Fictions of Merit
All’s bad that ends bad for Rostov today because, as Parolles reminds us, it will come to pass that every braggart shall be found an ass.
You’ll recall that Rostov’s first encounter with battle did not end as heroically as he envisioned it might have. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine a more embarrassing episode than falling off of a horse and then running away from a Frenchman. And, yet, Rostov’s pride and vanity in this chapter somehow manage to embarrass him further.
We begin by learning that Rostov, following his father, has accumulated some debts at camp. So it’s very lucky for him then that he learns a letter from his family with some money in it is waiting for him with Boris in Omlütz. As he sets off for Olmütz, his pride captures him immediately. He doesn’t clean himself up because he wishes to present to Boris the impressive, though completely false, image of a man under constant fire at the front. He even calls attention to his muddied breeches when he arrives just to make sure Boris takes notice.
Rostov then proceeds to tell of his war stories. His aforementioned fearful retreat just won’t do, however, so he launches into untruthful boasting and fabrication. Prince Andrei, who enters the room while Rostov is in the middle of his warrior’s tale, isn’t having it at all. He recognizes the falsehood for what it is and, while not directly insulting Rostov, let’s it be known that he’s not impressed. Tolstoy writes that Rostov experiences “a state of unconquerable childish embarrassment” at this exchange. Soon this embarrassment, as we’ve come to expect from Rostov, converts into anger.
But Rostov cannot bring himself to challenge Prince Andrei. In fact, Rostov is so impressed with Prince Andrei’s cool and self-controlled behavior that he actually wants to be his friend.
We are Rostov. We know it. We tend to minimize our faults and magnify, or even just create, our virtues. We are the authors of our great fictions of merit. And, just like Rostov today, this empty boasting can lead to unfortunate circumstances. Better to be truthful to ourselves and others and follow the path of moderation.
Rough clothing, a unshorn head, and untrimmed beard, militant scorn of silverware, a pallet spread on the ground, and all other perverse media of self-advertisement you must shun.
Seneca, Letter on Moderation