Friday, November 4, 2011

Vol I, Part One, Ch XIV: The Rostovs & A Bit of Body Language / Compassion

Show don't tell, that's the perennial chestnut of your basic writing workshop. Of course good writers, Tolstoy among them, do, on occasion, just go ahead and tell. But the vividness and economy of showing... ah, here is a fine example. Countess Rostov wants some money from her husband, so that she may give it to her friend Anna Mikhailnova, who is penniless and needs to buy a uniform for her son.

He sat down by his wife, resting his elbows dashingly on his knees and ruffling his gray hair.

"What are your orders, little countess!"

"The thing is, my friend-- what's this stain you've got there?" she said, pointing to his waistcoat. "Must be the sauté," she added, smiling. "The thing is, Count, that I need money."

Her face grew sad.

"Ah, little countess!. . . "And the count began fussing, pulling out his wallet.

"I need a lot, Count, I need five hundred rubles." And, taking out a cambric handkerchief, she began rubbing her husband's waistcoat.

What so strikes me about this: the simple, intimate gesture that so economically conveys their relationship to each other and about money. Truly, here Tolstoy shows.

+ + +

On a separate note, this same chapter ends with a master stroke: having shown Anna Maikhailovna as a mouse-like schemer, Tolstoy now shows us her tearful gratitude at the Countess's gift:

"This is for Boris from me, to have his uniform made. . . "

Anna Mikhailovna was already embracing her and weeping. The countess was also weeping. They wept because they were friends; and because they were kind; and because they, who had been friends since childhood, were concerned with such a mean subject-- money; and because their youth was gone . . . But for both of them they were pleasant tears . . .

This flexibility of empathy-- the ability to show a character in an unattractive light, doing, saying, thinking unkind things-- but then turn (twist if need be) and show them as complex, deserving of compassion-- this, in my view, is what sets a writer above the level of mediocrity. It is easy to show a cardboard villain, but a tight-rope of a challenge to render a character's humanity.

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