A Gentleman in Moscow begins in 1922 and centers on the life of Russian aristocrat Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov. Before the novel’s opening, the Count had lived a life of luxury in Moscow’s Metropol hotel. When a poem with revolutionary subtext is attributed to the Count, however, he is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol for the remainder of his lifetime. At first, the Count feels severe isolation, anxiety, and aimlessness because of his confinement. Yet the Count slowly realizes that by exploring the hotel’s physical limits and by finding new experiences that make him feel useful, he can gain a measure of liberty even within the building’s confines. By expanding the Count’s conception of life’s possibilities within the hotel, Towles suggests that a person can feel free, even in a confining situation, as long as they have purpose and an optimistic perspective.
Though the Count lived in the Metropol Hotel for four years prior to his arrest, by the end of the first three weeks of his sentence he feels mired in boredom and agitation due to his lack of space and excess of time. The Count feels confined by the smallness of his new space. His old suite had an interconnected bedroom, bathroom, dining room, and grand salon, but his new room on the sixth floor is one hundred square feet. Additionally, each time he refers to his new window he compares it to smaller and smaller things to describe it (a chessboard, a letter, a postage stamp). At first, the Count attempts to go about his normal routine—reading the paper, having a meal, getting a haircut—but he quickly starts to realize that he is counting the steps on the stairs, accidentally reading yesterday’s paper, and calculating the minutes to his next meal. Therefore, in addition to his limited space, the limitlessness of his time becomes oppressive to the point where he attempts to jump off the hotel roof in despair.
However, with the help of a nine-year-old girl named Nina who is also staying in the hotel, the Count explores the hotel’s various rooms and corridors, and his sense of constriction begins to ebb. Though Nina has only lived in the Metropol Hotel for ten months, she has acquired a hotel-wide passkey, and she shows the Count the hotel’s networks of corridors and rooms. They begin the Count’s education in the boiler room, where she remarks that one could destroy “secret messages and illicit love letters.” She next shows him the electrical room where one could plunge the hotel into darkness, providing cover for “the snatching of pearls.” Thus, she not only expands the Count’s physical world, but she also expands the imaginative possibilities of each room. After one of the Count’s escapades with Nina, he returns to his room in the attic. Armed with Nina’s sense of adventure, the Count finds a passageway behind his closet into the closet of an adjoining room. The Count moves half of his possessions into this new room, and Towles remarks that “a room that exists in secret can, regardless of its dimensions, seem as vast as one cares to imagine.” Therefore, even though the Count’s physical space has not changed by much, his wider access gives him a sense of liberty.
Coupled with this new sense of imaginative possibility, the Count also gains a sense of purpose by expanding the possibilities of what he can do within the hotel through having a job and caring for a child. After the Count’s suicide attempt fails, he takes a job at the hotel restaurant, the Boyarsky. Though this is unusual for someone who is noble, the job provides him with new friendships with the hotel staff and a newfound sense of purpose, because he is using many of the skills and the tact that he had learned growing up in the aristocracy. Sixteen years into the Count’s time in the Metropol, Nina returns as an adult, and asks if the Count can watch over her five-year-old daughter Sofia for a few months. Sofia’s stay at the Metropol becomes much longer than anticipated, as the Count does not ever hear from Nina again. While taking care of Sofia, the Count gains an even greater sense of purpose. His days become full as he juggles taking care of Sofia with maintaining his job at the Boyarsky.
Though initially the Count is unsure whether he would last three weeks in the hotel, expanding his literal sense of space and finding purpose as a worker and a father allows him to no longer feel constricted. Though his sentence had not altered, his change in attitude in the face of imprisonment allows him to regain a sense of freedom.
Imprisonment, Freedom, and Purpose ThemeTracker
Imprisonment, Freedom, and Purpose 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.
From the earliest age, we must learn to say good-bye to friends and family. […] But experience is less likely to teach us how to bid our dearest possessions adieu. And if it were to? We wouldn't welcome the education. For eventually, we come to hold our dearest possessions more closely than we hold our friends.
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.
And when the Count's parents succumbed to cholera within hours of each other in 1900, it was the Grand Duke who took the young Count aside and explained that he must be strong for his sister’s sake; that adversity presents itself in many forms; and that if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.
Ever since its opening in 1905, the hotel’s suites and restaurants had been a gathering spot for the glamorous, influential, and erudite; but the effortless elegance on display would not have existed without the services of the lower floor.
If he continued along this course, it would not take long for the ceiling to edge downward, the walls to edge inward, and the floor to edge upward, until the entire hotel had been collapsed into the size of a biscuit tin.
For if a room that exists under the governance, authority, and intent of others seems smaller than it is, then a room that exists in secret can, regardless of its dimensions, seem as vast as one cares to imagine.
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?
It was, without question, the smallest room that he had occupied in his life; yet somehow, within those four walls the world had come and gone.
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.