Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Doll: the Polish question

There are many other topics included in The Doll that would make interesting posts, such as Prus’ view of women’s rights (or simply the relationship between men and women) and the Polish-Jewish conflict, but I’m going to end with excerpts that look at the author’s view on some of the problems of Poland. These quotes are only a few of the ways Prus painted the country as a provincial backwater with a stagnating aristocracy that drives out innovation and commerce. I have shown examples similar to these in earlier posts but I wanted to highlight a few more. There are many more examples in the book that I don’t discuss, ranging from the insanity in the upper classes (the relationship between the Baroness and her husband has to be read to be believed) to the inferiority of the cultural life (all of Warsaw gets hoodwinked by a second-rate violin player). Exceptions to this pessimistic view exist, such as the benevolent policies of the Duchess toward the people living on her land, but they stand out more because of their rarity. On to the excerpts…

Wokulski muses on a recurring theme about Poland’s fetid social environment, and also highlights some of the occasional heavy-handed touch Prus displays:
‘This is a microcosm of Poland,’ he thought, ‘where everything tends to make people wretched and to extinguish them. Some perish through poverty, others through extravagance. Work is taken from other people’s mouths to feed the useless; charity breeds insolent loafers, while poverty is unable to acquire tools and is besieged by perpetually hungry children, whose greatest virtue is to die a premature death. Individuals with initiate are of no use here, for everything conspires to chain initiative and waste it in a vain struggle—for nothing.’ (page 69)

A description of the Prince, demonstrating he would fit in well today with his emphasis on good intentions over results:

He [the Prince] believed it was a citizen’s duty to hold committee meetings, to encourage trade and to grieve, grieve continually over his unhappy country. Had he been asked whether he ever plated a tree to provide shade for people or the earth, or whether he ever removed a stone from a horse’s hoof, he would have been frankly astonished. For he felt, thought, yearned and grieved for millions. He had never done anything useful. He thought that continual fretting about the whole country was far more valuable than wiping the nose of a grubby child.
page 150)

Dr. Szuman harps on a recurring theme about scientific ability:

‘Upon my word, it would have been impossible to invent or even print logarithmic tables in Poland. Your true Pole starts to sweat at the second decimal place, at the fifth he runs a temperature, and at the seventh has a stroke….’
(page 191, ellipsis in original)

A subject Prus alludes to often but rarely confronts directly is the original source of money for the upper classes. The Polish aristocracy looks down on tradesmen, forgetting (or ignoring) their families’ unsavory acts of the past. While there are other quotes I could provide, this one sounds like a reference to the slave trade:

‘Bela, Wokulski has never sold what your aunt’s grandfather sold…’
(page 426, ellipsis in original)

Wokulski visits Paris and realizes how provincial Warsaw is in comparison. In Paris, “Even the most paltry [Paris shop] looked better than his, although it [his shop] was the finest in Warsaw.” (page 352) In such a setting Wokulski reevaluates his life during his trip to Paris:

Then it occurred to him to ask what he had squandered his powers and his life on? ‘On struggling with an environment into which I didn’t fit. When I wanted to study, I could not, because in my country scholars aren’t needed—only peasants and store clerks. When I wanted to serve society by sacrificing my own life if need be, fantastic dreams were put forward instead of practical programme and then—were forgotten. When I sought work, I was not given any, but shown an easy way to marry an old woman for her money. When I finally fell in love, and wanted to become the legal father of a family, the pastor of a domestic circle, the holiness of which everyone acclaimed, then I was placed in a situation from which there was no way out. So much so, that I don’t know whether the woman I was crazy about was an ordinary flirt whose head had been turned, or perhaps a lost soul like myself, who had not found her proper way. Judging by her behaviour, she is an eligible young lady looking for the best possible husband: when one looks into her eyes, she is an angelic spirit, whose wings have been clipped by human conventions. If I’d had some tens of thousands of roubles a year, and a passion for whist, I’d have been the happiest man in Warsaw,’ he said to himself, ‘but because in addition to a stomach I have a soul which is greedy for knowledge and love, I would have had to perish there. That is a region where certain kinds of plants cannot grow, nor certain kinds of people either…’ (page 369)

After his return from Paris, Wokulski gushes to Izabela about the achievements he saw there, praising the ingenuity and work he saw. Izabela, safely entrenched in her enchanted world, praises the Polish aristocracy for what they collected, condensing one of Wokulski’s frustrations throughout the novel in this collection/creation contrast (see pages 433-5 for their conversation).

I will end with an excerpt that directly touches on the Jewish question but could be applied to the results of Polish society in general. Rzecki voices his concern on potential trouble while Wokulski’s answer seems to implicate himself—his rise is based solely on money. As mentioned several times already, the ambiguity in the novel shows Prus' concerns that there are no easy answers to the problems he confronts:

‘There’s going to be trouble with the Jews,’ I muttered.

‘There already has been a great deal, it’s gone on for over eighteen centuries, and what’s the outcome? Very noble individuals have perished in anti-Jewish persecutions, and the only ones to survive were those who could protect themselves from destruction. So now what sort of Jews do we have? Persistant, patient, sly, self-reliant, quick-witted, and commanding a mastery of the one weapon left to them—money. By wiping out everything that was good, we have produced an artificial selection and protected the worst.’
(page 511)


seraillon said...

I've just now gotten around to your posts on The Doll. Though I'd seen the title on the NYRB site, I'd had no idea what it was. It appears to be unusually rich and rewarding. Since I'm vaguely planning to dive into a couple of Polish novels later this year, both of which focus on the peasantry, this sounds like it might provide a bit of urban leavening.

Dwight said...

I really enjoyed it and definitely recommend it.

I just realized Saturday marks marks the centenary of Prus' death--I'll have to note that coincidence.