A Gentleman in Moscow

by Amor Towles

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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 536

Two themes are central to A Gentleman in Moscow: the true nature of freedom and the limits of political solutions to social problems. The gentleman’s story illustrates resilience in the face of adversity and the importance of hope in sustaining that resilience. The novel’s central conceit is that Count Rostov, the gentleman in question, spends much of his life confined in a luxurious hotel as his sentence for being convicted of a political crime. The setting is Moscow, and the action spans several decades. Other people enter and leave the Hotel Metropol, where the Count lives and later works, but he can never leave.

Superficially, Count Rostov does not suffer. He is not physically abused, he has adequate and often luxurious food and drink, and he socializes with other workers as well as guests. He even takes pride in excelling at coping: one of his maxims for living is “if one did not master one’s circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by them.” The reader continues to wonder if the author, Amor Towles, aims to convince us that this type of imprisonment is truly comparable to the harsh realities most prisoners face. Towles does not spell this out.

Whether the Count had been fairly sentenced also remains an open question, as the novel glosses over the political rationale and larger social context for his sentencing. In fact, the answer is not relevant to the novelist’s aims, which are not primarily political: Towles never suggests the reader try to make sense of Soviet politics, or indeed of politics at all.

By keeping the focus on this singular character, Towle instead encourages the reader to ponder all the ways that people cope with captivity, even when the physical conditions are not overtly hazardous, and what constitutes suffering. In the years during and after the Revolution, many elite Russians were imprisoned in dire circumstances, and many others fled into exile. Under Stalin, the situation was much grimmer; many authors have written effectively about the forced labor camps, or gulags, in Siberia. Towles inverts the situation by creating a kind of internal exile.

By creating an absurd situation within a grim reality, Towles paradoxically calls attention to the excesses of the Leninist and Stalinist regimes by barely mentioning them. Although the author achieves verisimilitude by the painstaking attention to detail, including specific wines and liqueurs, the novel is not fundamentally realistic.

Count Rostov also does not lack for companionship, and some of his relationships grow into friendship. We get a sense of the inner resources that he musters to endure the fact that his confinement will not end. The themes of the way that hope helps people cope and the complex resources human beings deploy to get through difficulties recur throughout. Especially when it seems the Count will succumb to despair and end his life by jumping off the hotel roof, he decides to opt for life. Towles seems to imply that freedom is existential, a quality within a person that cannot be negated by circumstance. The novel’s tone is often light-hearted, and the Count may seem insufficiently heroic, but precisely by choosing an apparently superficial hero, Towles highlights the gravity of the issues.

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