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Literary travels: “The Doll” and 19th century Warsaw

Updated: Aug 25, 2023

“The Doll” is a love story like many others of the 19th and 20th centuries, where a wealthy merchant and millionaire, Stanisław Wokulski, fell in love with an impoverished aristocrat, Izabella Łęcka, who had nothing but title and her looks. Aiming to always do something good and meaningful in his life for his kinsmen and the poor, Wokulski was an idealist; however, his love was obsessive and ill-placed, because Izabela Łęcka was an aristocrat and devoid of love for anyone and anything meaningful, leading a worthless life focused mostly on entertainment. She agreed to marry Wokulski only because of his money, still despising him, as was the way of many aristocrats of that era.

On a larger scale, “The Doll” is one of the greatest Polish realistic novels and provides insight into the life of 19th century city. Many believe that the love story is only a pretext because the main heroine is considered to be Warsaw itself, where the contemporary city landscape is portrayed in its streets and places. Some of the places perished or changed after The Warsaw Uprising in 1944. In the background, you can detect the main theme of the century, the decline of the aristocracy and the birth of a new class driving society, the bourgeoisie.

Interestingly, there are many interpretations of the title. According to the writer himself, the title was completely accidental and referred to a toy of one of the protagonists, along with a note about a doll theft once read in a newspaper by the author. With time, however, the title began to take on different meanings. The titular “doll” was supposed to be Izabella Łęcka herself, an empty aristocrat, as apparently all aristocrats at that time were called dolls. It was also supposed to refer to the theme of the “world of theater” in which we all live as its puppets. Recently it has also acquired a feminist character and is supposed to refer to an oppressive system in which beautiful, angel-like girls are brought up in accordance with a culturally assigned role and then married to older and wealthy men.

A peculiar fact about "The Doll" is that it was written in a so-called Aesopian language, which is a coded language understandable only to contemporary Varsovians. An example of this Aesop code in “The Doll” is the fact that even though Warsaw was occupied at the time by Russia, there is no mention of Russia’s presence in Warsaw throughout the entire book. The only communities that the book mentions are Poles, Germans, and Jewish people.

Here are some of the places related to “The Doll” that I visited on my last trip to the capital:

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