Nikolai Rostov and That Old Hussar Habit
Of those we wrestle with it is often ourselves who prove to be the most formidable opponent. That is certainly the case with Nikolai Rostov. He just can’t control his angry self. He has lost battle after battle in his personal war with anger. Today, however, he gains a victory. He does so by first admitting that he has a problem and then devising a methodical response meant to check it.
“One matter connected with his management sometimes worried Nikolai, and that was his quick temper together with his old hussar habit of making free use of his fists,” writes Tolstoy in the opening sentence of today’s chapter. It’s an important sentence. Note how now, for possibly the first time, Nikolai is not only aware of his anger issues but worried about them. That’s a good first step towards addressing a very serious issue. What to do about it though?
Fortunately, Nikolai has the good sense to consult someone about his problem. Even more fortunate for him is that the person he consults is Countess Marya Rostov, his wife, the most consistently emotionally intelligent and virtuous major character in the entire novel. Together they conclude that not only is his custom of responding to frustration with violent anger wrong but actually a sin against himself. They decide that a ring he wears, broken during one of his fits, should serve as a reminder to calm himself down whenever he feels himself heating up:
After that, when in discussions with his village Elders or the stewards the blood rushed to his face and his fists began to clench, Nikolai would turn the broken ring on his finger and would drop his eyes before the man who was making him angry. But he did forget himself once or twice within a twelvemonth, and then he would go and confess to his wife, and would again promise that this should really be the very last time.
So we see that by careful attention to his anger and mindful, immediate reaction to it, Nikolai Rostov finally learns to win more battles against himself than he loses.
It is best, therefore, to treat the malady as soon as it is discovered; then, too, to allow oneself the least possible liberty of speech, and to check impulsiveness. It is easy, moreover, to detect one’s passion as soon as it is born; sickness is preceded by symptoms.
Seneca, On Anger III