The Hero is Dead – Long Live the Hero: Boleslaw Prus’s Response to the Russian Realists

Inna Caron, Ohio State University

Every work of literature has protagonists. Not every one features a hero. The concept of a hero may be as concise as a dictionary definition, such as "an illustrious warrior" or "one that shows great courage," or as detailed as the one presented in Joseph Campbell’s fundamental study The Hero With a Thousand Faces, which traces the evolution of the mythological champion through a maze of multi-ethnic religious and secular lore. However, whether one chooses encyclopedic or epic terms, the idea of a hero is traditionally associated with pride, passion, rebellion – the associations that together form the distinct portrait of someone who stands out of the crowd, someone of undeniable greatness.

The death of Bazarov in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, as I argue in this and other papers, heralds the end of such a hero in the Russian nineteenth-century novel. What follows after that is a long succession of tamed rebels and defeated champions. The world of characters of the most celebrated works by great Russian novelists, such as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, strives to materialize Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, where the strong and proud are continuously curbed and humbled, while the meek are exalted and inherit the proverbial Earth. The spiritual journey of the protagonists in these novels is that from greatness (or, in their cases, an illusion of such) to humility, from contemplating one’s own value to serving others, from Self to Christ.

It is during this time, and undoubtedly under the influence of this trend in the acclaimed works of Russian writers, that Polish author Boleslaw Prus produces his best-known novel Lalka (The Doll). Traditionally, it is considered to be a tale of a disintegrating society, which crumbles under the pressing need for a change, and buries under its remnants the main character, who is entrapped in its false promises. The identity of this character, Stanislaw Wokulski, seems so unremarkable [to the critics that several have gone as far as christening The Doll after Thackeray’s Vanity Fair “a novel without a hero” (See Pietrkiewicz, Jerzy. Usprawiedliwiona kleska w powiesciach Boleslawa Prusa: Literature polska w perspektywie europejskiej (Studia i rozprawy): Warsaw, 1986, p. 241; Przybyla, Zbigniew. Lalka Boleslawa Prusa: Semantyka-kompozycja-konteksty. Rzeszow:Wydawnictwo wyzszej szkoly pedagogicznej, 1995, pp. 111-112; Welsh, David. Introduction (in: Prus, Boleslaw. The Doll. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972).

By comparing The Doll’s protagonist to those of several major works by Russian Realists, I intend to illustrate that nothing can be further from the truth. Not only does Prus fashion his Wokulski as a hero in the most traditional sense of this word – a creator, a rebel, and a lover – but in doing so he seems to deliberately create an antithesis to the human ideal of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, to celebrate man’s right to greatness and personal happiness, and to travel the road from Christ to Self.