Clarissa Explains It All
In Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, the eponymous tragic hero of the novel finds herself in a situation where she must either betray her family or betray her heart. Her family, the Harlowes, seeking that ever elusive ladder to upward social mobility within the sclerotic world of Georgian Britain, desire to marry her off to a man in trade for some of that man’s property which will, in turn, finally empower the Harlowes to join the ranks of the British aristocracy. Clarissa is skeptical. She doesn’t share her family’s conviction that wealth and class distinction leads to any sense of sustainable well-being. “Happiness and riches,” she writes to her friend about the marriage proposal, “are two things, and very seldom meet together.”
Meeting together in the reception-room of the Bezukhov estate Anna Mikhailovna and Catiche test Clarissa’s theory as they fight over possession of a portfolio. This portfolio, you’ll recall, contains the old Count’s papers petitioning for the legitimization of Pierre. If the Emperor agrees to this, Pierre stands to inherit one of the largest fortunes in Russia. If somehow the Emperor never learns of this document — say, Catiche steals it, for instance — then the Bezukhov fortune goes to Vasili and Catiche.
This struggle over the portfolio is a nasty one. Catiche in particular is quite angry and ugly about it. Anna Mikhailovna isn’t that much better. In helping Pierre she’s really helping herself by opening up yet another unearned income stream for her son Boris. Pierre will feel obligated to her for her services, after all.
This ugly physical struggle over possession of the portfolio between Anna Mikhailovna and Catiche betrays a deeper, corrosive agitation of the mind brought about by laboring to build and maintain riches. Don’t forget that these are members of the Russian aristocracy. They’re already well-to-do by relative standards. And yet here they are at each other’s throats in a rage. To quote the poet, those “who got money/ Better watch out for the money hungry.”
In the end Anna Mikhailovna wins the battle for the portfolio. Catiche shrieks and, sobbing, scampers off. Prince Vasili, realizing his defeat, sits alongside Pierre and, ignorant of yesterday’s meditation, begins to cry because he is old like the Count and will one day soon die.
And in the next room that’s exactly what Count Bezukhov does.
Wealth is not a bad thing in itself. Attachment to wealth, on the other hand, can be quite distressful. Just look at how awful the characters in today’s chapter behave. Surely the feelings provoked in this chapter will linger in their minds well into the future. This is not a way to live. Seneca, a very wealthy man himself, understood how to properly approach a relationship with money:
Anything that comes by chance is unstable, and the higher it rises the more liable it is to fall. But what must inevitably fall can give no one pleasure; therefore the life of those who acquire with toil what requires greater toil to hold must be not only very short but also very miserable. Laboriously they attain what they desire, anxiously they hold what they have attained, and in the meanwhile irrecoverable time is not taken into consideration.
Seneca, On the Shortness of Life