Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Doll: You cads!

The introductory post on The Doll mentions that Prus wished he had titled the book Three Generations. I’ve provided excerpts for the older generation (full-blown Romaticism represented by Ignacy Rzecki) and the middle one (Romanticism mixed with idealism, embodied by Stanisław Wokulski). The younger generation does not have quite the central role as the older two but the mixed nature of their character adds to Prus' pessimistic view of Poland.

The character of the younger generation that has the most promise is Julian Ochocki, a scientist and inventor. His introduction to Wokulski starts off on the wrong foot, though, as Ochocki insults him by asking when the older gentleman’s interest in women weakened. Even though Ochocki isn’t seen doing much in the novel he has already accomplished notable achievements and makes it clear his work is his primary interest. To further that goal he leaves Poland—does Prus consider leaving the country necessary for further development? I think that is part of his message and no small part of the pessimism underlying the novel. With people like Ochocki and Wokulski abandoning Poland what will become of the country?

Miss Łęcka falls in the age-range for the younger group as well, although whether or not Prus meant to include her as part of the three-generation comparison isn’t clear. Her self-absorption, characteristic of many of the younger characters, seems intended more as an indictment of the aristocratic class and their enchanted lives. There are several young clerks in Wokulski’s store who provide examples of the younger generation and Prus paints one clerk’s flirtation with socialist politics sympathetically. His final judgment is less than clear, though, since few of the clerks show the same drive or integrity as Rzecki or Wokulski.

There are several students in the novel and their inclusion, mostly as a source of humor, reflects a negative view by Prus on the younger generation. Also spouting socialist slogans, the students seem interested mostly in pranks and sex (although one reply could be “And your point is…?). Here’s the introduction to the students (on the third floor of an apartment building), which left me wondering “Did I really just read that?”:
He [Wokulski] went into the yard and looked around. Almost all the windows were open. In the rear block, on the ground floor, was a laundry describing itself as ‘Parisian’, on the third floor could be heard the beating of a shoemaker’s hammer, and below, on a parapet, a couple of pigeons were cooing, while on the second floor of the same block the monotonous sounds of a pianoforte and a shrill soprano singing scales could be heard: ‘Do re me fa…’

High above, on the third floor, Wokulski heard a strong masculine bass voice, which said: ‘There, she’s been taking cascara [a laxative] again…The tape-worm’s coming out…Marysia, come up here!’

At the same time, the head of a woman looked out of a second-floor window, shouting: ‘Marysia, come back at once…Marysia!’

‘That must be Mme Krzeszowska [the Baroness],’ Wokulski thought. Then he heard an unmistakable sound, and a stream of water poured down from the third floor, hitting the outstretched head of the Baroness and splashing all over the yard. ‘Marysia, come up here!’ the bass voice shouted.

‘You cads!’ Baroness Krzeszowska cried, looking upwards. Another stream of water shot out of the third-floor window and cut off her words in midstream.
(page 173, ellipsis in original)

Their antics don’t get any better from there but they do provide many more humorous moments.

There is an interesting parallel, or rather a continuation, of the idealistic principles between Wokulski and Ochocki. Several times the aristocracy scolds Wokulski for importing cheaper goods from Moscow since it hurts local businessmen and craftsmen. Wokulski dismisses those claims, replying that more people can afford the goods he sells (as well as pointing out the local craftsmen have to wait a year or more for their money because of the bankrupt or miserly upper class). In other words, he provides benefits that outweigh the damage done. Ochocki makes a similar argument at the end of the novel, although his focus was not on economics but on social progress and it seems to be a natural extension of Wokulski’s argument. The subject is the funding of a technological workshop by the Baron, using the proceeds of his divorce (his wife was unfaithful):

Wokulski: ‘That the technological workshop will grow from the sufferings, the ruins of human happiness. And you don’t even ask yourself the question as to how the Baron passed from love for his wife to a workshop.’

‘What’s that to me?’ cried Ochocki, shrugging. ‘The purchase of social progress at the cost of the sufferings of individuals, however terrible—is well worth it.’
(page 626)

I would venture to highlight this point, one I haven't seen stressed in any summary of The Doll. Prus is acutely attuned to the cost as well as the benefit of societal and economic improvement, whether in looking at individuals or classes in the winners or losers of the cost/benefit divide. The author clearly longs for an improved Poland, but he is also aware there is a cost associated with such an improvement. I think a lot of the ambiguity in the novel lies in this point. Things have to improve, but what is the best approach? Who bears the costs? It doesn't take much to cast Ochocki's ideals in a similar light to that of the socialist clerks and students...eggs, omelets, etc.

Rzecki, the old clerk, has the final word on the direction things are moving, which doesn’t rely on the overall qualities of the generations but is very pessimistic nonetheless:

And yet it is difficult to live in this world. Sometimes I ask myself whether there’s really any plan according to which all mankind is moving towards better things, or whether it isn’t all the work of chance, and whether mankind isn’t going in the direction in which a greater force is pushing? If good people are on top, the world moves towards better things, but if rascals are stronger, then it goes to the dogs. And the last limit of good and evil is a handful of dust. (page 654)

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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