A Test of Character
Today’s chapter marks the first days of Prince Andrei and Natasha’s betrothal and, less happily, the initial days also of their imposed premarital one-year separation. They spend this time together at the Rostov’s getting to know each other better. It’s nice. Though, for our purposes, the most important aspect of this chapter is what is unwritten. It’s what we’re not told that emerges as the most important part of this most pivotal of chapters.
I’m speaking, as I did in the very first entry of A Year of War and Peace, of the importance of the idea of role-playing. The idea is that life provides for each individual certain roles — say, for instance, fatherhood, brotherhood, or friendship — and each individual can either dutifully perform their roles or perform them poorly. The one-year separation is a major plot point in the novel so it may be of use to see how it relates to the roles of some of the characters it involves.
Starting with the old Prince Bolkonsky we can say with near certainty that he fails to perform his role of father virtuously. Sure, he listed his reasons for why he insists that his son refrain from marrying for one year. We’re also told, however, that these reasons are born not of a desire to do well by his son, but, rather, for entirely selfish reasons. The old man simply doesn’t want any changes in his own life. The happiness and well-being of his son doesn’t even enter into his calculations. This is not the behavior of a dutiful father. This is the behavior of a man concerned only with his own well-being, needs, and interests.
Contrast this with Natasha and Prince Andrei’s response. It’s clear neither of them are going to enjoy one year of separation from each other. Really. I mean, they’ve spent the last few chapters positively gushing over one another. But they endure anyway. Prince Andrei’s response in particular is interesting for a few reasons.
The first reason is that he decides to honor his father’s selfish interdiction in the first place. Andrei could very well have ignored his father. But, dutiful son that he is, he chooses to act virtuously and obey his father’s command. This action preserves the harmony, or whatever closest approaches harmony in the Bolkonsky home, of his family. Secondly, and probably most importantly, he seems to have accepted this impediment as an opportunity for growth. He sees it as a challenge. Andrei tells Natasha that during the course of the year he will behave towards her as a man engaged should behave. He places no such obligation on her. She is free to do as she pleases. This separation then will provide a test of both their characters. Their acceptance of this challenge takes courage.
We’ll see how they do.
In one respect man is the nearest thing to me, so far as I must do good to men and endure them. But so far as some men make themselves obstacles to my proper acts, man becomes to me one of the things that are indifferent, no less than the sun or wind or a wild beast. Now it is true that these may impede my action, but they are impediments to my affects and disposition, which have the power of acting conditionally and changing; for the mind converts and changes every hindrance to its activity into an aid; and so that which is a hindrance is made a furtherance to an act; and an obstacle on the road helps us along the road.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations