Thursday, September 22, 2011

Nikolái Ilyích Rostóv Meets the French

Irony, says Norman D. Knox,* “may be defined as the conflict of two meanings which has a dramatic structure peculiar to itself: initially, one meaning, the appearance, presents itself as the obvious truth, but when the context of this meaning unfolds, in depth or in time, it surprisingly discloses a conflicting meaning, the reality, measured against which the first meaning now seems false or limited and, in its self-assurance, blind to its own situation.”

One of my favorite teachers used to say that a good novel is one in which the protagonist learns something, is changed at the end from what he was at the beginning. I wasn't sure just what he meant by that, but perhaps he was thinking about Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, and in particular, Chapter 19 of Part Two of Volume I, where we explore the case of young Nikolái Ilyích Rostóv. Nikólushka, Nikólenka (he bears a variety of endearing pet names) is the polished diamond, set off against the velvet of his dazzling family: we have seen him at home with his adoring sister and his sweetheart. Now he is on the battlefield outside Schöngraben in Austria, where a detachment of Russian forces under Bagration are attempting (successfully, as it will turn out) to cover the retreat of the larger Russian army under Kutuzov from the onrush of the forces of Napoleon. Young Kólya (as the home folks sometimes address him) is beside himself with vivacity as he gets his first chance to charge the enemy. “Oh, how I'm going to slash at him,” he thinks to himself (“gripping the hilt of his sabre,” Tolstoy tells us) “Hur-r-a-a-ah!”

Of course as Napoleon said, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. Moments later he finds himself stunned and bewildered: “What is it? I'm not moving ahead? I've fallen, I've been killed...” No, not killed (this is only page 189 of a 1215-page novel, and we know he is a major character). But his horse has been killed, shot out from under him. From the thrill of battle, suddenly he finds himself entirely alone. “Has something happened to me? There are such cases, and what must be done in such cases?” Just then he notices his arm hanging limp at his side: clearly he has been injured, perhaps grievously, though he seems not to understand it yet. Moments more, a group of soldiers coming running towards him. “Well, here are some people,” he thinks to himself. “They'll help me!” But no, they aren't Russian; they seem to be holding a Russian officer as if a prisoner—French?

He looked at the approaching Frenchmen and, though a moment before he had been galloping only in order to meet these Frenchmen and cut them to pieces, their closeness now seemed so terrible to him that he could not believe his eyes. “Who are they? Why are they running? Can it be they're running to me? Can it be? And why? To kill me? Me, whom everybody loves so?”
Strictly speaking, no. Rostov so brave before, now runs to the bushes. Some fires a couple of shots in his direction; they miss, and he recovers his own Russian companions.
*In the Dictionary of the History of Ideas, Volume II (1973).

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