The Difference Between What Is Hard and What Is Easy
It turns out that the valley of the shadow of death is actually a small Prussian town twice devastated by French and Russian troops during the Napoleonic Wars. And Nikolai Rostov, without fear, walks right through it.
He’s offered this opportunity due to an armistice following the battle of Friedland. With nothing better to do he decides to visit the hospital where Denisov was taken after being wounded by the French.
Right away things are off. The window frames and doors of the brick hospital building are broken. The surrounding structures haven’t fared much better, all is in tatters, providing a striking contrast with the idyllic, pastoral summer fields filling out the background.
The hospital, we’re told by an attending doctor, is a pest-house. It’s a place where if the war wounds won’t kill you the typhus certainly will. Even the doctors succumb. Rostov is warned not to enter. He is told his friend is probably already dead. Rostov doesn’t listen. He goes in anyway.
Inside the foul stench of human rot assaults Rostov’s senses. He must take a moment to collect himself before he ventures further. When he does he’s presented with a scene of horrid human decay and putrefaction. Most of the patients lay unconscious upon their beds. Those unfortunate enough to remain cognizant of their predicament beg for help and water. One of the patients requests that the dead man next to him please be removed. “After all,” he says, “we’re men, not dogs.”
Denisov is nowhere to be found.
Tolstoy doesn’t really offer us much in terms of Rostov’s thoughts on what he finds in the hospital. But I like to think he compares the ease with which these bodies fall away to the difficulties he experiences negotiating his own life: His relationship with Sonya, his gambling debts with Dolokhov, his anger issues, his war experience, his various other social humiliations endured throughout the course of the novel due to his anger and quick temper. It must be clear to him now how easy death is and how hard life.
The universal nature out of the universal substance, as if it were wax, now molds a horse, and when it has broken this up, it uses material for a tree, then for a man, then for something else; and each of these things subsists for a very short time. But it is no hardship for the vessel to be broken up, just as there was none in its being fastened together.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations