They Carried Their Loot with Them
Francis Cugat’s magisterial cover art for The Great Gatsby serves as a greater introduction to the novel than perhaps any essay ever could. In it an ethereal, golden-eyed female visage floats in the evening sky above the proud electric lights of a bustling cityscape. A single, inexplicable tear rests suspended in the air as testament to the novel’s sad Sirachean theme that “love of money is of all things the most perverse.”
Just as avarice strings Daisy Buchanan along through the novel’s early association of her character with whiteness and golden brightness and into her final tragedy of the yellow car in the valley of ashes, so too does it reduce the once mighty French army in today’s chapter from a position of conquest and strength to one of depletion and retreat.
Murat leads his triumphant troops into the conquered city. He meets no resistance. The Muscovites, as we know, have pretty much all abandoned the place. A few remain. Some of these remain to defend the Kremlin. Murat dispenses with them quickly. The French troops are then offered free reign in the city.
Something happens. A transformation takes place. The French, once strong and disciplined, start going soft. The change is born of their greed for Moscow’s abandoned wealth. Their rapacious appetite earns them two beastly metaphors from Tolstoy’s pen as he likens them first to stupid monkeys and then to dumb cattle. It’s as if their greed strips them of their humanity.
Tolstoy is very clear about what dooms the French invaders. “The French when they left Moscow,” he writes, “had inevitably to perish because they carried their loot with them.” So let us remember Daisy of East Egg and the soldiers of France as a rebuke to those that beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into their cash.
A single example of luxury or avarice works great mischief.
Seneca, Letter on Crowds