Throughout Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the great Bolkonsky household is a home bereft of affection and the caresses of love for which perhaps every child and every parent longs.
The father, Nikolai Bolkonsky, proud, intelligent, eccentric, and cynical, has tormented his daughter by his schedule, his demands, his scoffing at her faith and manners. But in the last third of the novel, he is laid low by a stroke and eventually dies, but not before he softens to her and speak a word of affection to Maria.
There is a part of me which cries out, ‘too late, too late! What a waste.’ And yet the glory of the moment surpasses such weights and measures. Perhaps the heart can receive, if not all it has longed for in such a moment, than a deposit or confirmation which throws new light upon the whole of the past and even the future.
Ironically, this occurs just as Maria is exerting for the first time a certain psychological independence, discovering a dislike of her father’s government. The turn is all the sweeter for it, because in the father’s word, “darling,” in the grief and tenderness it arouses in Maria, she discovers not only his love for her, but her own love for him.
There are many of us whose hearts are soft and tender, who hold back little of the kindness which instinctively occurs to them to perform. But others of us are retrained as if by an invisible hand, or by a curtain of a chronically recurring spiritual senility. So much so, that we come to doubt whether we are truly of same spiritual species as those who love with such ease.
The death of Nikolai and what it stirs in Maria, the discovery of the reality of love, living, breathing, bleeding, where it must have been all along (for it is the reason for all the coldness, the eccentricity and violence against those we love), this discovery is something like a man who walks in a lonesome wood, silent and without a sign of life in it. He walks in this woods, this wasteland, for hours, perhaps days, even years. But one day he looks up and sees perched in the branch of a lone tree what looks like a great bird, absolutely still. And his breath catches. Can it be? Can there be winged life, even in this place? And the bird, whose stillness seems to deny its reality, suddenly opens its great wings, leaps into the air, and flies, and with it, the soul of the man.