A Year of War and Peace+ Day 8
In which the introduction of Natásha Rostóva shows us that even the small things can matter
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War and Peace — Book One, Part One
Silence ensued. The countess looked at her callers, smiling affably, but not concealing the fact that she would not be distressed if they now rose and took their leave. The visitor’s daughter was already smoothing down her dress with an inquiring look at her mother, when suddenly from the next room were heard the footsteps of boys and girls running to the door and the noise of a chair falling over, and a girl of thirteen, hiding something in the folds of her short muslin frock, darted in and stopped short in the middle of the room. It was evident that she had not intended her flight to bring her so far. Behind her in the doorway appeared a student with a crimson coat collar, an officer of the Guards, a girl of fifteen, and a plump rosy-faced boy in a short jacket.
The count jumped up and, swaying from side to side, spread his arms wide and threw them round the little girl who had run in.
“Ah, here she is!” he exclaimed laughing. “My pet, whose name day it is. My dear pet!”
“Ma chère, there is a time for everything,” said the countess with feigned severity. “You spoil her, Ilyá,” she added, turning to her husband.
“How do you do, my dear? I wish you many happy returns of your name day,” said the visitor. “What a charming child,” she added, addressing the mother.
This black-eyed, wide-mouthed girl, not pretty but full of life — with childish bare shoulders which after her run heaved and shook her bodice, with black curls tossed backward, thin bare arms, little legs in lace-frilled drawers, and feet in low slippers — was just at that charming age when a girl is no longer a child, though the child is not yet a young woman. Escaping from her father she ran to hide her flushed face in the lace of her mother’s mantilla — not paying the least attention to her severe remark — and began to laugh. She laughed, and in fragmentary sentences tried to explain about a doll which she produced from the folds of her frock.
“Do you see?… My doll… Mimi… You see…” was all Natásha managed to utter (to her everything seemed funny). She leaned against her mother and burst into such a loud, ringing fit of laughter that even the prim visitor could not help joining in.
“Now then, go away and take your monstrosity with you,” said the mother, pushing away her daughter with pretended sternness, and turning to the visitor she added: “She is my youngest girl.”
Natásha, raising her face for a moment from her mother’s mantilla, glanced up at her through tears of laughter, and again hid her face.
The visitor, compelled to look on at this family scene, thought it necessary to take some part in it.
“Tell me, my dear,” said she to Natásha, “is Mimi a relation of yours? A daughter, I suppose?”
Natásha did not like the visitor’s tone of condescension to childish things. She did not reply, but looked at her seriously.
Meanwhile the younger generation: Borís, the officer, Anna Mikháylovna’s son; Nicholas, the undergraduate, the count’s eldest son; Sónya, the count’s fifteen-year-old niece, and little Pétya, his youngest boy, had all settled down in the drawing room and were obviously trying to restrain within the bounds of decorum the excitement and mirth that shone in all their faces. Evidently in the back rooms, from which they had dashed out so impetuously, the conversation had been more amusing than the drawing room talk of society scandals, the weather, and Countess Apráksina. Now and then they glanced at one another, hardly able to suppress their laughter.
The two young men, the student and the officer, friends from childhood, were of the same age and both handsome fellows, though not alike. Borís was tall and fair, and his calm and handsome face had regular, delicate features. Nicholas was short with curly hair and an open expression. Dark hairs were already showing on his upper lip, and his whole face expressed impetuosity and enthusiasm. Nicholas blushed when he entered the drawing room. He evidently tried to find something to say, but failed. Borís on the contrary at once found his footing, and related quietly and humorously how he had known that doll Mimi when she was still quite a young lady, before her nose was broken; how she had aged during the five years he had known her, and how her head had cracked right across the skull. Having said this he glanced at Natásha. She turned away from him and glanced at her younger brother, who was screwing up his eyes and shaking with suppressed laughter, and unable to control herself any longer, she jumped up and rushed from the room as fast as her nimble little feet would carry her. Borís did not laugh.
“You were meaning to go out, weren’t you, Mamma? Do you want the carriage?” he asked his mother with a smile.
“Yes, yes, go and tell them to get it ready,” she answered, returning his smile.
Borís quietly left the room and went in search of Natásha. The plump boy ran after them angrily, as if vexed that their program had been disturbed.
A Year of War and Peace — Day 8
Consider the Doll
Yesterday we met the older Rostóvs and today we meet the younger. Don’t be deceived by the brevity and ostensible triviality of this chapter. It’s an essential one: we’re introduced to two of the most important characters in the novel.
The first of these characters darts into the room in a fit of jubilant laughter as she chases after a doll she has lost. She is brimming with youthful energy, unable to compose even a simple coherent sentence of explanation as to why she has entered the room in such a fashion. This is Natásha, a thirteen-year-old whose name-day the Rostóvs are celebrating.
The second of these important characters follows Natásha into the room but makes a notably less energetic entrance. In fact, he is so unsure of himself, so paralyzed by incertitude, that he is unable to summon even a single word of introduction. He blushes instead. This is Nicholas, Natásha’s brother.
This chapter is Tolstoy at his best. The simplicity of the scene cloaks its substance. Our initial impression is that not much has happened. But look closely and the depth of the chapter reveals itself.
Natásha’s introduction is prefaced by the sudden, loud tumbling of a chair from the other room. Hers is a vivacious and brisk character with a zesty fullness of life. She’ll knock around a lot more than just furniture before the book is done. Then there is Nicholas’s introduction, not even a paragraph, where we find a young man whose inability to master his emotions is already causing him trouble. These are the baselines from which we will watch these characters grow.
One lesson from this chapter is that there is nothing frivolous in a simple scene of teenagers searching for a doll. Our daily life is much like this chapter then. Individual days may appear to be inconsequential but if, like Tolstoy’s subtle presentation of character, our actions are directed purposefully each moment becomes meaningful.
The soul of a man does violence to itself . . . when it allows any act of its own and any movement to be without aim, and does anything thoughtlessly and without considering what it is, it being right that even the smallest things be done with reference to an end.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations