Consider the Doll
Day 8 of A Year of War and Peace
Yesterday we met the older Rostovs and today we meet the younger. Don’t be deceived by the brevity and ostensible triviality of this chapter. It’s an essential one: We’re introduced to two of the most important characters in the novel.
The first of these characters darts into the room in a fit of jubilant laughter as she chases after a doll she has lost. She is brimming with youthful energy, unable to compose even a simple coherent sentence of explanation as to why she has entered the room in such a fashion. This is Natasha, a thirteen-year-old whose name-day the Rostovs are celebrating.
The second of these important characters follows Natasha into the room but makes a notably less energetic entrance. In fact, he is so unsure of himself, so paralyzed by incertitude, that he is unable to summon even a single word of introduction. He blushes instead. This is Nikolai, Natasha’s brother.
This chapter is Tolstoy at his best. The simplicity of the scene cloaks its substance. Our initial impression is that not much has happened. But look closely and the depth of the chapter reveals itself.
Natasha’s introduction is prefaced by the sudden, loud tumbling of a chair from the other room. Hers is a vivacious and brisk character with a zesty fullness of life. She’ll knock around a lot more than just furniture before the book is done. Then there is Nikolai’s introduction, not even a paragraph, where we find a young man whose inability to master his emotions is already causing him trouble. These are the baselines from which we will watch these characters grow. There is nothing frivolous in this simple scene of teenagers searching for a doll.
Our daily life is much like this chapter. Individual days may appear to be inconsequential but if, like Tolstoy’s subtle presentation of character, our actions are directed purposefully each moment becomes meaningful.
The human soul degrades itself . . . when it allows its action and impulse to be without purpose, to be random and disconnected: even the smallest things ought to be directed to a goal.
-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, II.16