The Doll by Boleslaw Prus is supposed to be one of the shining examples of Polish literature, and it’s actually pretty good. I didn’t expect to like it. In fact, I tried to be emotionally uninvolved (something that’s impossible for me). Some of the reviews that I perused mentioned the main character’s fall, but I didn’t see that at all. I saw him triumph. Let me explain…
This book takes place mostly in the 1870s after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 to 1878. Stanislaw, the main character, comes back from the war obscenely rich, having made his fortune selling necessary items to the Russian army. He intentionally left to make the money necessary to win the love of Izabela, an impoverished aristocrat—as a commoner, he needs more than just his undying devotion to make it into the rarefied ranks of the nobility. He then proceeds to save Izabela and her father financially.
All his efforts seem to pay off when Izabela agrees to marry him. But he quickly realizes that to aristocrats, marriage and love (and fidelity) don’t necessarily walk hand in hand.
All the events take place during that part in Polish history when Poland wasn’t actually a country. When I started the book, I didn’t know this. It definitely added a different dimension.
Stanislaw, or Stas, is the main character. I find him endlessly fascinating. He’s smart and clever, generous and a romantic. He knows that his obsession with Izabela is a bit crazy, but he’s willing to bet his heart and future on love. He’s kind of sweet. While reviewers say that he falls in his attempted climb into the nobility, I don’t see that at all. First of all, he only cares about the nobility because of Izabela. Second of all, the nobility doesn’t spurn him, he spurns it upon finding out that they have a fluid sense of morality. He triumphs in the end over the entrenched Polish class system.
Izabela, on the other hand, is weak. She’s smart and charming, but she’s also superficial and shallow. She has the fluid morals that Stas finds so repugnant. Those end up being her downfall. The downfall of the aristocracy.
Rzecki is Stas’s friend and manager. He’s the historical commentary in the story and helps to keep it move forward (otherwise Stas’s longing would probably mire it in self-hate, doubt, despair, and joy—he’s very emotional).
Although the bulk of The Doll takes place in the 1870s, Rzecki, who fought in the Hungarian revolution in 1848, often flashes back to his youth and time fighting. He has this ingrained belief that Napoleon (or one of Napoleon’s descendants) will return to free Europe from the tyranny of the upper classes of society. One of the major themes is the destruction of Polish society due to the injustice of the nobility. And there’s truth in it. The aristocrats protected their power so much that their society stagnated. Their iron grip on what they thought was theirs drove a wedge between them and the lower classes (and them and a strong central government) that ended up killing both them and Poland.
Another theme is the Polish Jews. Prus only hints about future trouble for the people, but even in the 1800s, people were willing to blame their troubles on them. At this time, the lower classes such as the merchants were rising in wealth and power, and the Jews proved to be innovative entrepreneurs…and convenient scapegoats when things went poorly for the aristocrats and the commoners. Pretty much everybody blamed the Jews.
I loved the overall message, though, about morality and honor. Stas recognized that this was important and, because of it, Izabela lost her hold over him. Prus had many insightful quotes about life in general, and humanity in particular, in this book:
“A man is like a moth: he hurls himself blindly into the flame, although it hurts and will consume him.”
“The worst loneliness is not the one that surrounds a man, but the emptiness within himself..”
This probably wouldn’t be my first choice of literature because of its length, but it was an interesting read. It gave me a lot of insight into the class struggles in Poland that continued on all the way up to the fall of the Iron Curtain.