The Road to Self: Reading Prus’s Lalka Through the Prism of the Russian Realist Novel
For over a century, Boleslaw Prus’s novel Lalka (1890), with its ambiguous ending and rumored plans for a sequel (Wlodek; Цыбалко, 488-489) has been subject to a variety of interpretations. For this reason two occurrences of agreement by several critics on a particular aspect of the novel seem to deserve special attention. The first concerns the thematic definition of Lalka: Jerzy Pietrkiewicz , Zbigniew Przybyla, and David Welsh, deliberate on various possibilities, such as the conflict and succession of generations, the tale of time and mores, the didactic story of a parvenu’s climbing up and falling down the social ladder; however, all three concur that Prus’s Lalka should be likened to William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair since it, too, may be subtitled “a novel without a hero” (Pietrkiewicz, 241; Przybyla, 111-112; Welsh).
Another aspect of the novel that is commented upon with a certain unity of opinion is the techniques used by the author in the rendering of his main character, Stanislaw Wokulski, or, rather, the source of their origination. Henryk Markiewicz (93), Zbigniew Przybyla (188-189), and a Russian critic Elena Tsybalko (14), point out that the author of Lalka was deeply influenced by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, while Prus’s contemporary Leon Okret simply stated that Lalka was modeled after the psychological novels by these Russian writers (3).
In this paper I propose to challenge the former, and to reevaluate the latter of these two notions.
The dictionary definition of a hero in the historio-cultural, monumental, epic sense of the word invariably contains epithets that point out the subject’s outstanding strength, courage in the face of adversity, ability to accomplish extraordinary deeds, and, frequently, romantic undertones. Joseph Campbell in his fundamental study The Hero with a Thousand Faces has summed up the traditional functions of an epic hero based on multi-ethnic lore. According to his analysis, the main roles customarily played by a “heroic,” or “traditional” hero are a creator, a rebel,and a lover. All three are permanently featured in Wokulski’s repertoire, at least for the duration of time covered in the novel, and we follow his performance as he moves from one role to another, playing each with an equal measure of passion. His appearance in each of these three roles demonstrates that contrary to the above comparison with Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Prus’s Lalka certainly gives the world a hero in the most traditional sense of this word.
Furthermore, the numerous comments on the influence of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky discovered in Prus’s œuvre, and specifically in Lalka, although well documented and quite valid, present an incomplete picture. If one sums up the conclusions from such observations, it may appear as if Prus were somewhat of a distant disciple of the two Russian literary geniuses, and that he at best had applied some of their innovative technique, creating his own character within the framework of the Russian Realist school. Using the aforementioned hypostases of the traditional hero, I intend to show that Prus’s Wokulski is created not inthe likeness of heroes in contemporaneous Russian literature, but as their antithesis. While the intertextual allusions to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky permeate Prus’s novel, he is not modeling it after the works of these two writers, but intrepidly debating with them.
Man’s ability to create, produce, and bring into being, which caused rivalry between mortals and gods in the ancient mythology, by Prus’s time became a largely forgotten attribute of a traditional hero. Prometheus was glorified for disobeying the gods of the Olympus in order to give men fire, and for his subsequent martyrdom. It was utterly inconsequential that the rebellious titan gave men fire so that they may work, because productive work made people equal to gods. For more than half of the nineteenthy century Polish literature showcased splendidly defiant romantic insurgents, who were freed from the necessity to engage in productive work by the invisible host of serfs, the latter being too bland to enter the picture. With the rise of Positivism, casting the underprivileged and unremarkable folks as protagonists of novels and short stories became a commonplace; however, virtually none of these characters would fit the definition of a traditional hero. Prus’s Wokulski, who with his insurrectionist youth and torturous love affair could give any of his Romantic predecessors a good run for their money, heralds the encroaching change as he reconciles the noble labor of love and war with the mundane tasks of daily work and earthly materialization of a natural talent.
Being the first of his kind, Wokulski as a literary character may not be very convincing as either scientist or businessman. We know of his determination in the early days to receive the an education and to engage in scientific research; we also see how easily he ignites at the mere mention of Geist’s experiments. He muses over abandoning the world for the mysterious Parisian laboratory, and treats the microscopic sample of Geist’s ultralight metal as a relic. His actual work as a scientist remains hidden from us, however, as we can only deduce that that is the path he has chosen after dynamiting the castle. Even more scarcely defined is his work at the store. Once we see him sitting at a desk with an abacus – a task barely characteristic for a million-ruble business owner. The other instance of seeing Wokulski at work is on his trip to Paris as a business partner in Suzin’s multi-million operation, which has guaranteed Wokulski a generous commission of five hundred thousand rubles. The work he does turns out to be that of a French interpreter and director of entertainment; a task suitable for a secretary, not for someone who is deemed a commercial genius. Overall, we know that Wokulski is a successful businessman, because we are told so by the author, and because we witness his generous contributions to various causes, worthwhile and otherwise. In other words, we see how Wokulski spends his money, but never how he makes it. The fact that Prus is a pioneer in creating a “positive capitalist” (Milosz, 296) character is probably responsible for the fact that his protagonist looks more like an actor posing as a businessman, than an actual man of business. Yet, Wokulski’s daily work, whether at a store, or in Geist’s underground laboratory, gives him a distinctly Western flair, and puts him in direct opposition with the main hero of any major Russian novel of the same period.
Traditionally, the image of a man with a talent for moneymaking has not been favored by the Russian writers. The first of its kind, Chichikov in Gogol’s Dead Souls, is a merciless caricature without the remotest resemblance to anything heroic. Stoltz in Goncharov’s Oblomov could be considered the Russian equivalent of a “positive capitalist,” if he were, indeed, Russian. His German name affords him the benevolence of the reading audience. After all, a German in Russian opinion cannot help being pragmatic. Nor can he be the novel’s principal hero. In the best works by Tolstoy heroes do an endless amount of soul-searching, but their work consists, at most, of managing their estates. In the most poignant works by Dostoevsky, the heroes either don’t work, or they struggle for mere survival, but no one engages in building a successful business. Enriching oneself, it seems, is only possible through exploitation of those less fortunate, and a true Russian hero with his torturous search for Christ as a role model cannot maintain his spirituality while cracking the abacus beads.
Wokulski, as a fellow Slav, a political subject to the Russian government, and a business partner to a Russian merchant, embodies the possibility of a different mentality. The closest to creating this type of a new hero in Russian literature is Chekhov in The Cherry Orchard. The analogy is so noticeable because of its singularity, that Antoni Slonimski writes in his review of Chekhov’s play that “Jermolaj Lopachin to prawie nasz kochany Stach Wokulski” (Przybyla, 281). Unfortunately, this was Chekhov’s antemortem masterpiece, and Wokulski has no other peers in Russian literature.
Wokulski’s rebellious nature is hinted at in Rzecki’s memoirs, from which we learn of young Stach’s revolutionary past, his participation in the 1863 Uprising, and the subsequent exile to Siberia. However, Prus does not reduce this aspect of Wokulski’s character to reminiscences of a former fire that has long been extinguished. Prus takes his idea of a Promethean hero to a much higher level, bordering on, if not modeled after, the Nietzschean concept of the Übermensch. The hero no longer engages in a politically and geographically marginal, temporal battle; he represents the author’s challenge to humankind and its civilization at large.
The idea shapes up through the utterances of the three scientists engaged in their respective experiments: the cynical doctor Szuman, the aristocratic inventor Ochocki, and the aging eccentric Geist. Szuman, who believes that all people are base animals, studies their nature and abilities. The idealist Ochocki is enthused about the flying machine, which will significantly improve people’s natural physical abilities. Geist, who sees most people as unworthy and possibly evil but allows the existence of a few extraordinary specimens, enters the philosophical dimension in addition to the physical one, and is developing a powerful weapon in order to arm these selected few against the world and give them every chance to prevail. And Wokulski, on whom all three periodically test their theories, is an embodiment of this hypothetical man, whose natural abilities Ochocki wants to expand, and for whom Geist is creating his futuristic weapon. In accordance with his theory, which bears a remarkable resemblance to that of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, Geist openly refers to Wokulski as an extraordinary man. However, recognition of Wokulski’s superior qualities by fellow humans is not sufficient from the author’s perspective, and he furnishes his hero the divine endorsement. As Wokulski waits on panna Izabela at a cathedral, wondering about his place in the world and within the human race, he hears the voice from above, which informs him: “Perhaps you are an eye of the iron sieve into which I cast all these people to divide the chaff from the grain.” Wokulski’s superman status is thus established by the highest possible authority, and it is the existence of such extraordinary people as he, that in Prus’s view will save the rest of the world.
Quite the opposite is true about the heroes of Russian realist writers. Bazarov, who deemed himself a fighter born to destroy the old order, and a man superior in strength and stamina to the “jackdaw” Arkady, is cut down in his prime, and dies, according to his own last words, “writhing like a worm.” Raskolnikov, who thought of himself as an extraordinary man born, perhaps, to save humanity from destitution and vice, falls down on his knees in the symbolic act of repentance, and ends up in chains, sick, beaten, and worked nearly to death, looking up to a former prostitute for salvation and guidance. Father Sergius, a nobleman, an officer, and a monk, who was strong, talented, and sought after by exquisite women, who thought he had attained sainthood and was fit to save thousands, in the end fornicates with a lecherous imbecile, and finishes his days as a nameless laborer in the household of an illiterate peasant.
The spiritual journey of the main character in a Russian realist novel is that from self to Christ, lest he be destroyed for his pride. The highest attainment is the lowest possible bow, the greatest possible humbling of oneself. Wokulski, on the contrary, seems to have already embodied all the Christian virtues, as we witness his generous and inexhaustible help to those in need. His good deeds cover all the familiar situations from the canonical Gospels: he indirectly revives the dying children by giving a job to their father, absolves, in a way, a prostitute’s sins and places her with the nuns, provides shelter for the needy, and literally buys out anyone whose problems were caused by poverty and whom he happens to meet on his way.
At times, Wokulski seems almost too perfect. He instantly excels at anything he lays his hands on, from building a million-ruble business to firing a dueling pistol. The only weak spot that makes this Achilles vulnerable and, by association, human, is his incinerating passion for Izabela. Wokulski claims that every life he saves, every mouth he feeds, and every tear he dries, he does in the name of his love – not for humanity as a whole, but for its one and only representative – panna Izabela Lecka.
To reiterate this claim, Wokulski repeats in various situations throughout the novel that he is not Christ, and that he deserves personal happiness, something just for himself. He continuously argues with an invisible opponent, whether it is the ghost of one of the Great Romantic poets, or the reader who expects the hero to give and sacrifice, or the authorial voice of God, who demands total self-denial from his messiahs. We may also assume that Wokulski, and through him Prus, is discoursing with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, whose heroes are mainly denied personal, private, romantic happiness, which benefits only them and serves no other people or purpose.
Wokulski’s uncompromising quest for the love of a woman whose kiss he would not have traded, in his own words, for years of glory or the well-being of all humankind, is unmistakably selfish in its nature. Wokulski wants Izabela for himself, not because she is worthier than others, more deserving to be showered with all the riches his money can buy, or because she possesses any extraordinary qualities. Wokulski, in his rational moments, recognizes his feeling as obsession, and because of it, he realizes that no other woman, however virtuous or beautiful, would do. He wants the object of his obsession because it is the fulfillment of his wish. He recognizes that, and is content with that, and sees no need for any other reason.
This man’s claim to personal happiness for its own sake, as his birthright, not as a part of a bigger plan, a moving force behind the betterment of humanity, or a reward he may receive if he has done a good job in the realm of the spiritual – this seemingly natural yet so unprecedented line of thinking – makes, perhaps, for the most striking contrast with what we find in the minds of heroes in Russian realist novels. The mentality instilled in the reader’s mind through the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky struggles with the notion that personal happiness is the norm, and not a guilty pleasure, spiritual shallowness, or a deviation of conscience. Being an heir to the generation of Polish Romantics, Wokulski has to struggle with this as well; however, his fight does not seem quite as desperate, perhaps because one can make out the silhouette of the author through his hero’s sheer countenance. Ultimately, he frees himself, and at the same time, frees his reader, by accepting his own worth, and the challenges that come with it. Aesthetically, Prus revives in his Wokulski a traditional hero, while epistemologically he offers a powerful alternative to the ideals and morality presented in Russian realist novels.
- Translation by David Welsh.
© I. Caron
[an error occurred while processing this directive]