A Gentleman in Moscow

by Amor Towles

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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 658

In A Gentleman in Moscow, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is confined to a hotel because he is deemed a threat to the Communists that have taken control in Russia. Amor Towles writes:

Let us concede that the early thirties in Russia were unkind.

In addition to starvation in the countryside, the famine of ’32 eventually led to a migration of peasants to the cities, which, in turn, contributed to overcrowded housing, shortages of essential goods, even hooliganism. At the same time, the most stalwart workers in the urban centers were wearying under the burden of the continuous workweek; artists faced tighter constraints on what they could or could not imagine; churches were shuttered, repurposed, or razed; and when revolutionary hero Sergei Kirov was assassinated, the nation was purged of an array of politically unreliable elements.

This is the place where the Count has come to find trouble. However, his life in the hotel isn't a sad one. It doesn't completely reflect the troubles of Russia outside the hotel. Of course, there is news and there are circumstances that arise from the changes during his thirty years there, but he builds a happy and productive life in the hotel. One way he stays engaged in politics is through the people who come to the hotel to discuss important business and policies together.

Despite his unfortunate circumstances, his cheerful character carries him through his confinement. He focuses on what he can do with his life instead of just consigning himself to being miserable. He thinks:

Having acknowledged that a man must master his circumstances or otherwise be mastered by them, the Count thought it worth considering how one was most likely to achieve this aim when one had been sentenced to a life of confinement.

He goes on to consider his motivations. He knows he isn't a person who wants revenge. Rather, he wants to do something meaningful so that his days aren't empty. He doesn't hate his circumstances. He thinks:

Over the years, the Count had come to think of his rooms as rather ample. In the morning, they easily accommodated twenty squats and twenty stretches, a leisurely breakfast, and the reading of a novel in a tilted chair. In the evenings after work, they fostered flights of fancy, memories of travel, and meditations on history all crowned by a good night’s sleep.

His rooms, though, are transformed by the people who visit him there. The most notable of the people in his life is Sofia. She's a young girl who is entrusted to the Count by her mother while she attempts to set up a household near the camp where her husband has been sentenced to hard labor. He, along with the rest of the hotel, raises her. In a way, Sofia gives the Count the purpose he looked for during his time at the hotel. Ultimately, though, he encourages her to go have a real life. He says:

I fear I have done you a great disservice, Sofia. From the time you were a child, I have lured you into a life that is principally circumscribed by the four walls of this building. We all have. Marina, Andrey, Emile, and I. We have ventured to make the hotel seem as wide and wonderful as the world, so that you would opt to spend more time in it with us. But your mother was perfectly right. One does not fulfill one’s potential by listening to Scheherazade in a gilded hall, or by reading the Odyssey in one’s den. One does so by setting forth into the vast unknown—just like Marco Polo when he traveled to China, or Columbus when he traveled to America.

She wants to stay with him, but the Count knows the truth, despite the good life he has lived at the hotel. Sofia will be able to have a better life out in the real world and not stuck in the hotel.

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