This chapter is why we read great literature. It has it all. We get the subtle psychological drama of Dostoevsky, the domestic intrigue of Austen and the social realist class-consciousness of Dickens. All of this is presented, undiluted, in an expertly condensed three-and-a-half pages of text focusing on one of the novel’s main storylines: Sonya’s relationship with Nikolai.
Tolstoy is masterful with Sonya here. She is sympathetic without being simple. She is morally complicated without being disagreeable. She is, in short, a full and rich character. Her story, as it relates to her decision whether or not to hold Nikolai to his promise to marry her, is worthy of reflection.
We start out with a great amount of sympathy for Sonya. She is, after all, a poor orphan. In addition, she’s a very nice girl with genuine love for Nikolai and a deep respect for her adoptive family. Yet these otherwise benign sentiments yield great conflict. On the one hand, her love for Nikolai is a source of profound happiness. On the other, her respect for the Rostovs provokes terrible suffering. She is grateful to the Rostovs. She has dutifully sacrificed for them her life as a means of repayment for all they have done for her. She cannot, however, bear their opposition to her desire to marry Nikolai. Her respect soon sours into bitterness.
Bitterness leads her to jealousy and deceit. First she reaches back to the mirror game she and Natasha played during the yearlong break in Natasha’s engagement to Prince Andrei. Sonya embellishes this lie even more, claiming that Prince Andrei recovering in bed under his blankets right now is precisely the same image she saw in the mirror.
Speaking of Prince Andrei, his convalescence appears to be going smoothly. He’s looking better. This affords Sonya the opportunity to further mire herself in the swamps of dissimulation. She sees her opportunity. If Prince Andrei recovers he will marry Natasha. If he marries Natasha then Nikolai will not marry Marya because incest-in-law is frowned upon I guess. In a disingenuous gambit Sonya writes to Nikolai freeing him from his promise to marry her. Obviously Sonya is not being truthful here. Her goal is merely to make it seem as if she’s being dutiful and submitting to Countess Rostova’s wishes. In reality, she’s banking on Andrei’s recovery so she can somewhat less blamelessly marry Nikolai.
This is the conflict and what makes today’s chapter so interesting and fruitful for contemplation. Sure, Sonya is deceitful, acting in bad faith and rebelling against her family. Consider though her social position. She is essentially oppressed by the class and gender strictures of her time. What power does she really have? And she is, in the end, acting out of love for Nikolai and a wish for her own happiness.
It’s a tough predicament. We’ve spoken frequently about how the roles we assume in life can take us a long way towards determining a right course of action. Sometimes, though, life roles conflict with each other. Where does this leave those, like Sonya, who wish to live well? In a situation like hers perhaps it’s best to keep a role model in mind, someone laudable and praiseworthy to pattern our behavior after.
The footpaths of virtue are forged by those who have gone before.
Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.
Seneca, Letter XI