Good Grief, Part 1
Nothing alters a man so much as grief. So says Benjamin Partridge, Tom Jones’s bumbling sidekick, as he reflects back upon his life so full of folly, woe, and sorrow. His life has indeed been punishing. He has plenty to mourn over in his past. But grief, that great crazer of wits, exercises its power over the human mind not only by means of recollection of past anguish but also by projecting its dreadful torment onto the contemplation of future events. This anticipatory grief is the type that afflicts the Bolkonsky home over the course of the next few chapters as Prince Andrei prepares to leave for the war.
Prince Andrei arrives at his old home by carriage. His sister is occupied running through some difficult clavichord passages, part of her daily routine. His father is napping, part of his daily routine. He introduces his wife, Lize, therefore, to his father’s attendant, Tikhon, who greets them at the door. Lize comments on the beauty and spaciousness of the home and then she makes a beeline towards Marya whose music she follows to her destination. The two young women fall into great joy upon seeing each other.
But their joy is cut short when Marya starts asking Andrei about the war. Is he really going? Why?
The simple recollection of Andrei’s upcoming deployment brings poor Lize to tears. But nothing bad has even happened yet. The mere thought that something could happen is too much for her to bear.
Andrei asks Marya to please escort his wife to her room, that she needs rest from all the travel. Then, checking the time, he notes that his father should be up by now so he goes off to see him.
The old Prince is happy to see his son. So happy, in fact, that he alters his usual post-nap schedule to spend some time with him. During this time together the two talk mostly of the war. Though nothing the old Prince does betrays any explicit worry at his son’s upcoming departure for battle, we do get the feeling that he’s at least a little upset.
For now, though, the Old Prince calls for all to gather for dinner.
As we approach the end of Book One, Part One (simply Part One in some translations) we find the characters of the novel at peace rather than at war. That will soon change. Soon enough they’ll be living amid the misery and melancholy of the Tolstoyan world. So, throughout these closing chapters of Book One, Part One, in anticipation of the drama to come, I’d like to engage in an extended meditation on grief, how the characters live with it, and one potential method they could use to live with it better.
Consider Lize. In this chapter — indeed, throughout the novel so far — her primary focus has been on the joys of her life: the balls, the gossip, the fashion of society. And, yet, at the simple acknowledgement that her husband is going off to war, she breaks down into uncontrollable sobs. She may be better served by reflecting more often on the natural state of things. That is, it may be helpful to engage in a more realistic appraisal of life. That way, when something horrible happens the blow will be sapped, somewhat, of its power. Here, Arthur Schopenhauer can be of assistance:
Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim. It is absurd to look upon the enormous amount of pain that abounds and originates in needs and necessities inseparable from life itself, as serving no purpose at all and the result of mere chance. Each separate misfortune, as it comes, seems, no doubt, to be something exceptional; but misfortune in general is the rule.
Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Sufferings of the World