cease and desist

I reckon most people who read novels, watch films, or watch television shows will eventually come to a moment in a novel/film/show, in which a character is doing something that is, to us, very obviously wrong and might ruin their life. At these moments there is a strong impulse to yell “NO!!” at the character, even though it will do nothing to stop or deter them from their course of action.

The easiest example (and maybe the simplest) is when Wile E. Coyote sets a trap for Road Runner, and when it fails, he investigates the trap in the least safe way possible, and invariably ends up the victim of his own contraptions.

Anyway, despite watching cartoons like this a lot when I was a kid (or maybe because of it?) I’ve never really experienced this extremely strong feeling of wanting to stop a character from doing something. I mean, I’ll probably watch things that other people react to, and think “oh, they probably should not do that”, but it’s generally nothing to get worked up about.

Probably a better explanation is that I tend to read or watch things without thinking too far ahead. I’m not someone who tries to calculate what the ending will be as I read/watch the story unfold. I think it’s better to stay in the moment, and experience the full force of emotions as they happen — be it joy, despair, fear or relief.

However, reading War and Peace last week, I found myself screaming “NO” at one of the characters (not out loud, of course — just in my head), and also getting rather worked up about what was happening. At this point, I must include a warning that there will be spoilers, so please do not read on if you don’t want to know what happens.

Also, I haven’t read much further on after this part, so if something happens that reverses what I just read, please do not tell me.

The event in question centres around Countess Natalya Ilyinichna Rostov, commonly referred to as Natasha. She is a young woman engaged to Prince Andrei Nikolaevich Bolkonsky, a man of very high repute. However, shortly after their engagement, Prince Andrei goes abroad for treatment of his health problems. As such, they delay the wedding for a year (which seems normal or reasonably short in modern times, but it seems that back in 18th and 19th Century Russia, that was quite a long engagement).

Anyway, despite not being able to see Prince Andrei, things are going more or less ok for Natasha until Anatole Kuragin comes along. From very early on in War and Peace, the entire Kuragin family are presented as selfish, calculating and greedy. Anatole is also painted as someone who is not very bright, but thinks he is greater than the sun and the moon. He doesn’t think about the consequences of his actions, and certainly doesn’t think about how his actions affect other people.

But he must be handsome and charming in some way, otherwise Natasha wouldn’t have fallen in love with him, and be thinking of eloping within days of meeting him.

That was the part of the book that had me screaming and shaking my fists — all in the mind, of course. Oh, and when she sat down to write a letter to Prince Andrei’s sister, and tell her that the engagement was all over — at that point, I was hoping with all I had that she wouldn’t send it.

Some relief comes when Sonya (Natasha’s cousin) discovers the elopement plan, and alerts Marya Dmitrievna Akhrosimov (the family friend who they’re staying with in Moscow). Marya Dmitrievna then has her footman intercept Anatole when he tries to sneak in by the back porch one night.

So although Natasha ruined everything with Prince Andrei, at least she didn’t elope with Anatole. But she falls into a major depression, and this whole time I’m thinking “why did she have to do that???

But I’m barely halfway through War and Peace now, so everything could change and change again (or not). Either way, I’ve accepted these events, trusting that Tolstoy has reasons for carving out the story in this way.

6 thoughts on “cease and desist

  1. I remember reading Anna Karenina, and becoming slowly and increasingly invested in the characters. It was hard going for the first few hundred pages, but then you started to realise why these books are so revered.

    • I read Anna Karenina a few years ago, and absolutely loved it, but procrastinated reading War and Peace because I was intimidated by how gigantic the book is. I also didn’t want to have my expectations set too high from Anna Karenina, but so far War and Peace hasn’t disappointed. Definitely invested in the characters now!

  2. I’ve never read anything by Tolstoy. It sounds much too intense and involved for me. In college as an English Lit major I was taught to read the first chapter, then the last couple of chapters so you know which characters to focus on as you read the book. I sometimes still do that, and weirdly enough it keeps me more engaged in the story knowing the ending upfront.

    • That’s actually a really good tip, especially for long novels with lots of characters (like War and Peace). I think I’m a bit afraid of having a sneak peak at the final chapters because I did that once as a kid, and it ruined the book.

      But I’m sure I’ve done it before, when I’ve gone to flick to the explanatory notes at the back, and accidentally spotted a characters name in the final pages, and then realised that, hey, maybe that person is important after all.

  3. I remember having that feeling often during War and Peace. You feel like you KNOW the characters. You (or I, anyway) feel like a ghost, who can see everything but not affect anything. It’s a bit frustrating, actually. 😀

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