Monday, May 14, 2012

The Doll: we may well be witnesses of a tragedy

There are few instances in world literature of a novel’s hero acquiring in the public eye all the characteristics of a live and tangible person, as did The Doll’s principle character, Stanisław Wokulski. Thus, between the two world wars, Prus’s admirers expressed their feelings by attaching a plaque to the wall of a Warsaw apartment house (which could be identified from an exact description in the novel), with the inscription: “Here lived Stanisław Wokulski, hero of The Doll by Bolesław Prus.”

(from The History of Polish Literature by Czesław Miłosz)

A self-made man, Stanisław Wokulski works his way up the social ladder by his enormous willpower and drive. He is never accepted at any level of society during his rise, though. One of the questions he and others keep asking center on his achievements and what they are for—how grand are his plans and what is the motivation behind them? The chief clerk in his store, Ignacy Rzecki, asks the same thing in his journal, expanding on the question:

Even so, today, almost every hour, I wonder the same thing about Staś Wokulski. He had a good living after his wife’s death, so why did he go to Bulgaria? He made a fortune there so he would wind up the shop; so why is he creating a new trading company? Why has he rented a huge apartment? Why has he bought a carriage and horses? Why is he striving to get into the aristocracy and avoiding tradesmen, who will never forgive him for it? And why has he concerned himself with the carter Wysocki and his brother, the railwayman? Why has he established workshops for several poor apprentices? Why is he taking care of that harlot, who, although she lives at the Magdalenes, is doing his good name so much harm?
(page 129, and a good summary of the first 120 pages of the novel)

A little later, Wokulski has his haberdashery shop blessed and during the celebratory, elaborate dinner following the rite Rzecki gets a partial answer. He turns to one of the other clerks and asks what all this is for. The other clerk answers “For?" he echoed, gazing blankly at me, "it’s for Miss Łęcka.” After the dinner, Rzechi wants more insight from the old friend Szuman. Rzechi asks him about Wokulski’s “peculiar change in his character.”

“I see none,” Szuman replied, “he always was a man of action who carried out whatever came into his head. He decided to go to the university, and went; he decided to make a fortune, and did so. If he has got some folly or other into his head, he will not hesitate to commit it. It’s his character.”

“But for all that,” I said, “I see many contradictions in his behavior…”

“That is hardly to be wondered at,” the doctor interrupted, “for two men are merged in him: a Romantic of the pre-1863 kind, and a positivist of the ‘70s. What onlookers find contradictory is perfectly consistent with Wokulski himself.”

“But has he not been involved in any new…incidents?” I asked.

“I know of none,” Szuman replied drily.

I fell silent and it was a moment before I began again: “What will become of him in the long run?”

Szuman raised his eyebrows and clasped his hands: “Nothing good,” he replied. “People like him either reconcile themselves to everything, or come up against a great obstacle and break their heads open on it. Hitherto things have gone well with him…but no man wins every time in his life.”

“What then?” I asked.

“So we may well be witnesses of a tragedy,” Szuman concluded. He drank a glass of tea, then went home.

I could not sleep that night. Such terrible predictions on what should have been a day of triumph… But the Lord knows more than Szuman and surely He will not let Staś go to waste…
(page 143, ellipsis in original)

And there you have one key to The Doll. But there’s more…so much more, even regarding Wokulski. He makes clear his disdain for the aristocracy yet he doesn’t feel comfortable in their midst. He’s infatuated with Izabela but feels he can’t get close to her which feeds his wretchedness. It is when he is unsure about what he needs to do that he flounders. The battle within him between logic and passion needs the drive of his enormous goals to keep him balanced. Wokulski, replying to Rzecki’s request to retreat from the trouble he has gotten into, explodes:

“I will not retreat!” he exclaimed, “a thirsty man does not draw back from a well. If I am to perish, let me at least perish drinking… In any case, what is it you all want from me? Since childhood I have lived like a caged bird—in service, in prison, even in that unhappy marriage I sold myself into. But today, when my wings are opening, you all begin to hoot after me, like domestic geese at a wild one which has taken flight… What is some stupid shop or partnership to me? I want to live, I want…”
(page 204, ellipsis in original)

One overarching source of conflict, internal and external, in The Doll is that expectations are out of alignment with reality. Wokulski feeds this conflict, both within himself and in society, on many levels. Somewhat related to this source of conflict is the bad feelings Wokulski brings about in other people—not through what he actually does but how others perceive and react to him.

As my initial post on The Doll highlights from Stanisław Barańczak’s introduction, Wokulski is part of the middle generation of the three shown by Prus, a blending of both the older “Romantic” views and an evolving idealist outlook. The old friend Szuman identifies some of the source of Wokulski’s Romaticism:

”And yet he,” Szuman went on, “in Hopfer’s cerllar [as a grocer’s clerk] and on the steppe [in exile], fed himself on the heroines of Romantic poetry and such-like chimeras, so that he sees a divinity in Miss Łęcka. He doesn’t merely love her, he adores her, he worships her, would gladly fall on his knees before her… A bitter awakening awaits him! For, although he’s a full-blooded Romantic, he isn’t going to imitate [Polish poet Adam] Mickiewicz who forgave the woman who mocked him, even yearned for her after the betrayal, bah! then made her immortal. A fine lesson for our young ladies; if you want fame, betray your most fervent admirers! We Poles are condemned to act as fools even in a matter as simple as love.”
(page 509, ellipsis in original)

Mickiewicz’s poetry plays an important role in The Doll, providing shorthand at times for what the characters are feeling. The longest quote from Mickiewicz captures Wokulski at his most Romantic:

And after many days or many years,
When I am summoned to abandon my tomb,
You will remember your sleeping friend
And journey down from heaven to revive him.

Once more will I be drawn to your white breast,
Once more will your dear arm encircle me;
I will awake—as from a moment’s sleep,
Kissing your cheeks, gazing into your eyes.
(page 569)

Note: all page numbers refer to the first edition of the Central European University Press version of Bolesław Prus' The Doll (Hungary, 1996).

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