Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness
As we’ve seen with Andrei’s oak and Natasha’s moon, Tolstoy is very adept at using nature as a powerful symbol of his character’s inner life. So what, then, are we to make of today’s chapter? Nearly half of its words are spent on naturalistic depictions of the Rostov estate at Otradnoe. What, if anything, do these passages tell us about Nikolai Rostov?
On the surface things don’t look so cheerful. The morning frosts, after late autumn rains, have congealed upon the ground. The air is cold and sharp. The sky is overcast as if it were “melting and sinking to the earth without any wind.” Drizzling mists drip on the bare twigs in the garden and the earth below is wet and black and muddy among the scattered decaying leaves like the most depressing Hemingway sentence you’ve ever read.
Tolstoy isn’t unique in his dour description of this season. Often autumn is presented, even with the abundance of its harvest, as a harbinger of winter as death. Take John Keats’ To Autumn for example. In that poem’s first stanza the poet sings of the productive power of summer swelling the gourds and budding the flowers. It is healthy summer that does all the work for the harvest of autumn. Then, in the third stanza, he writes of the song of Spring and the incipient life it brings. Notably absent from the poem, however, is any mention of winter. It’s as if Keats, who would be dead less than two years after the writing of the poem, cannot bring himself to speak about the doom and lifelessness of that season. He can only hint at it in the poem’s final stanza with its subtle suggestions of sadness and death.
It’d be tempting to go along with this understanding of Autumn as harbinger of death in today’s chapter. Nikolai is, after all, in lots of trouble. His family is in crisis. His beloved sister is set to be married and leave the home, depriving it of such a bright light. Further, they might not even have a home for her to leave if they can’t solve their financial problems. The long winter of the Rostovs seems to be at hand.
But maybe Tolstoy is up to something here. I apologize for the spoiler alert but the following chapters detail a very joyful and rejuvenating hunt. I did not fully understand the importance of these chapters during my first reading of the novel. Truthfully, I remember merely skimming them. But now, after many readings of the novel, I understand them, at least with respect to Nikolai Rostov, as some of the most important chapters in the book.
These are chapters that really illustrate the power of mindfulness. Throughout these chapters Rostov lives among the deteriorating weather of autumn and the coming of deathly winter but he maintains throughout it all a steady, focused mind. We’ve already seen that he has taken steps, however falteringly, towards moving away from his angry, petulant youth towards a mature, balanced adulthood. By the time this portion of the novel is complete he’ll be well on his way there, equipped only with a change of mind.
The world in which a man lives shapes itself chiefly by the way in which he looks at it, and so it proves different to different men; to one it is barren, dull and superficial; to another rich, interesting, and full of meaning. On hearing of the interesting events which have happened in the course of a man’s experience, many people will wish that similar things had happened in their lives too, completely forgetting that they should be envious rather of the mental aptitude which lent those events the significance they possess when he describes them. To a man of genius they were interesting adventures, but to the dull perceptions of an ordinary individual they would have been stale, everyday occurrences.
Arthur Schopenhauer, The Wisdom of Life