on only a few particular characters and a couple of issues in the posts listed below. I hope the excerpts provide a good sample of what you’ll find in the novel, at least as far as style, wit, and humor. I’ll note here that the New York Review Books has the introduction by Stanisław Barańczak to their edition of the book online—it provides a good background to the author and the novel.
Prus intended The Doll "to present our Polish idealists against the background of society’s decay."
Miss Łęcka and her enchanted world
“So we may well be witnesses of a tragedy"
"I can’t leave Warsaw and the store even for a little while."
The younger generation
The Polish question
"By wiping out everything that was good, we have produced an artificial selection and protected the worst."
Comments on the 1968 movie adaptation of The Doll directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has.
Update (26 Dec 2012): A list of characters in the novel.