The Meet Cute, Tolstoy Style
The Meet Cute is a storytelling trope where two characters destined for a romantic partnership first meet, often in a lightheartedly peculiar or humorous way. It’s a staple of the screwball comedy genre. Think It Happened One Night when Peter Warne, an impoverished reporter, and Ellie Andrews, a rich heiress, fight over the last bus seat. There’s also that frivolous hopscotch scene in Hands Across the Table. Or in The Lady Eve when Jean Harrington, a gorgeous con artist, finds her mark in Charles Pike, the wealthy heir to a brewing company, tripping him up with her foot only to claim that he has broken her high-heeled shoe and must make good on it. Think Kelly Kapoor and DeAngelo Vickers. The objective of the Meet Cute is to quickly introduce the couple by means of some comic, slaphappy contrivance and then let gay hijinks ensue. Only this is Tolstoy so the future couple, Princess Marya and Nikolai Rostov, are introduced before the backdrop of a murderous theater of war and then a dismal struggle with an incomprehensibly tortuous web of meaningless existence and the inevitable funeral march towards death ensues.
Indeed, there are no comedic screwball shenanigans here. Princess Marya, all alone, is held hostage by a drunken cadre of peasants. Nikolai is a participant in a war that will eventually rob the lives of nearly nine million military men. All around them, it seems, the old ways are crumbling or in some state of decay or destruction (#19thCenturyYa’ll). Tears, so familiar to the characters of War and Peace, swell in all eyes today.
And, yet, amidst all this unhappiness love blossoms. The two of them meet by chance during all of this madness and, according to Rostov at least, the meeting is a meeting of romance.
Why, given the horrors of their lives, not retreat into the safety of solitude? Why, instead, do these two, as the story progresses, pursue each other? Why — SPOILER ALERT! — do they eventually enter into marriage?
Why would anyone?
Marriage is the highest state of friendship; if happy, it lessens our cares by dividing them, at the same time that it doubles our pleasures by mutual participation.
Samuel Richardson, Clarissa: Or, The History of a Young Lady