First of all, a grievous miscalculation on my part: it would take a few more than three chapters per day to finish this book in a month. It’s closer to ten, about 45-50 pages a day. I failed to remember, when I checked the number of chapters making up Book I, that each book is divided into Parts. I was actually seeing just the number of chapters in Part 3, not all of Book I.
Still, not an overwhelming task.
The scene shifts back to Moscow and we get to meet the Rostov family. These are nice people, the jolly Count Ilya, his quiet wife, and their children: Nikolai (who’s going into the army); Vera, a bit cold; Natalya, who’s thirteen and whose name day we are celebrating; and Petya, the little boy. There’s also Sophie, their cousin, in total love with Nikolai.
Natasha, who is our third main character, is in love with Boris Drubetskoy, whose mother’s scheming back in chapter 2 has achieved its goal: he’s now an officer and heading out with the army. He returns her love, but insists they wait till she’s sixteen before doing anything about it.
The main topic of gossip in Moscow is Pierre’s behavior in Petersburg, which has gotten him exiled to Moscow, and the impending death of his father, Count Kiril Bezukhov. It seems that the direct heir to Kiril Vladimirovich’s fortune is none other than Prince Vasily Kuragin, who has come down from Petersburg to watch the old man die himself and to make sure the old fool doesn’t leave his fortune to the bastard Pierre.
Tolstoy now gives us a lesson on money: even though he describes the Rostovs as Princess Drubetskaya’s “rich relatives,” it’s clear by the end of chapter 14 that they are not as flush as they might be, portending problems for their children’s marriage prospects, and remember that both Nikolai and Natasha are in love with people poorer than themselves.
And around Count Bezukhov’s deathbed are gathering some pretty voracious vultures: Prince Vasily; three nieces who are unmarried and clearly nursing their uncle for a hoped-for inheritance; Princess Drubetskaya, who drags Boris from the Rostovs to the Count’s house (the Count is Boris’s godfather) and who immediately attaches herself to the dying man like a pious leech.
The only one unconcerned about the Bezuhkhov fortune (forty thousand serfs and millions!) is Pierre, who has been refused admittance to his father’s sickroom by his female cousins.
The Rostovs also lack a sense of appreciation for money. Princess Drubetskaya has told the Countess that she needs 500 rubles to pay for Boris’s uniform and doesn’t know where she’s going to get it. That’s the main reason she goes to pay her respects to Count Kiril Vladimirovich. But as soon as she’s gone, the Countess calls in her husband and fretfully asks for the sum. He doesn’t even ask what it’s for; he calls for his manager and instructs him to bring the money, “in nice new, clean notes,” to his mistress. It’s clear from the manager that the money is not really available, but he does it anyway.
When Anna Mikhailovna returns, the Countess forces the money on her, and they both cry:
They wept because they were friends, because they were both kindhearted, because, having been friends from childhood, they should now be concerned with anything so base as money, and because their youth was over… But their tears gave them both pleasure.
I find passages like this incredible, because Tolstoy taps into the emotional currents so directly and honestly, and yet there’s always that undercurrent of the omniscient narrator telling us not to fall too deeply into that river. These women are indulging themselves. We know that Anna Mikhailovna, for example, is not exactly kindhearted, and we know, or should feel some foreboding, that being unconcerned with “anything so base as money” is bound to be a problem sooner or later. If this were Dickens, both these women would be in the poorhouse by Book III.
Of course, if this were Dickens, he’d have us laughing our heads off at this scene.