A Gentleman in Moscow highlights how small decisions and interactions add up to life-changing events. The novel makes a point of documenting the effects of seemingly small incidents, like a hair appointment gone awry or the slip and fall of a man before a party. Ultimately, Towles uses these small incidents to show that the big events that define a life are actually the result of small chance occurrences. In crafting a narrative in which little details later become much more important, Towles himself affirms the Count’s sense that in hindsight, there is an order to life.
One of the most significant events in the Count’s life was the death of his sister, Helena, while he was in Paris. His inability to be with her in her last months haunts him throughout his life. The Count explains at length the series of minor chance incidents that led him to be in Paris when Helena died, including a princess’s party, a slip on the ice, a card game, and an accidental rivalry that ended in violence and caused the Count’s grandmother to send him to Paris as punishment. In reviewing these incidents, the Count forms a worldview that the pivotal events of life are based on a chain of chance events.
Late in the novel, the Count reaffirms his belief that small actions can determine one’s destiny or fate. When he explains how he came to be a father figure for Sofia, readers can see how incidents have caused another chain reaction that alters the Count’s fate. At the beginning of the novel, the Count has a well-groomed moustache and he goes to the hotel barber for a trim at the exact same time each week. One day, another customer becomes outraged that the Count is served first, even though the customer had been waiting longer. In a fury, the man snips off the Count’s moustache. A few days later, a nine-year-old girl named Nina approaches the Count while he is eating lunch and asks where his moustache went. This question begins their fast friendship, and ultimately leads to Nina bringing her own daughter, Sofia, to the hotel years later. Nina asks the Count to watch Sofia for a few months, but Count does not hear from Nina again and so he becomes Sofia’s de facto father. The Count retells this story to Sofia, explaining that he feels those seemingly innocent circumstances led him to his purpose in life: raising her.
Towles himself affirms the Count’s worldview in his writing style, as many details that seem innocuous early in the narrative become crucial later on. The Count recounts a story for Nina of a duel that took place in the hotel itself, noting that it was rumored that the hotel manager at the time kept a pair of pistols behind a panel in his wall for such a purpose. The Count then discovers the pistols when he visits the office of the hotel manager, Mr. Halecki. At the end of the novel, when the Bishop threatens to foil the Count’s escape, he uses the pistols to hold the Bishop at gunpoint so that his plan is not discovered, making the pistols—previously an unimportant detail—essential to the Count’s fate. Another example involves the handyman, Abram, who keeps bees on the roof. The Count discovers his apiary by chance, and the two of them speak about how they grew up in the same province, which is known particularly for its apples. These details become vital when, years later, the Count is about to throw himself from the roof, but Abram interrupts him and lets him try the honey that the bees have just collected. The honey has the distinct taste of apples, and they realize that the bees have traveled all the way to their home province to collect the nectar. This action provides the Count with a new sense of meaning and he does not attempt suicide again.
In a novel filled with sweeping historical changes like the rise of the Bolsheviks and the outbreak of World War II, Towles depicts the Count’s life as being more determined by small, chance encounters than by the major machinations of history. Though historical events can certainly shape one’s path, Towles’s introduction of small but crucial details affirms the idea that in hindsight, there is a sense of order to the world.
Chance, Luck, and Fate ThemeTracker
Chance, Luck, and Fate Quotes in A Gentleman in Moscow
History has shown charm to be the final ambition of the leisure class. What I do find surprising is that the author of the poem in question could have become a man so obviously without purpose.
In the seventeen years since the making of that peace—hardly a generation—Russia had suffered a world war, a civil war, two famines, and the so-called Red Terror. In short, it had been through an era of upheaval that had spared none. Whether one’s leanings were left or right, Red or White, whether one’s personal circumstances had changed for the better or changed for the worse, surely at long last it was time to drink to the health of the nation.
I should note that despite the brief appearance of the round-faced fellow with a receding hairline a chapter hence, he is someone you should commit to memory, for years later he will have great bearing on the outcome of this tale.
In 1916, Russia was a barbarian state. It was the most illiterate nation in Europe, with the majority of its population living in modified serfdom: tilling the fields with wooden plows, beating their wives by candlelight, collapsing on their benches drunk with vodka, and then waking at dawn to humble themselves before their icons. That is, living exactly as their forefathers had lived five hundred years before. Is it not possible that our reverence for all the statues and cathedrals and ancient institutions was precisely what was holding us back?
Looking back, it seems to me that there are people who play an essential role at every turn […] as if Life itself has summoned them once again to help fulfill its purpose. Well, since the day I was born, Sofia, there was only one time when Life needed me to be in a particular place at a particular time, and that was when your mother brought you to the lobby of the Metropol.
At that moment, it somehow seemed to the Count that no one was out of place; that every little thing happening was part of some master plan; and that within the context of that plan, he was meant to sit in the chair between the potted palms and wait.