Count Rostov, Elizabeth Bennet, and the Absolute State of Things | Dustin Lovell
It is a truth universally acknowledged that an unprecedented crisis in possession of a good number of commentators must be in want of an interpretation. This article is not that interpretation—though it may help, if only by suggesting that the past year and a half of “fifteen days to slow the spread” was, existentially, not as unprecedented as we may have been told.
In spring of 2020, as various countries and states began to lock down their citizens to different capacities in order to slow a virus, people of different ages, health demographics, and temperaments found themselves confined to their homes by their governments. Some governments have let up, and some have borne down, to varying effects.
The last thing readers need is another article reflecting on nearly two years they’d probably rather forget, or at least not catastrophize any more than absolutely necessary. I, for one, tried early in the lockdowns to focus on things that had not changed—i.e. things that were always there but which the lockdowns revealed. What, I mulled over as an open question, is this showing me about reality that has always been there, either high above or deep beneath the surface, which I have been either too fortunate, too cowardly, or simply too dense to recognize sooner?
One aspect of the lockdowns I considered early on—because it became so immediately a present reality for many people, once we all finished bingeing Tiger King and learning to bake artisanal bread—was how much discipline empty time requires. Besides being a happily-married introvert who could write and tutor remotely, I was/am an Orthodox Christian catechumen whose favorite novelist is Dostoevsky; thus, I had read of the rigors of monastic solitude and was somewhat prepared. Nonetheless, suddenly, Hamlet’s pronouncement that, “I could be bound in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space,” morphed from a neurotic solipsism to an enviable metaphysical hardiness, and Prince Hal’s justifying his time at pub by saying “If all the world were playing holidays, | To sport would be as tedious as to work,” was proven right as the variety of the weeks threatened to fade into one long, boring weekend.
Of course, simply “boring” would have been a luxury for many, considering the serious economic damages inflicted on families as their “non-essential” jobs and businesses stagnated under the general lockdowns, which were the more draconian for being in many cases and extents arguably needless and counterproductive to physical and psychological health—and certainly destructive to individual rights. I’m choosing to avoid such topics in this piece not out of dismissal but out of humble prudence. It is not my place to use other peoples’ recent and ongoing misfortunes for my own argument, or to explain how to contexualize tragedy that is not my own, just as it was not Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar’s place to tell to Job the nature, purpose, and remedy of his sorrows—which, granted, came from on high, not on Hill.
For my own limited part, I did as I often do when faced with circumstances like the sudden monasticization of life: I found myself looking for examples in literature that would help me comprehend the present state. Two books among many presented themselves, one immediately and readily applicable, the other gradually and less apparently so: A Gentleman in Moscow and Pride and Prejudice.
A Gentleman in Moscow: Freedom under House Arrest
One of the most compelling books I’ve read from the last ten years, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016) follows Count Alexander Rostov as he…doesn’t leave his hotel. Deemed irreconcilable by the Bolsheviks but too loved by the people to be simply executed, Rostov is placed under house arrest in Moscow’s Hotel Metropole and moved by the resident party apparachik from his royal suite to a small storage room in the attic. A young man in his early twenties who has never done a day of labor, Rostov must find a way to live a life of meaning and substance in a world that has been circumscribed, without warning, to the walls of a single building. Furthermore, as a representative of the aristocracy from which he has been cut off, he must do so in a way that maintains the virtues and demeanors of his upbringing in spite of the revolution taking Russia by storm.
Rostov’s external conflict is, of course, the rifles waiting just outside the Metropole doors, but his internal conflict—and the source of the book’s drama—is how he will respond to the indeterminate expanse of time before him.
Count Rostov meets his challenge in a way consistent with his status, that is, with the aplomb, magnanimity, and jovial indifference of noblesse obliges. As the protagonist surrounded by change, his task is to remain unmoved—to maintain an integrity that, having already been refined, disdains to be lessened by change from below. A Gentleman is refreshing in its presentation of a hero who, whether he always feels so or not, is secure enough that he does not need to be reactionary; indeed, to actively resist the Bolsheviks would be beneath him, besides legitimating them as being worth his attention (and getting him killed). I am not arguing that people should not try to push against unjust lockdowns and the subtle growth of tyrannical precedent cloaked under “emergency powers”; rather, I am speaking to what one does in the time between the action—how one’s inner life is just as necessary as, if not more than, their outer. For Rostov, the morning exercises, coffee, biscuit, and fruit, and his daily walks through the hotel lobby to attend the meals, teas, and evening drinks of the pre-revolution aristocracy implicitly become a subtler defense and rebuke against the coercion forced upon him than would be open revolt.
Though for all he knows it will be a Sysiphean task, which may end in a month, a year, or never, Count Rostov maintains the spirit of his studied nobility while showing that, far from being mere tradition-bound affectation, the virtues of his upbringing are resilient in their adaptability. After maintaining for years the decorum of being a guest at the hotel—which, far from being an empty affectation, actually becomes a source of strength and normalcy for both himself and those serving him—he eventually puts his expertise on decorum to explicit use by becoming a Metropole server and informal counselor.
Rostov often cites his love for Tolstoy, but he displays several of Dostoevsky’s main themes. Among these relevant to Rostov and to us are the life-giving quality of purposeful work (which, in Rostov, paradoxically takes the form of a focused leisure consistently maintained) and the primacy of our need to experience our own autonomy. As Towles’s outstanding narrator says, “[If] a room that exists under the governance, authority, and intent of others seems smaller than it is, then a room that exists in secret can, regardless of its dimensions, seem as vast as one cares to imagine” (italics in original). Throughout the book, Rostov behaves as if his action or inaction is of his own volition. Of course, this is part of his aristocratic demeanor, which cannot take orders from those of lower social rank and virtue system.
From this perspective, Rostov can be read quite cynically, as merely putting on an empty affectation of choice when, in truth, the real power (or, at least, force) rests with the Bolsheviks. However, what might, under different circumstances, be interpreted as haughty superfluousness becomes for Rostov the path of courage and virtue as he plays the part of the ideals he represents. In the end, his performance of volition keeps him and those who find they rely on him sane, and it allows him (and Towles) to maintain a paradoxical feeling of freedom, despite the threat of execution that underlies and steadily grows throughout the book.
While the past two years have brought many of us closer than we probably ever imagined coming to the type of forced isolation Rostov experiences, A Gentleman in Moscow is, nonetheless, universally relatable. We are always faced with the impetus to pursue lives of meaning, to test our values (and our willingness to adhere to them) by acting them out, to find our place in the several communities of which we are a part, and to choose which aspects of our lives are essential and which are dead weight. Rostov’s circumstances merely concentrate these existential imperatives, concretizing them for him—and us—so that they cannot be ignored amidst the daily circumstances of a certain time.
Rostov’s conflict forces him to audit his life. Jordan Peterson’s admonition to “Clean your room!”—which, if we hadn’t already, many of us followed in the first weeks of the lockdown, and which, of course, pertains to much more than one’s physical flat—may as well be read as a parallel to Rostov’s story; one of the first most characterizing scenes in the book involves the Count’s literally trying to fit his furniture and books into the cluttered attic room before choosing which pieces to keep and which to jettison. Instigating one of the story’s most charming motifs, Anna Karenina makes the cut. A symbol of the society and values of which Rostov is a remaining scion, Tolstoy’s masterpiece keeps Rostov—and the reader—grounded in what is truly important and worth maintaining despite present circumstances, just as Rostov preserves it from the revolution outside and in the Kremlin.
Far from being bound just to his circumstances, Rostov’s experience is a constant; whatever the boundaries of one’s room, whatever is going on outside, it is always our responsibility to use our time well, to maintain our inner lives and psychological health, and to live lives of virtue. Without wanting to sound trite, social circumstances might change, and we might need to actively counter them, but resiliance, like many other virtues, can only be developed privately and may seem unimpressive, especially at first. The most powerful things often are (yup, trite…).
Pride and Prejudice: Something More than Security
Pride and Prejudice is not, fundamentally, a novel about marriage. Of course, the exigency to marry provides the general external conflict of the book, as much for the Bennet sisters as the Bingley. However, Jane Austen shows her magnificence in turning the by then already hackneyed marriage plot (which she, nonetheless, gives us with Jane and Bingley) into what I believe is a poignant study of Aristotelian virtue in the characters of Elizabeth and Darcy.
Part of what made Austen one of the greatest writers of her medium (I place P&P as one of the top novels ever written—second only to The Brothers Karamazov) is that she novelized Shakespeare, both in the “turned into a novel” as well as the “breath new life into” senses (as if Shakespeare’s writing needed or could contain any more life!). At first glance, one might source Pride and Prejudice in Shakespeare’s comedies; the “hate-to-love” relationship of Beatrice and Benedick perhaps jumps out foremost, though Darcy’s deflating, through patient virtue, Elizabeth’s shrewishness smacks of Petruccio and Kate. However, when I think of Eliza Bennet, with the scope of her inner life, I think of Hamlet.
“What is a man,” the Danish Prince asks in his final, decisive monologue in Act IV, “If the chief good and market of his time | Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more!” The tension between simply satisfying the physical aspects of one’s nature and striving to live up to the higher ones, I think, captures the subtext of Elizabeth Bennet’s story quite well, and it moves Pride and Prejudice from being a marriage comedy into the realm of psychological existentialism. Without meaning to ignore the realities of her time, place, and sex, Liz’s experience is the human experience, and her obligations—to herself and her own dignity before those around her—are ours. It is in this sense that I read Austen’s creation as “novelizing Shakespeare,” since, despite her irony and understatement, she articulates, as he had, the joyful clarity resulting from pursuing the higher virtues and the nihilistic depths resulting from neglecting such pursuits.
Liz Bennet’s conflict is not the same as her parents’ (or, at least, her mother’s); her chief good is not to simply satisfy the temporary need of securing her future via marriage. If that were the case, Collins would have been a speedy, convenient solution. But, to paraphrase H.L. Mencken where I doubt he’s ever been applied, for every complex problem there’s a solution that’s easy, simple, and wrong. It would be wrong — a tragedy, a ἁμαρτία (“hamartia”), or tragic flaw, besides the “missing the mark” meaning of the word when translated as “sin” — for Elizabeth Bennet to marry for expediency. Her conflict—the central conflict of Pride and Prejudice— is how to deal with the real needs of the moment while keeping her will and virtues, both feminine and Aristotelian, intact.
Elizabeth Bennet is not constrained in the same way as Towles’s Count Rostov; indeed, it is a three-mile walk through muddy and legally enclosed fields that first catches Darcy’s attention (if her sitting at a ball with a book hadn’t already done so). However, even a moderately serious reading of the text will show that Liz’s world is, in fact, quite circumscribed—and not just in the freedoms afforded or not to young women. Both dialogue and narration are marked with understatement, euphemism, and litotes, or extreme negatives (“Mr. Darcy walked off, and Elizabeth remained with no very cordial feelings towards him,” &c), which reflect not only the need to come out on top in social exchanges while posturing as diffident and inoffensive, but also the underlying social tension resulting from England’s having been, by the late 1700s, at war abroad and, should Napoleon cross the Channel, at home for almost fifty years. While the soldiers outside Rostov’s Metropole are against him, the guards that enliven Lydia and Kitty’s walks to Meryton in the early chapters of Pride and Prejudice serve as a reminder that revolution is not far from Longbourn, either.
And yet, Elizabeth’s response is not merely one of expedient compliance, nor of impulsive reaction, but of virtuous, judicious action. Like Rostov, she refuses to cave to the restrains placed on her, yet her refusal does not take the form of open rebellion. She does not use her circumstances as an excuse to reduce herself or to throw out the social expectations placed on her (let the short-sighted Lydia do that). Instead, she maintains her integrity not merely as a young woman but as a rational being whose capability and godlike reason were not given her to fust in her, unused. And, through their discussions of manners, the merits of reading (a ghastly hobby, to be sure), and the vicissitudes between pride and vanity (straight out of Nicomachean Ethics, if filtered through Mary’s etiquette books), Darcy—simultaneously the archetypal stirrer-up of stagnation and the restorer of order, and the reward for Liz’s patient merit—notices.
Forgive me if I’ve gushed a bit about two of my favorite books, though perhaps discussions of timeless art are just what we need when all we hear about is the present times (he said without trying to sound too self-serving as a literary commentator). I am not the first to compare the lockdowns to Count Rostov’s experience, nor am I saying anything new in recognizing Elizabeth Bennet’s conviction that integrity is infinitely more important than expedient security. Indeed, like I suggested above, I hesitated to write this piece, not wanting to speak into crises in which others have fared far worse than I and about which we’ve, frankly, heard enough. Nor do I want this article to be interpreted as my advocating social or political passivity while norms and laws are actively being changed around us, not by inevitable imperatives of the universe, but by individuals making preventable choices; such actions should be actively opposed, if not prevented.
However, doing so while ensuring one’s action is not simply reactionary (like those true reactionaries who would respond to a virus by pushing a wholesale remake of society, precedent, and law) requires a knowledge of context and a wisdom regarding how to use it. Novels like A Gentleman in Moscow and Pride and Prejudice are worth examining partly because they concretize timeless existential constants in ways we can comprehend; they show us what is real beyond transient circumstances. While presenting a dressed-up version of “Chin up: things were always this bad!” may seem a bitter succor, the resiliency to not be surprised or moved by crises when they come—whether from fate or fiat—may be just the type of relief, encouragement, and circumspection we need to move forward in a way that’s actually—that is, absolutely—better.