In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, there is a terrible incident which results from the most ordinary of occurrences, a pretty young girl catches the eye of a good looking young man.
How often does one enjoy the flattery of being thought handsome or charming? Is it not one of little thrills of life to catch the eye of someone and even to see that we are being seen and thought admirable or desirable?
Through Natasha’s encounter at the opera with Anatole Kuragin, Leo Tolstoy give us a glimpse into some of flirtations starker consequences.From this naive encounter, depicted in book 8 of War and Peace, an engagement is overturned, Natasha is plunged into moral confusion, and is almost lost to her family and to herself.
Our little flirtations, which are often seen as a sort of innocent, if egoistic, indulgence are flirtations with sin, not only because flirtation is wrong in itself, but much more seriously because, by its very nature, it is a surrender of our self (a loss of chastity and self-possession) through which are heart becomes open to whatever may come. In flirtation, the heart is indifferently offered to another, without serious care to what happens if such an offer is taken up.
Like an undertow hidden by calm, seemingly ordinary condition, one wades in nearly ignorant of what might take hold and lead us where we would not go. Once in the power of such a force, one may have little power or desire to resist.
Even when we make an escape, we may not do so without harm to the self or the other person or persons we have carelessly entangled. Chastity is not merely about one’s inner purity, but indeed is a form of love of neighbor in which we love and protect others through self-control.
Women are much more familiar with this than men because women are often the recipients of unwanted attention, and learn to protect themselves from such attentions by taking custody of their eyes, their hearts, and their physical social presence. Yet flirtation and lust are equal opportunity offenders regarding the genders.
Flirtation is the act of lust which slowly ignores and despises the warnings of one’s conscience and thus dulls us to its promptings. It is that act of implication by which our wading into the guilty-waters convicts us that there is no need or possibility of turning back
Here are excerpts from Tolstoy’s depiction of the Natasha’s fall. I say Natasha’s fall because Anatole Kuragin is by no means a naive actor in their encounter:
War & Peace, Book 8, Ch 9*
“Natasha knew he was talking about her and this afforded her pleasure. She even turned so that he should see her profile in what she thought was its most becoming aspect…
While conversing with Pierre, Natasha heard a man’s voice in Countess Bezukhova’s box and something told her it was Kuragin. She turned and their eyes met. Almost smiling, he gazed straight into her eyes with such an enraptured caressing look that it seemed strange to be so near him, to look at him like that, to be so sure he admired her, and not to be acquainted with him…
During this act every time Natasha looked toward the stalls she saw Anatole Kuragin with an arm thrown across the back of his chair, staring at her. She was pleased to see that he was captivated by her and it did not occur to her that there was anything wrong in it…
War & Peace, Book 8, Ch.10*
During the entr’acte a whiff of cold air came into Helene’s box, the door opened, and Anatole entered, stooping and trying not to brush against anyone.
“Let me introduce my brother to you,” said Helene, her eyes shifting uneasily from Natasha to Anatole.
Natasha turned her pretty little head toward the elegant young officer and smiled at him over her bare shoulder. Anatole, who was as handsome at close quarters as at a distance, sat down beside her and told her he had long wished to have this happiness- ever since the Naryshkins’ ball in fact, at which he had had the well-remembered pleasure of seeing her. Kuragin was much more sensible and simple with women than among men. He talked boldly and naturally, and Natasha was strangely and agreeably struck by the fact that there was nothing formidable in this man about whom there was so much talk, but that on the contrary his smile was most naive, cheerful, and good-natured.
Kuragin asked her opinion of the performance and told her how at a previous performance Semenova had fallen down on the stage.
“And do you know, Countess,” he said, suddenly addressing her as an old, familiar acquaintance, “we are getting up a costume tournament; you ought to take part in it! It will be great fun. We shall all meet at the Karagins’! Please come! No! Really, eh?” said he.
While saying this he never removed his smiling eyes from her face, her neck, and her bare arms. Natasha knew for certain that he was enraptured by her. This pleased her, yet his presence made her feel constrained and oppressed. When she was not looking at him she felt that he was looking at her shoulders, and she involuntarily caught his eye so that he should look into hers rather than this. But looking into his eyes she was frightened, realizing that there was not that barrier of modesty she had always felt between herself and other men. She did not know how it was that within five minutes she had come to feel herself terribly near to this man. When she turned away she feared he might seize her from behind by her bare arm and kiss her on the neck. They spoke of most ordinary things, yet she felt that they were closer to one another than she had ever been to any man. Natasha kept turning to Helene and to her father, as if asking what it all meant, but Helene was engaged in conversation with a general and did not answer her look, and her father’s eyes said nothing but what they always said: “Having a good time? Well, I’m glad of it!”
During one of these moments of awkward silence when Anatole’s prominent eyes were gazing calmly and fixedly at her, Natasha, to break the silence, asked him how he liked Moscow. She asked the question and blushed. She felt all the time that by talking to him she was doing something improper. Anatole smiled as though to encourage her.
“At first I did not like it much, because what makes a town pleasant ce sont les jolies femmes,* isn’t that so? But now I like it very much indeed,” he said, looking at her significantly. “You’ll come to the costume tournament, Countess? Do come!” and putting out his hand to her bouquet and dropping his voice, he added, “You will be the prettiest there. Do come, dear countess, and give me this flower as a pledge!”
*Are the pretty women.
Natasha did not understand what he was saying any more than he did himself, but she felt that his incomprehensible words had an improper intention. She did not know what to say and turned away as if she had not heard his remark. But as soon as she had turned away she felt that he was there, behind, so close behind her.
“How is he now? Confused? Angry? Ought I to put it right?” she asked herself, and she could not refrain from turning round. She looked straight into his eyes, and his nearness, self-assurance, and the good-natured tenderness of his smile vanquished her. She smiled just as he was doing, gazing straight into his eyes. And again she felt with horror that no barrier lay between him and her.
The curtain rose again. Anatole left the box, serene and gay. Natasha went back to her father in the other box, now quite submissive to the world she found herself in. All that was going on before her now seemed quite natural, but on the other hand all her previous thoughts of her betrothed, of Princess Mary, or of life in the country did not once recur to her mind and were as if belonging to a remote past…
In the fourth act there was some sort of devil who sang waving his arm about, till the boards were withdrawn from under him and he disappeared down below. That was the only part of the fourth act that Natasha saw. She felt agitated and tormented, and the cause of this was Kuragin whom she could not help watching. As they were leaving the theater Anatole came up to them, called their carriage, and helped them in. As he was putting Natasha in he pressed her arm above the elbow. Agitated and flushed she turned round. He was looking at her with glittering eyes, smiling tenderly.
Only after she had reached home was Natasha able clearly to think over what had happened to her, and suddenly remembering Prince Andrew she was horrified, and at tea to which all had sat down after the opera, she gave a loud exclamation, flushed, and ran out of the room.
“O God! I am lost!” she said to herself. “How could I let him?” She sat for a long time hiding her flushed face in her hands trying to realize what had happened to her, but was unable either to understand what had happened or what she felt. Everything seemed dark, obscure, and terrible. There in that enormous, illuminated theater where the bare-legged Duport, in a tinsel-decorated jacket, jumped about to the music on wet boards, and young girls and old men, and the nearly naked Helene with her proud, calm smile, rapturously cried “bravo!”- there in the presence of that Helene it had all seemed clear and simple; but now, alone by herself, it was incomprehensible. “What is it? What was that terror I felt of him? What is this gnawing of conscience I am feeling now?” she thought.
Only to the old countess at night in bed could Natasha have told all she was feeling. She knew that Sonya with her severe and simple views would either not understand it at all or would be horrified at such a confession. So Natasha tried to solve what was torturing her by herself.
“Am I spoiled for Andrew’s love or not?” she asked herself, and with soothing irony replied: “What a fool I am to ask that! What did happen to me? Nothing! I have done nothing, I didn’t lead him on at all. Nobody will know and I shall never see him again,” she told herself. “So it is plain that nothing has happened and there is nothing to repent of, and Andrew can love me still. But why ‘still?’ O God, why isn’t he here?” Natasha quieted herself for a moment, but again some instinct told her that though all this was true, and though nothing had happened, yet the former purity of her love for Prince Andrew had perished. And again in imagination she went over her whole conversation with Kuragin, and again saw the face, gestures, and tender smile of that bold handsome man when he pressed her arm.
*Translated by friends and biographers of Tolstoy, Aylmer Maude (1858-1938) and Louise Maude (1855–1939)