The Doll (1996)

Polish title: Lalka (1890)
By: Bolesław Prus
Translated by: David J. Welsh
Published by: NYRB Classics
Originally published by: Gebethner i Wolf

Warsaw under Russian rule in the late 1870s is the setting for Prus’s grand panorama of social conflict, political tension, and personal suffering. The middle-aged hero, Wokulski, successful in business, is being destroyed by his obsessive love for a frigid society doll, Izabela. Embattled aristocrats, the new men of finance, Dickensian tradesmen, and the urban poor all come vividly to life on the vast, superbly detailed canvas against which Wokulski’s personal tragedy is played out.
Unlike his Western European counterparts, Prus had to work under official censorship. In this edition, most of the smaller cuts made by the Tsarist censor have been restored, and one longer fragment is included as an appendix.

Prus’s major novel, originally published in 1890 and now available in a revised English translation, offers a richly detailed panoramic portrait of Warsaw under Russian domination in the 1870s, as well as a Balzacian plot that centers in the wealthy businessman Wokulski’s unrequited passion for the aristocratic, emotionless Izabela Lecka (the “”doll””–though not the only one–of Prus’s cunning title). Wokulski’s downward progression is counterpointed memorably against the expressions of optimism and idealism trumpeted by a brilliantly realized host of secondary characters–one of whom, the elderly clerk Rzecki, comes to life on the page with a positively Dickensian vitality. One of the greatest novels of the 19th century.
from The Kirkus Review

The Doll was translated in 1972 by David J. Welsh (1920-1985), Profesor of Slavonic Languages and Literature at Michigan University and published by Twayne Publishers, Inc. New York. The NYRB Classics edition was first published by Central European University Press in 1996 with an introduction by Stanisław Barańczak and revised translation by Dariusza Tłoczyk and Anna Zaranko. It follows the 20th century Polish critical editions. 

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Zielony Balonik book club notes:

One line in my notes reads “inventions, accidents and dreams, experiments and abberations”, a propos of precisely what I can’t remember, but it can stand as a summary of the novel.

The main characters
Stanislaus Wokulski, Izabela Łęcki, Ignacy Rzecki

Wokulski, idealistic and romantic, idealises Izabela – there is nothing erotic or tender in his admiration of a woman he puts on a pedestal. His obsession may appear stupid, but to understand the novel we have accept its enduring reality for Wokulski. Most of their ‘relationship’ is in his mind, as they have little contact – she says at one point, ‘I don’t even know you’. He hunts her, and she recognises his hunger. He recognises her shallowness, but this doesn’t change his feelings for her. In the brilliant train scene Wokulski, despite the noise of the train and the fact they’re speaking in English, grasps from their tone of voice and body language what’s going on between Izabela and Starski. His mental health issues – he knows what’s wrong, tries to distance himself from Izabela (reading the Arabian Nights, etc, and trying to do good for mankind), but he can’t change his feelings and behaviour. With other people, he is pragmatic and practical, for example in the way he helps Wsyocki, who later returns the favour by saving Wokulski from the approaching train (in a comically matter-of-fact way, complaining that killing yourself thus is against the rules). There is sympathy for Wokulski from ordinary people. Before his death, there’s an image of a stone thrown into a pool, creating ripples which gradually fade to leave no trace, which is what he wants for his life, his time on earth – to be excised. The book maps his sense of loss and humiliation.

Izabela is self-interested, entitled, often unlikable, wants to maintain her status despite her father losing most of his money. She sees Wokulski as trustworthy, and rich, and will marry him while continuing to see her lovers. Compared to Wokulski, she has a narrow soul, though at times she seeks a higher purpose. Her knowledge is constrained – she is not supposed to know about her father’s business / financial affairs. At the end we are told she has entered a convent, but with no sense of how long she might stay.

Rzecki’s diaries offer another perspective on events, including a vivid description of seeing action in 1848-49 (when nothing much seems to have changed since the Thirty Years War). He frequently gets things wrong – for example that Wokulski will become politically active, or marry Mrs Stawska, his belief as a Buonapartist that Napoleon IV will save Europe. NB the Polish national anthem is the only one in the world which mentions Buonaparte (Przejdziem Wisle, przejdziem Warte, / Bedziem Polakami, / Dal nam przyklad Bonaparte, / Jak zwyciezac mamy). What happens to his dog? It’s forgotten as the book progresses. His death is beautifully written, and we are allowed to experience it whereas Wokulski’s takes place off-stage and we hear about it second-hand.

All of these three are motherless – perhaps an oblique comment on Poland under Russian control?

Other characters

The Prince – ‘o, unhappy country’ – complaints about the occupation, but he is a somewhat comical character and the book is a critique of the aristocracy, whose priority is reliably to receive a good interest on their invested capital. The Prince laments, after Wokulski leaves the investment company, that the meetings will be held in Yiddish, but he himself prefers speaking French. Geist is an ambiguous character, charlatan / genius / madman. Szumann is a portrait of an (eccentric but insightful) assimilated Jew. Ochocki begins as a potential rival of Wokulski for Izabela’s hand, but is more committed to science. He realises Napoleons won’t set the world to rights. The Duchess undertakes charitable works, treats her estate workers well, is a good friend to Wokulski, who however misses her funeral.

General themes

The book’s dialogues cover varied subjects including the social roles of Jews, the artistocracy and women, and the development of science and technology. The aristocrats live in the 18th century, Wolukski and the traders in the 19th, and the scientists in the 20th.
A sense that trouble is coming, including heightened anti-Semitism. Political positions become more rigidly held.
The book is about men – women are present but don’t directly influence the course of events. Various roles and possibilities are open to women, for example they gather intelligence and can sell information – ‘data retrieval’, matchmakers – as a means of survival.
The trial (regarding the supposedly stolen doll) is based on one that took place in Vienna. It offers a microcosm of life under occupation. The students are a satire on resistance within the Empire.
Technology is described as it was known at the time. Railways (as agents of doom) feature strongly in Dickens’ Dombey and Son. The appreciation of flight (beyond hot-air balloons) is interesting; a sense that it’s coming, but no-one knows when or in what form it will manifest itself.
Relations with Russia are touched on obliquely, but concerns those punished and oppressed after the January 1863 uprising, and their reactions to their experiences. Wokulski’s exile could be said to have extended him intellectually and stunted him emotionally.
Languages: The role of (the) English in the novel. The aristocrat who apes English ways, the fashion for speaking the language. Wokulski speaks French too, but uses it to advantage in Paris, unlike the Polish gentry using it simply as a marker of social superiority. German features too – the old lady who brings the shop staff their morning coffee, the German investors who benefit from the ‘Polish’ cotton made in Łodz (whose interests Wokulski is criticised for going against when he imports Russian cotton.)
The second half of the book slows down, e.g. dreams are related, there are scenes that don’t influence the plot.

Cities: Warsaw & Paris

Wokulski leaves for Paris from Warsaw’s Vienna Station, now a museum. Warsaw is portrayed in detail, to the extent that its locations can still be visited; Paris, in comparison, is like a dream. Ability isn’t prized in Tsarist Poland, people must go to liberal Paris for opportunities and education. Paris is full of chancers. Wokulski gradually makes sense of Paris, as of his life, sensing a pattern. The yellow-fronted house W buys from Łęcki can still be seen. It offers enough stories for a novel in itself.


Prus trained as a doctor and in the natural sciences. The novel was serialised in weekly installments over 2-3 years; he had time to think about it, and develop his themes. It was published in book form in 3 volumes in 1890. According to Prus, the only doll is Helena’s, that featured in the trial; the term doesn’t apply to Izabela.

Other readings

In Lalka i perla (2001) Olga Tokarczuk considers it as a metaphysical story, comparing it to Miłosz’s translation of The Pearl, about the search for oneself.

At school pupils were asked to consider the conflict in the book between positivism and romanticism. Perhaps it’s too early to read such a rich and nuanced work, remembered as an unhappy romance that features certain Warsaw sites.

There are some good articles and essays on the book, seen by many as the most important Polish novel of the 19th century, including a recent one by Krzysztof Varga.

The (first) translation into English was made in 1972. Why then? What was the prompt? Why hadn’t it been translated before? Why was the translation revised in 1996? The English-language edition is difficult to read (small type) and the translation doesn’t read all that well.


a tour of some of the novel’s location
Polish tv version
a reading of the complete text
Warsaw Railway Museum (formerly Vienna Station)

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