Where Despair Most Fits

Day 101 of A Year of War and Peace


Disappointment stings and seems to have an intelligence all its own, knowing exactly where to strike to cause a person the most hurt. Its guiding principle appears to be the King of France’s opinion in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well that “Oft expectation fails, and most oft there/ Where most it promises, and oft it hits/ Where hope is coldest and despair most fits.”

Until the very end of this chapter disappointment and its sidekick, despair, plague Nikolai Rostov. It all starts with his old friend Boris. After their uncomfortable reunion in the previous chapter Rostov now feels uneasy around him. So much so that he ignores one of the pillars of the Drubetskoy school of career advancement: utilizing contacts to achieve goals. Instead of asking Boris, a man he knows is well-connected, to help him deliver his petition to the Emperor, Rostov decides to go it alone.

Poor decision.

First of all, Rostov isn’t dressed properly. He’s in civilian clothes. It probably would have been a better choice to approach the Emperor in his military uniform. Rostov comes to understand this after attempting to make delivery of the petition and being rejected. But by then, of course, it’s too late.

This rejection plunges Rostov into that old, familiar despondency of his. He curses himself. He buries himself under the self-imposed weight of shame and dismay. It’s not looking pretty.

But then he spots a former commander of his who he is on good terms with. This general, it turns out, now serves directly under the Emperor. Rostov speaks with the general and asks him to intercede with the Emperor on his behalf. The general accepts.

When the general relays Rostov’s petition, however, the Emperor responds in a very liberal manner saying that, “I cannot do it, General. I cannot, because the law is stronger than I.” While it’s good that Russia has a leader ostensibly supportive of the rule of law, this doesn’t bode well for Rostov and his desire to gain pardon for Denisov. You’d think this would push Rostov even further into despair but his love and respect for the Emperor is overwhelming and by chapter’s end Rostov runs off with the crowd after his beloved Sovereign.

Even though Rostov ends this chapter on a high note he spends the majority of it living in a minor key. His despair is born of his disappointment. We’ve discussed before the importance of premeditation of evils in terms of building up resilience against adversity. Rostov, or anyone for that matter, may benefit from practicing a little premeditation of evils.


The blow of an anticipated evil falls soft. Fools, however, and those who trust Fortune find every ‘fashion new and unexpected.’ For the untaught a large portion of the evil is its novelty. The proof is that men bear with fortitude, when they have grown accustomed to them, things they had thought very difficult. The sage accustoms himself to evils before they come, and what others make easy by long toleration he makes easy by long cogitation. Sometimes we hear the untaught say, ‘I knew this was in store for me’; the sage knows that everything is in store for him, and whatever happens he says, ‘I knew it.’
Seneca, Letter on The Sole Good

This is the one hundred and first 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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