Pop Offs and Prayers
We’re back on the Bolkonsky estate at Bald Hills where things are just as the old Prince likes them: fearful, agitated, and contemptuous. That’s not a recipe for happiness most would whip up but the old Prince serves a steady diet of it nevertheless.
We open the chapter with a letter from Prince Vasili stating his intentions to visit with his son Anatole. It’s obvious to all the purpose of this visit: Vasili, having already secured a rich husband for his daughter, now seeks a rich wife for his son. But the old Prince isn’t having it. He won’t be so easily outwitted by Vasili. It’s instructive to note the differences in Pierre’s response in yesterday’s chapter to the old Prince’s response today. Pierre caved immediately. He just accepted whatever Prince Vasili offered. Not so with old Prince Bolkonsky. When the old Prince learns that his overseer has ordered the roads swept of snow so as to allow Vasili easy access, the old Prince pops off, ordering the snow immediately swept back onto the road. One of the funniest moments in the novel is picturing the Bolkonsky serfs scrambling to sweep all the snow back onto the road.
With great difficulty Prince Vasili and his son Anatole manage to reach Bald Hills. They’re shown to their rooms. Prince Vasili makes it clear to his son that this meeting is of the utmost importance. But Anatole has the discernment of the world’s dumbest donkey, the morals of a mafioso, and the judgment of so many pigeon droppings. All he can think about the possibility of marriage to someone like Princess Marya is that it’d be “amusing” and that to marry a rich person “never does any harm.”
He only gets better, ladies and gentlemen!
Meanwhile, Princess Marya is in a state of mental and spiritual agitation. She’s totally lost about what to do. On the one hand, she longs for a family. In particular, she desires to know the love of a man. She’d also like a child. These carnal desires are tempered, however, by a strong religious devotion. She prays for the strength to overcome these temptations. She asks God how she can tame them and live peacefully. The answer is quickly forthcoming:
And scarcely had she put that question than God gave her the answer in her own heart. ‘Desire nothing for thyself, seeking nothing, be not anxious or envious. Man’s future and thy own fate must be ready to fulfil His will.’
Princess Marya is the first character to understand the stoic principles of indifference to events that we’ve been discussing throughout these readings. It’s no surprise, then, that she is also the only one of our main characters, so far at least, to achieve some semblance of mental tranquility. Sure, she’ll be temporarily agitated throughout the course of the novel. But at heart she’s calm and assured even here in these early stages. We’ll see this in the next few chapters. We’ll also see that it takes the entire novel for the rest of the main characters to follow her and achieve happiness. That’s why Princess Marya is one of my favorite characters.
It’s important to consider exactly what it is Princess Marya comes to understand in this chapter. Her insight, at least as I see it, is that one should not take life so personally. This isn’t to say that one should withdraw from life, only that one should never invest so much personally in a venture over which one has so little control. This insight, I believe, is what makes Princess Marya one of the more resilient characters in the novel, particularly in these earlier chapters.
If you suppose that the things that are not within your power are good or bad for you, then if you suffer a bad thing or the loss of a good thing, you will blame the gods and hate men, too: those who are the cause of the misfortune or the loss, or those who are suspected of being the likely cause; and indeed we do a great injustice when we dwell on such matters. But if we judge only those things that are in our power to be good or bad, there remains no reason for finding fault with God, or standing in a hostile attitude towards man.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations