The O’er-Fraught Heart
In today’s chapter we’re told of the Bolkonsky home’s reaction to the news of Prince Andrei’s disappearance. Once again, Tolstoy provides us with two contrasting reactions to a common subject of the human experience. Today’s subject is grief.
First we have old Prince Bolkonsky. He’s told, in a letter from Kutuzov, that Prince Andrei is missing though not on a list of the dead or the captured. His current whereabouts are unknown. The only thing that is known for certain is that he was shot in battle. The old Prince, holding out no hope for his son’s survival, reacts to this news with his usual irascibility but he also attempts to suffer his grief silently. We’re told, though he looks grim, he says nothing to anyone, though he does shreik in anguish when he eventually speaks to his daughter about what has happened. This silent suffering subjects the old Prince to much mental and physical degradation for, as Malcolm once counseled Macduff, “The grief that does not speak/ Whispers the o’er-fraught heart, and bids it break.”
His daughter, Princess Marya, takes a different tack. She cherishes hope. Hope empowers her to avoid the deep sorrow of her father. She places her faith in God and the protective powers of the icon she gave to her brother before he left for the war.
Tolstoy makes it clear he believes Princess Marya’s coping method is superior to that of her father’s. In a sense, I agree with Tolstoy. The old Prince rages, unable to accept what has happened. I think his major problem is that nearly all his striving is an attempt to impose order on a decidedly disordered world. His strict routines, his habits are all continuously upset by an indifferent, chaotic cosmos.
Marya, on the other hand, while still grieving, recognizes that these things are out of her control and gives them up to a higher power. This relieves her of a certain amount of grief and suffering.
They both, however, share a fear of death. Grieving over the loss of a loved one is natural. We all do it. But death is a fart: many of us deny its presence, the closer we are to it the more likely we’ll be brought to tears, and, given the inevitability of its occurrence, seeking to avoid it is a chasing after the wind (or, in this case, breaking it).
Might be better, then, to understand death for what it really is and live accordingly.
I cannot escape death; but can I not escape the dread of it? Must I die trembling and lamenting? For the origin of distress is wishing for something that does not come about.
Epictetus, The Discourses