In Boleslaw Prus’s novel, a man loves a woman who does not reciprocate his feelings. He persists for years with pursuing her although in the depths of his heart he knows that she is not worthy of him and that it all will end badly. And it does. Why is he destroying his life for a vain and flirtatious woman? Because he idealises and idolises the object of his love. In rare moments, he sees her as she really is but in all other times he projects an image of an ideal woman into her.
The action of the novel takes place in the Russian-controlled Poland in the 1870s at a junction of Romanticism and Polish Positivism and, correspondingly, the protagonist displays Romantic characteristics while being a man of business. The novel has a social side – Stanislaw Wokulski is a bourgeois and a nouveau riche while Izabela Lecka is an aristocratic woman.
Philosophically speaking, Wokulski wants to be elevated from the world of Becoming which is the sphere of accidents and circumstances to the perfect world of Being. When Wokulski is with Izabela, he feels being transported outside of space and time. He sees love in metaphysical terms.
Wokulski would not call his feelings love, and he was not even sure whether there was a word in any language for such feelings. He felt only that she has become a mystical point of convergence of all his memories, desires and hopes, a focal point without which his life would not have any style, and even any sense.
His soul is longing for perfection in all aspects of his life. He is an accidental businessman, regretting of not being a scientist. From time to time he is overwhelmed by an urge to abandon his business and devote his life to probing into the mysteries of the universe. Wokulski is also a philanthropist who is painfully conscious of his country’s social and economic ills.
He is attracted to the image of Izabela which he created in his mind and repelled by the real person. Likewise, he is attracted to aristocracy and repelled by it. The rarefied world in which apparently angelic creatures with gentle manners, like Izabela, display their graces in tastefully arranged surroundings is also the world of parasites exploiting other social classes.
Wokulski is a Great Gatsby of the nineteenth century. In The Great Gatsby, too, love has a metaphysical aspect. Gatsby too is a perfectionist.
Many other novels deal with the theme of unhappy love destroying one’s life, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenin being the most famous one.
The Doll was adapted to film by Wojciech Has, with great success.