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Literature / The Doll

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Lalka translation  by Bolesław Prus (the pen name of Aleksandfter Głowacki) is regarded by some as the best novel ever written in Polish. First serialized in the newspaper "Kurier Codzienny" (29th September 1887 - 24th May 1889), then published in a book form by Gebethner i Wolff in 1890, it's the story of a Self-Made Man Stanisław Wokulski trying to win the love of an aristocrat Izabela Łęcka, at the same time working out who he actually is and what he actually wants, which is anything but simple.


Being full of social criticism, subtle philosophical arguments (on behalf of positivism) and dickensian episodes, beautifully written, no wonder it became required reading in secondary schools.

It has entered public domain and may be read in its original Polish here.

No relation to the 1919 Lubitsch film.

The Doll contains examples of:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: Grumpy, large and socially awkward Wokulski for Izabela. Also, the sociable Małgorzata Mincel for Wokulski.
  • All Take and No Give: Izabela. In a short time she was actually in a relationship with Wokulski she was definitely the taker.
  • All Issues Are Political Issues: Common trope at the time, because they really were, but Rzecki takes it in a direction of his own and believes All Issues Are Connected To The Bonaparte Issue Somehow.
  • Alone in a Crowd: Wokulski has trouble relating to people, even the normal, common-as-dirt people. He never belongs anywhere.
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  • All of the Other Reindeer: Wokulski was given the treatment as a young salesman, because he spent his nights studying to go to the university.
  • Ambiguous Ending: Wokulski vanishes. He might have killed himself, or left for Paris. Anyone's guess.
  • Angst: Wokulski's internal monologue, over himself and the world in general.
  • Arc Word: "lalka" ("a doll"). Also, Wokulski gets called "crazy" by several unconnected people, for several loosely connected reasons.
  • And Now for Someone Completely Different: The novel has a conventional third-person narrator, but parts of it are taken from "The old salesman's diary", being written by Ignacy Rzecki, whose interpretation of things is rather sadly wrong. Also, he reminisces a lot.
  • As the Good Book Says...: Izabela of all people. She misses the point, though.
  • Badass Bookworm: Wokulski is an alumnus of Szkoła Przygotowawcza and was on his way to becoming an engineer when the Uprising began. He remains interested in science and technology.
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  • Based on a True Story: Think nobody would sue over a doll? It appears someone did, giving Prus the idea for the lawsuit episode as well as the title.
  • The Beautiful Elite: Izabela's circles.
  • Beauty = Goodness: Averted, with an exception for Helena Stawska. Izabela only has beauty, and Wokulski - only the troubled goodness. Most characters are neither here nor there, but Izabela cannot comprehend that Wokulski - who's most emphatically not her type - can be a genuine person with feelings, and not a villain or a device to make her rich and respected.
  • Bilingual Backfire: "Farewell, miss Iza."
  • Bilingual Dialogue: Any conversation with Grossmutter, who only speaks German.
  • Brain Fever: After his final heartbreak Wokulski spends several weeks in bed.
  • Brainless Beauty: Izabela is an etherical, graceful beauty. She's also unable to see anything for what it is, not how it looks like.
  • Cannot Talk to Women: Stanisław Wokulski usually has no problem talking to women, but most of his conversations with Izabela turn out disastrous - at least, so he thinks.
  • The Casanova: Starski.
  • Category Traitor: Szlangbaum, A Friend in Need of Wokulski's, abused by his coworkers as a Jew, would convert if not for his fear of being branded this.
  • The Charmer: Mraczewski, who works in Wokulski's shop and could sell sand to Beduins
  • Chronic Hero Syndrome: As much as he Angsts about it (and he does a lot), Wokulski keeps helping random people. Mostly financially.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: If Wokulski is around, don't try and give Izabela looks. He will destroy you the best he can.
  • Creature of Habit: Rzecki's bedroom and his morning routine haven't changed in twenty five years. He's been planning a vacation for all this time and never got around to taking it.
  • The Dandy: The young male part of The Beautiful Elite. Wokulski tries to be one for Izabela.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Doctor Szuman and Mrs Meliton have both got the fuzzy end of the lolly in their respective lives, making them rather snarky.
  • Death by Despair: Ignacy Rzecki falls ill after Wokulski's dissapearance and Napoleon the Third's death. He thinks it's because he's practically retired and hasn't much to do, Szuman says it's heart disease. Whatever it is, he dies of it in the last chapter.
  • Death Seeker: Wokulski has these moments. He does try suicide later in the book, but is rescued.
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: Ochocki says he does. Might be simply bored out of his skull.
  • The Determinator: Deconstructed a bit. Wokulski does not give up. Ever. Until he finally does, over something personally painful, but actually quite minor and easily foreseen.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Rude or insensitive remarks on the topic of Izabela have cost one man his job and another his tooth.
  • Divorce Assets Conflict: Though Mrs Krzeszowska won't give him an actual divorce, her relationship with her husband is an example, both sides being petty and arguing over money. Though they have one or two Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other moments. Tiny ones.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Second version in Wokulski. Whose Love Interest is explicitly stated in the narrative to be incapable of true love. Or feelings in general.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: Don't try and help Izabela. She's going to hate you with passion.
  • Double Standard: Abuse, Female on Male: Wąsowska has a rather twisted explanation as to why women should be allowed to cheat on their men, and why men who do anything about this (like threaten divorce) are morally wrong.
  • Downer Ending: Rzecki dies, Wokulski disappears, and Ochocki plans to leave for St. Petersburg - presumably forever.
  • Dreaming the Truth: How Izabela works out just who bought her father's debts.
  • Duel to the Death: Wokulski vs. Krzeszowski, over the latter making Izabela sad. Score: Wokulski: 1, Krzeszowski: 1 lost tooth, no hard feelings.
  • Entertainingly Wrong: It's more sad than entertaining, but whenever someone tries to guess Stanisław Wokulski's motivations, they come up with something grand, fantastic, and entirely wrong. He really only cares for Izabela.
  • Everybody Hates Mathematics: Izabela thinks ten percent of thirty is ten. Because ten is ten, right?
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The prince is never given a name.
  • Everyone Loves Blondes: Guess what colour Izabela's hair is?
  • Film of the Book: Made in 1968 by Wojciech Jerzy Has.
  • Fixing the Game: When they play cards, Wokulski lets Mr Łęcki win, because he's in financial straits and wouldn't take help directly. Mr Łęcki, being who he is, takes it as a proof of his own intelligence.
  • Frivolous Lawsuit: Krzeszowski (who has seventeen lawsuits himself, on account of his numerous and massive debts) falls like a ton of bricks upon his wife after she sues Stawska for theft of her late daughter's doll. Which was actually broken by Krzeszowska's maid. She then hid it to avoid punishment.
  • Gadgeteer Genius / Absent-Minded Professor: Realistic version in Ochocki, who holds degrees in natural history and engineering, has invented a couple of things and is lovably scatterbrained.
  • Gratuitous English: The actual reason people back then would learn English (fashion aside) was to read English novels, often by Charles Dickens, whose social sensibilities Prus shares.
  • Gratuitous French: The conversations between graceful ladies, naturallement.
  • Gratuitous German: The older generation of Mincel family. Jan and Franc are bilingual. Ignacy Rzecki, who grew up with them, falls into Gratuitous German a couple of times.
  • Henpecked Husband: In Rzecki's part of the narrative - Wokulski's marriage to Małgorzata. He mostly did it not to starve, she thought he was hot as hell and kept fawning over him and showing him off, driving him crazy.
  • Hysterical Woman: Krzeszowska spasms, cries, sends anonymous letters full of slander and sues people.
  • The Ingenue: Discussed and deconstructed. Izabela and Ewelina, the pretty, refined, graceful young ladies, are completely self-absorbed and shallow. The women of this sort are compared by Mrs Zasławska to dolls, pretty, but worthless - and when they grow up, it's usually too late. Wąsowska is implied to have been one in her youth.
  • Interrupted Suicide: After hearing Izabella's conversation with Starski (they spoke in English, being convinced that he wouldn't understand), Wokulski attempts suicide by throwing himself under a train. He gets saved by Wysocki's brother (one of the random people Wokulski has helped). Also, Szuman claims he tried to poison himself due to Love Hurts.
  • I'm Standing Right Here: Mr Łęcki runs into the shop, shouting abuse about Szlangbaum's father (who really, really hasn't ripped him off, but Mr Łęcki is a bit deluded about money).
  • Impoverished Patrician: Mr Łęcki. It's not that obvious at the first glance in-universe, but he is selling everything he owns jut to keep afloat. Without Wokulski's help from behind the scene, Łęcki would get broke in no time.
  • Jewish and Nerdy: Szuman is a doctor of medicine with strong scientific interests, and he strongly prefers pursuing these interests to treating people (he will help you, in his own blunt manner, if you're a friend or can't afford doctors). Also Szlangbaum's father thinks this trope is the greatest advantage Jews have.
  • Knight In Sour Armor: Szuman (as befits a member of medical profession in a XIX century Polish novel) is a world-weary, mightily snarky guy who will make some tiny improvement to the wold, dammit. Like curing some poor soul who hasn't money for doctors.
  • Love at First Sight: Wokulski saw Izabela. Thus, the plot was set in motion.
  • Love Makes You Dumb: Virtually all dumb things Wokulski does are desperate attempts to get Izabela's attention or approval. The only smart thing he does for his love is learning English (as a surprise for her), so when Izabela badmouths him to someone else in this language, he can at least get properly heartbroken.
  • Loving a Shadow: Wokulski. Somewhat unusual version in Izabela, who "loves" a marble statue (of Apollo). Yes, really.
  • Mad Scientist: Professor Geist, though he might just be a conman. We'll never know...
  • Madonna–Whore Complex: Wokulski is a case, possibly because his lofty ideals clash with what Izabela does.
  • Make-Up Is Evil: Of the "dangerous to the user's health" sort. Małgorzata dies after applying some sort of snake oil that was supposed to make her prettier.
  • Marry for Love: The only one in this story who does is Węgiełek, and he becomes increasingly paranoid and jealous of his wife after meeting one of her former clients by chance souring the relationship.
  • The Matchmaker: Mrs Meliton is one by profession. Rzecki has, in good faith, set Wokulski up with Małgorzata Mincel, and tries to set him up with Helena Stawska, because he thinks they're made for each other.
  • Mistaken for Spies: The English teacher and Mrs Meliton, by Ignacy Rzecki, who seems convinced Wokulski is part of a spy network.
  • Moral Guardians: Krzeszowska inexplicably accuses Helena Stawska of seducing her husband, Wokulski, Rzecki... She's also very concerned with her maid's perceived lack of morality, but can't see anything wrong in the frequent executor of her schemes, Maruszewicz. Who actually is a petty forger.
  • The Morlocks: The only thing Izabela is scared of (see the factory scene in chapter V).
  • No Accounting for Taste: Peple think this of Ewelina and the baron. She only sees his money and bad health, but he's actually in love. Till he learns of her cheating.
  • Nobility Marries Money: Why Izabela's family isn't really adverse to Wokulski.
  • Not So Different: Szuman, for all his cynicism, admits to having suffered a bad case of Love Hurts in his youth.
  • Obliviously Evil: Izabela has no idea how much suffering she causes.
  • Patriotic Fervor: The prince, in a lofty, romantical way.
  • The Philosopher: Wokulski monologues internally on the subjects of Love Hurts and Inherent in the System.
  • Pretty Boy: Several. Mostly in Izabela's circles - Starski is one of them.
  • Princess in Rags: Mr Łęcki has lost nearly all his money. You'd never tell from his and his daughter's lifestyle.
  • Proper Lady: Madame Zasławska.
  • Rich in Dollars, Poor in Sense: Mr Łęcki and his daughter both only belong in a ballroom. Pity their money is long gone at this point.
  • Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: Major theme. Ignacy Rzecki is a consummate romantic, who thinks big (when it comes to politics - in his own life he's an unassuming, quiet person). Ochocki is a (kind of western style) positivist, fascinated by science. Wokulski (who fought in the January Uprising and was sent to Siberia for it, but later got rich selling grain to the Tzar's army) zigzags between the two. In the end, he's mostly driven by emotion. While still advocating modern technology and commiting small acts of good in a somewhat detached, absentminded way.
  • Scars Are Forever: Or, in Wokulski's case, frostbite marks he got in Siberia. Izabela finds them repulsive.
  • School Is for Losers: Wokulski's father kept berating him in his youth for wasting money on books. As did his collegues at work.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Wokulski has hints of this, especially during fancy parties, where he's not sure of himself.
  • Shrine to the Fallen: Krzeszowska only stays in her old flat because she won't move anything in her late daughter's room.
  • Sibling Rivalry / Vitriolic Best Buds: Jan and Franc Mincel do love each other, but their rather different outlooks result in a constant state of war. They only make up to start the fight anew.
  • Single-Target Sexuality: Go ahead and guess.
  • Silly Rabbit, Romance Is for Kids!: Szuman considers this "love" thing utter nonsense and pathology.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: All over the scale, from the staunch idealist Rzecki to the cynical doctor Szuman.
  • Sour Outside, Sad Inside: Wokulski is rather aloof by default, but much more so whenever he's worrying about personal matters.
  • Spoiled Brat: Izabela is genuinely devoid of empathy.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Wokulski's paternal uncle and countess Zasławska used to be very much in love. Money got in the way.
  • Streetwalker: Marianna, one of Wokulski's charity cases. Once reformed, she marries Węgiełek (another charity case).
  • Story Within a Story: Węgiełek tells a poignant fairy tale.
  • Tall Poppy Syndrome
  • The Tease: Izabela is a flirt. Even with her fiance around. Wąsowska can't let a man go unseduced either, though she finds Wokulski unbreakable.
  • They Called Me Mad!: Geist's ideas, dismissed by the French scholars, actually seem to make some sense today. Though they're still a bit risque (manipulating molecular structures has its limits, like everything).
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Not that they ever marry, but Izabela sees her prospective relationship with Wokulski like this. And she won't give up her herd of admirers.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Izabela is only "grateful" to people she likes. Anyone else doing her a favour is either forgotten or taken as Manipulative Bastard and passionately hated.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Slightly, we learn as much from him as from the characters speculating and gossiping. Sometimes the narrator won't say who's actually right.
  • Unrequited Love Lasts Forever: Wokulski does get horribly disillusioned with Izabela, but it's ambiguous whether he stops loving her. At the point where it only causes him pain.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Tomasz Łęcki, Izabela's father, is very polite and well mannered, but entirely clueless as to what the world is like.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Ewelina.

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