What We Talk About When We Talk About Marty McFly Being Called a Chicken

Day 148 of A Year of War and Peace

A response to Douglas J. Needles

The tyranny of the fear of another’s judgment will slay you if you allow it to. That is the lesson of today’s reading as both generations of Rostovs fall victim to this awful tyranny when they call upon the Bolkonsky home.

The old Count is the first to go down. It doesn’t look good for him from the start. He’s already nervous once he enters the home because the last time he met with Bolkonsky the old prince berated him for not supplying a full quota of men for the war effort. Count Rostov cannot bear another reprimand, weak man that he is. So he designs a ruse to escape the feared wrath of Bolkonsky by asking to leave Natasha alone for a few minutes while he goes to call on Anna Semyonovna for some unspecified reason. Some guy, this one. What a chickenshit.

Natasha fares only a little better. At least she doesn’t enter the home cowered in fear and lamentation over the old prince. Not at first anyway. She thinks she’ll make a good impression on him because, well, she always makes a good impression on everybody and everybody likes her.

It turns out, however, that the old prince doesn’t like her. Neither does Marya. That much is clear. So she spends the rest of the chapter crying alone in a room.

And what fearsome object is it exactly that can cower a grown man and send a beautiful, otherwise confident young woman to cry alone in a room for hours? Merely an old man, “in a dressing-gown and white night-cap.” It’d be hard for Tolstoy to conjure a more ridiculous image for us. And, yet, the terror the old prince places in the hearts of those he meets is legendary.

Is this — an old man in a dressing-gown and white night-cap — really the thing we should allow to disturb our mental tranquility?


Do not waste the remainder of your life in thoughts about others, when you do not refer your thoughts to some object of common utility. For you lose the opportunity of doing something else when you have such thoughts as these. What is such a person doing, and why, and what is he saying, and what is he thinking of, and what is he contriving, and whatever else of the kind makes us wander away from the observation of our own ruling power. We ought then to check in the series of our thoughts everything that is without a purpose and useless, but most of all the overcurious feeling and the malignant.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

This is the one hundred and forty-eighth installment in a daily, yearlong, chapter-by-chapter reading devotional and meditation on Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. For more information on this project please read the introduction to the series here.

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