A Widow’s Workout
This chapter is divided into two parts. The first part features the petty skirmishes of the Rostov children. The second is a talk between Countess Rostova and her guest Anna Mikhailovna.
We start with Vera, the oldest sibling of the Rostov family, getting booted out of the room so the Countess Rostova and Anna Mikhailovna can speak in private. Vera meets with an equal amount of disdain when she encounters her siblings out in the sitting-room. It’s actually kind of pitiful. Though, to be fair, she does kind of deserve it. She snatches her inkstand from Nikolai who only wanted to use it so he could compose some poetry for Sonya. Then she chastises Natasha for her childish behavior during the guest reception. Her siblings insult her and leave the room together. This doesn’t seem to bother Vera at all. Quite the contrary. She actually smiles to herself as they leave her.
Back in the drawing-room Countess Rostova and Anna Mikhailovna talk. Countess Rostova marvels at how energetic her friend has been lately, traveling back and forth between Petersburg and Moscow, consulting with all the high-ranking people in those cities. Anna Mikhailovna replies that she has no choice. She’s a poor widow with no resources so she’s still on the grind for her son Boris. And here lies the major dramatic conflict of Book One, Part One: Anna Mikhailovna’s goal to secure for her son at least a portion of the dying Count Bezukhov’s fortune. Boris is, after all, as Mikhailovna tirelessly reminds all who will listen, the Count’s godson. Surely he is entitled to something.
And so — after casually mentioning to her rich friend that she is in need of five hundred rubles to properly equip Boris for the Semyonov Guards — she gathers Boris and sets off for the Bezukhov estate.
In On Providence, Seneca sets out to answer the theodical question of why Providence allows bad things to happen to good people. His answer is that evil should be looked at not as a malign hardship but, rather, as a kind of paternal conditioning program to strengthen the mind and soul.
Anna Mikhailovna echoes this sentiment when asked how she manages to be so energetic at such an old age. “God grant you never know what it is to be left a widow without means and with a son you love to distraction! One learns many things then,” she replies.
So the next time you face a difficulty remember Anna Mikhailovna and our old friend Seneca who writes:
It is not possible that any evil can befall a good man. Opposites cannot combine. Just as the influx of so many streams and the downpour of so much rain and the flavor of so many mineral springs do not change the tang of the sea or even so much as dilute it, just so the assaults of adversity do not affect the spirit of a stalwart man. He maintains his poise and assimilates all that falls to his lot to his own complexion, for he is more potent than the world without. I do not maintain that he is insensible to externals, but that he overcomes them; unperturbed and serene, he rises to meet every sally. All adversity he regards as exercise.
Seneca, On Providence