King Lear, late in the great play, clearly crazed from a string of misfortunes and fatal misunderstands, ministers to the suicidal Gloucester about the origins of the incessant crying of infants. Lear, summoning reason from his madness, reports that “When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.”
Today that great stage of fools is the Sokolniki forest, the players are Pierre Bezukhov and Fedya Dolokhov, and we can all cry because, in your humble guide’s opinion, this is one of the saddest — if not the saddest — chapters in the entire novel.
The action of the chapter is straightforward and simple enough: Pierre and Dolokhov duel and Pierre wins. Dolokhov, actually, suffers a potentially fatal wound. Pierre, in disgust with himself, runs away. Rostov escorts the injured party home.
It’s Rostov’s visit to Dolokhov’s home that always gets me. Dolokhov doesn’t want his mother to see him suffering. He pleads with Rostov to go to her first and prepare her for what she’s about to see. Here Tolstoy concludes the chapter, as he’ll often do, with a gut-punch of a single sentence:
Rostov went ahead to fulfil the request and to his great surprise learned that Dolokhov the brawler, Dolokhov the bully, lived in Moscow with his old mother and a hunchback sister, and was the most affectionate of sons and brothers.
This is a sharp contrast to the mean, barbarous, uncaring man we’ve come to know. Finally, Lear’s crying infant has been revealed. Suddenly, Dolokhov is made human.
Perhaps it’s the crying infant Dolokhov and others like him carry around with them that provokes such bad behavior. So maybe the next time some jerk, acquaintance or stranger, behaves poorly we should refrain from immediate judgment and instead treat them like we’d treat a crying baby: More empathy, more sympathetic understanding. It wouldn’t hurt to try to see ourselves in them too. We can all be petty, rude, thoughtless, vindictive, cruel, and selfish. So, recognizing this in others, what other option is there but forgiveness?
Forgiveness is not the route Pierre took. He gave in to his anger and now he may have a murder to live with. How could he have avoided this situation?
Anger is a frenzied, seemingly uncontrollable emotion. We need counsel on how to tame it. Seneca says that at the moment anger rears its feverish head we should immediately step back and distance ourselves. Only at a safe distance from its inflaming heat can we accurately assess it.
The best corrective to anger lies in delay. Beg this concession from anger at the first, not in order that it may pardon, but in order that it may judge.
Seneca, On Anger II