Sunday, May 11, 2014

Two Sides of Tolstoy's Writing

   Last class, one thing we briefly discussed was that Tolstoy's short stories and first two novels were remarkably distinct from one another. While Tolstoy does explore some similar themes and ideas in both, the structures and styles are still rather different. His short stories play around much more with their narration and have more of a moral than his novels. He even uses different methods for describing his characters in short stories compared to his novels.
  What I find myself wondering is, how intentional was this difference? Obviously an author's short stories and novels will not have the same feel, but they do tend to share several similarities. Was Tolstoy's way of writing his short stories and novels a conscious choice, a result of his novels being so much more expansive than his short stories that the difference was organic, or a mix of the two? It is also possible that this difference is amplified because he had such a long career as a writer and throughout the course of it radically changed as a person, which inevitably impacted his writing. This huge change also came after he wrote his two most famous novels. He did write the novel Resurrection after his transformation, but he wrote far more short stories during this period. Which factor(s) were the most significant part of the distinction between Tolstoy's short stories and his novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina? 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Religion in Tolstoy's Later Works

At the conclusion of Anna Karenina, we see Tolstoy, through Levin, advocating faith in God as the solution to existential quandaries about the meaning and value of life. In The Death of Ivan Ilych, not religion but a kind of revelatory deathbed vision gives Ivan a sense of peace after reflecting on the meaninglessness of his life. Similarly, in Master and Man, the focus is on compassion in general rather than in a religious sense (although perhaps Tolstoy would say that compassion is always religious, in a way). In The Kreutzer Sonata, on the other hand, Tolstoy evinces a very strong, almost didactic, level of religiosity, drawing the message of the story from the Christian gospels. In Hadji Murad, moreover, we see both positive and negative portrayals of Islam as a religion.

I'm curious as to how Tolstoy relates his ideas of compassion and living for others to religion, and as to the interplay between the two. I've also read that Tolstoy was very influenced by the philosophy of Schopenhauer later in his life, in particular by The World as Will and Representation; I'm wondering whether Tolstoy also read Schopenhauer's On the Basis of Morality, in which Schopenhauer attempts to ground morality in compassion. Also, how can we reconcile Tolstoy's apparent esteem for compassion and self-sacrifice with the rather harsh views expressed in The Kreutzer Sonata? While these views certainly seem to conflict with one another, it also seems that Tolstoy was too introspective and relentlessly self-critical to be able to stand being such an apparent hypocrite. Moreover, what is the role of religion in Hadji Murad? Is Hadji Murad being placed before us as a sort of ideal to strive for in terms of religiosity? Is Shamil an example of religious hypocrisy, or something else?

Monday, May 5, 2014

Peasants and Piety

A common theme throughout the material we have read has been the affinity between nature and God, and specifically how peasants and members of the lower class are closer to God because they labor outside and are more connected with the earth and the objective world. On the other hand, the aristocracy tend to be divorced from nature and thus have a problematic or nonexistent faith in a higher power.

However, after reading "Master and Man" and beginning "Hadji Murad," I am wondering if Tolstoy moved away from this perspective of the peasants as images of piety and goodness in his old age. The strife in Peter Avdeev's family and Nikita's alcoholism provide more realistic portraits of peasant life rather than the gross idealizations of lower-class existence as embraced by Levin. The ending of "Master and Man" suggests that Nikita might have been better off had he perished in the snowstorm with Vasili. Moreover, the emphasis of the story is on Vasili's dying epiphany, which is catalyzed by his physical closeness to Nikita in his dying moments. In this sense, the peasant serves as a tool for his master's enlightenment, but this enlightenment eludes Nikita himself completely.

The frivolity of Peter Avdeev's death further reinforces the idea that the peasants are being exploited for the ease of the upper class; in the grand scheme, his death means nothing and the death itself is not very inspiring or memorable. His family attaches meaning to his death in that they have lost a valuable worker, rather than a spiritual loss. Additionally, the misconduct of Peter's brother and his wife show us laziness, ingratitude, and betrayal amongst the peasants in a way we have not seen before in Tolstoy's works. Do you think that Tolstoy became skeptical about faith/God in general towards the end of his life, or is he just moving towards a more realistic/less idealized perspective on the peasantry?

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Tolstoy: Genius or Madman?

This post was inspired by Hanna's Wednesday post.

The novellas we've read by Tolstoy, as well as his works Anna Karenina and War and Peace, have been rather dark. Although I feel that society at large tends to attribute this to the fact that he's Russian, I want to explore how we feel about Tolstoy. His works are no doubt masterpieces, but are they the musings of a genius or of a madman?

If we consider Pierre and Levin as reflections of Tolstoy, what then are we learning about Tolstoy? In Pierre, which was earlier, we see a lot of epiphanies that are ultimately disappointing and a great sense of purposelessness. Tolstoy seems to have been searching for meaning in life with disappointing results. Then comes Levin. Through Levin we can assume that Tolstoy has created some more structure in his life and some things are more sorted out for him. Yet, Levin has a very serious breakdown near the end of Anna Karenina. I'm curious as to whether there are any indications that Tolstoy himself attempted suicide. I think we can confidently state that Tolstoy was at least thinking about death throughout Anna Karenina and afterwards as well. By the end of Anna Karenina, it seems Tolstoy was saved through religion but what does the Kreutzer Sonata tell is about Tolstoy's new-found religion? Tolstoy seems more concerned with the behavior of women than of men. How can the man who wrote a dialogue in which the double standards between men and women were clearly covered? Can Tolstoy truly feel that murder of an adulterous woman is justified? How are Tolstoy's personal problems affecting this?

It seems to me that Tolstoy has a lot of issues that may have driven him crazy. I find that Tolstoy had a very negative outlook on life. I doubt not that he feared nearing his death and realizing that his life had been pointless. It's clear that Tolstoy finds meaning in family happiness but is unable to understand how it can succeed. Is this at the source of his misery? Basically, what I am asking is what can we know about the man given his writings? After these short stories, I'm beginning to think I would not want Tolstoy as my neighbor. He seems more suited to the Bates Motel.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Kreutzer Sonata: Raving Lunatic or Justified Murderer?

I was not overly shocked by the revolutionary aspects of The Kreutzer Sonata - namely its explicit denunciation of marriage and violent ending. I mean revolutionary in the sense that in the late 19th century, Tolstoy's writings would have shocked and outraged Russian society. Ironically, I'm a pessimist about marriage just as the man in The Kreutzer Sonata was. However, I will never condone abuse or violence, which were the most troubling aspects of this novella. Why did the man have to be a murderer? Was divorce really so bad an option? I believe that even in today's society, which is much more free-wheeling than aristocratic Russia in the 19th century, marriages are entered into brashly and unhappiness is far too common. However, - and I may be the devil's advocate here - rather than advocating better selection or striving for "chastity" in marriage, the ease of divorce should lower the possibility of abuse or even murder. I had not previously thought of The Kreutzer Sonata as championing ease of divorce, but this role fits the novella well.
Perhaps ease of divorce is not the issue, but rather the stigma attached to it, which is still seen today (though perhaps not in Russia). This blog post is focusing on whether the murderer could have chosen another path. I believe he was a little loony in the head and more abusive than most men. He seemed to have murdered his wife without sufficient proof and based on a few wrongly-interpreted looks. The fact that the wife did not confess on her deathbed was proof to me of the murderer's impetuousness. Do you believe the murderer had due cause? Was the wife innocent or guilty? Did he have another way out?  

Sunday, April 27, 2014

A matter of life and death

I read the last pages of The Death of Ivan Ilych with a skeptical feeling taking over, more and more intensely every line I read. After almost a semester of attempting to understand Tolstoy better, I feel that I can read into what he was getting at in his writing fairly easily. In the story of Ivan Ilych, the same themes that are present into his previous works appear: doctors are useless, society life goes hand in hand with falsity, and death is a chance for revival ( maybe? - I am questioning this still).

However, I just could not buy into this wonderful death of Ivan Ilych. I understand that Tolstoy tried to emphasize that the spiritual trumps the physical and unless one understands that, they are not able to die. Accepting death comes with an understanding that one is headed towards a better world, an acceptance of light and what comes next. Andrew went through this process when he died and now we see similar thought-processes in Ivan Ilych. It seems to me though, that Tolstoy is using a cliche statement about what death is supposed to mean and be like. It sort of feels like a cop-out. The ending of this story does not do justice to the Christian ideals ( which I believe are close to Tolstoy's ideas) where you need to lead a good, meaningful life to be able to walk into the light and it offers a simplistic, idealized view of death. While the pain and real sufferings of Ivan are painted in a grotesque light, his final revelation does not make any sense to me. I refuse to believe that death could be as plain as Tolstoy describes it.

One of my favorite Romanian novels ( Adam and Eve by Liviu Rebreanu) is made up of multiple stories that make up a larger story. It is based on the idea that one keeps reliving one's life until they meet and are able to be with their soulmate. It walks the reader through the ancient ages all the way to modern (WW2) Romania, where the protagonists meet, have a romantic encounter although they are engaged to other people and when death arrives for the man in the couple, this is a different kind of death, that leads him to a different universe. While this story is very romantic, the variety of deaths that we see in this books have nothing to do with final revelations and perfect endings achieved upon first attempt. It presumes that the soul learns through a variety of lives and is able to move towards the final light once it has an existence that satisfies the need for love - not after a life lived in falsity, with no meaning until 3 days before death.

I might be a little over Tolstoy's tendency to turn everything into a revelation, to connect everything to a higher meaning in near-death moments. What do you think? Are you satisfied with Ivan's death or is it too Tolstoyan?

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Art in Tolstoy's World

           Art may not get many pages in Anna Karenina but it still has a presence. What caught my eye was how the only two times art has been described and discussed in detail have been in the aristocracy or in another country. The interesting part is how there does not seem to be much art inspired by Russian culture and history. We have one Russian painter featured but he does not get aid or support from the Russian government. Obviously, the novel has art being produced in Russia. However, the art featured gains its influence and inspiration from European ideals with no real hint of uniquely Russian culture included. 
           We've already discussed in class how it was trendy for the Russian aristocracy to emulate European ideals, but is that all there is to the lack of Russian art in Anna Karenina? I think that the way art is treated suggests that the reason for this lack is not just from seeking European culture and customs but also from the socioeconomic situation of 1870's Russia. Tolstoy treats the peasant as being the heart of Russia but there's no way peasants could afford to take the time and effort to create art. Another part of it could be that the aristocracy is portrayed as being more interested in how art should be defined and analyzed rather than in its creation. In both sections of the novel that focus on art, there is someone trying to imitate or define art. Vronsky would rather imitate other painters and follow classic styles than attempt to be original and develop a new idea. At the concert, Levin is unable to appreciate the show he just saw due to his confusion and instead argues with Pestsov that art forms should not be mixed. Any thoughts on this?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Forms of Life

One motif which has been repeated throughout the novel so far is the desire "to live." We see this with Anna throughout her affair with Vronsky, from the beginning when she wants an actual life containing passion and love, and also when she is living with Vronsky, in a conversation with Dolly (616). Dolly likewise expresses an understanding of Anna's desire "to live" and to "love and be loved in a real way" in her reflections on the way to visit Anna and Vronsky in Book VI (608). Similarly, we see Vronsky pursuing a "life" through attempts at independence and activity outside of his relationship with Anna; Karenin, also, finds a "life" in his work. Likewise, Levin forms a life out of reflection, intellectual and physical work, and family life with Kitty.

Hence, it seems that Anna Karenina presents us with an assortment, a display, as it were, of "forms of life": Anna's life of passion, Vronsky's life of indolence, Karenin's work-dictated life, Levin's thoughtful, reflective, life, Dolly's life, dedicated to aiding others, Stiva's life of pleasant hedonism, Nikolai's life of asceticism followed by extreme excess and squalor, etc. (The list goes on...) What are we to make of the variety of ways of life with which Tolstoy presents us? To reference Alosha's post earlier this week, which ways of life are "real" for Tolstoy; what is "a real life"? Should we look to Levin's life as a model, or at least as a closer approximation to the actual model (if, indeed, there is one) than others, in spite of Levin's own shortcomings (given that, of all the characters, Levin seems to most resemble the introspective heroes which Tolstoy presented in War and Peace)? How do these ways of life "stand up" or fare, respectively, in the face of the novel's deaths and near-deaths, in particular that of Nikolai?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Lie To Me

Today's class discussion on Seryozha and the chapters in Part V when we see his perspective have made me think about each character's relationship with reality and the role that delusion plays in the novel. Even though Seryozha should be old enough to understand the concept of death, he naively believes that neither he himself nor anyone he loves can die. This idea of youthful exceptionalism and the idea that human and societal laws do not apply to oneself is also present in Vronsky, who initially upon his return to Petersburg with Anna expects that society will welcome the couple as they had before. Anna herself buys into this delusion, and her refusal to examine her position as a compromised woman in high society results in the fiasco at the opera. Karenin only associates with people who reinforce his beliefs and idea of reality (Lydia). Although it is evident to everyone else that his career is over because of his wife's scandalous behavior, he believes he is doing the best and most meaningful work in his life. 

Levin, our "searching" character, is perhaps most involved in the quest to live deliberately but even he is not completely immune to delusion; he tormented himself unnecessarily for years after Kitty refused him because he irrationally concluded that she would and could never love him. He also has a complex towards the whole affair of his brother, and how he thought Kitty would be damaged by associating with Marya and Nikolai. Interestingly, I think Stiva, despite his frivolity, is not as deluded as other characters. Do you have to be a frivolous person to live successfully in a frivolous society? Do you think that a certain character's delusions are detrimental to him/herself or are they necessary?

Sunday, April 13, 2014

To love or not to love Anna

This is my third time reading Anna Karenina and I have seen this woman at different times in my life, I have accepted and hated her more or less at different points in time, but this is the first time I am reading this book I am not even trying to like her anymore and I sympathize with Karenin more than I ever have previously.

My dislike from Anna comes partly from appreciating underdogs more than I like people who are in the spotlight. Anna enters the story and steals the show. Her first action in the book is reconciling her brother and Dolly, although her brother had made a bad choice. Then she proceeds to dance with Vronsky at a ball where Kitty should have been the shining star. She then allows Vronsky to be a part of her life. While I understand how constricted Anna feels in her daily life, living in the same universe with Karenin, I find it hard to justify her behavior towards other people. I find it even more problematic that her actions do not even bring her happiness and she ends up ruining multiple lives, including her own - her son is taken away from her, her life with Vronsky does not bring her as much joy as she hoped it would and her general selfishness is detrimental to everyone. The more time I spend reading this book, the less I am able to see how she could be the victim of society and of the people around her.

Do you think Anna is redeemable? Do you still like her and find her easy to empathize as we make our way towards the end of the book?

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Young Kitty

My post this week related to Kitty. I must say that as we have learned more about Kitty, I grow more and more infatuated with her. Whereas in the beginning of the novel she paled next to the stout and impressive Anna, now, Kitt's sweetness and, to an extent, softness elevate her to my favorite. Is Tolstoy playing favorites also? Does Tolstoy consider Kitty the ideal female? Given that Tolstoy sees himself in Levin, I do not find it unimaginable that Levin's love-interest would also be Tolstoy's ideal woman. Consider also Levin's conviction that it's either Kitty or no one. Levin does not imagine any other woman short of Kitty could be worth marrying. Indeed, if we look at favorites from War and Peace, Natasha seems like a clear nominee. Given Kitty's youth and heartbreak due to Vronsky (which parallels with Natasha's own child-like qualities and fling with Anatole), she seems like an extension of Natasha. Tolstoy seems to have developed Natasha (before she became a great matron) and come up with Kitty.

Moreover, Kitty, despite her youth, seems to have a perceptive mind that makes her intelligent. I particularly liked how Kitty, "boldly with her truthful eyes," contradicted Levin's arguments on women's rights (396-397). She does this again when planning their honeymoon. Instead of going abroad, Kitty insists that they move into the country home as she understands that it would be more pleasant for Levin (although he does not say it). However, now, as I nearly reach the end of my blog post, I'm starting to grow annoyed with Kitty. Like was mentioned in the previous post on Stepan, his flaws make him human (and to me, likeable). What are Kitty's flaws? Tolstoy need not continue to show us she has a heart of gold; we already know it. Before, I was really impressed with Tolstoy's increasing ability to write females but perhaps Kitty's isn't the best example. Do her angelic characteristics make her unreal? Regardless, Kitty warms my heart.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

What Defines Romance? Love? Pleasure?

This is my second time reading Anna Karenina. Like Professor Herold, I viewed Anna's tryst with Vronsky as highly romantic in my first reading. However, this time, I am coming to despise this affair and romanticizing Levin's courtship with Kitty. I don't know if Tolstoy planned this, but I am sensing a reader's naivete during their first reading (especially -- and only? -- if they don't know the book's ending) changes abruptly upon finishing the novel. In other words, Tolstoy seems to brilliantly carry along young and innnocent readers in the romance of Vronsky and Anna before awaking them to the cruel reality of such an affair in late 19th century Russia. Once this innocence has been stripped, the second reading looks for the signs the innocent reader had overlooked in the first reading: signs of trouble, and other relationships to take solace in. To a large extent, and which I have rarely -- if ever -- encountered in another work, Tolstoy wrote this work to be read multiple times.
The above paragraph regarding romance could also be applied to the reader's view of Stepan Oblonksy. However, this man is much more difficult to hate or love wholeheartedly: he is neither tragically naive (as Pierre was in War and Peace?) nor absolutely loathsome (as Anatole or Karenin are?). Interestingly, I see more nuance in Stepan's character than in any of the romantic relations. For me, nuance signals humanity in its essence: does Stepan represent the reality of humanity? Are Levin and Karenin too diametrically opposed to be realistic men? Now I wonder if Stepan, as the man whose thoughts we get the least of in Anna Karenina, is the ideal: the other men's thoughts are not especially enviable or even interesting. The same pattern was arguably seen in War and Peace: Nicholas ended up as the protagonist, and he was the man whose thoughts we read the least.   

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

War and Peace Characters

Several characters in Anna Karenina have said, thought, or done something that recall characters in War and Peace. I first noticed a resemblance between Kitty and Natasha at the ball. Kitty admires her marble shoulders and waits impatiently to be asked to dance. However, Kitty also has her target whereas Natasha was essentially open for business. In a way, Kitty almost seems like a rewritten, more complex version of Natasha. What do you think about this comparison? Do you notice any other similarities/differences?

I also recalled Pierre in the scene between Levin and Nikolai. Levin's spiraling self-degradation resembles Pierre's, but Levin's seems more dramatic, simple, and unproductive. In this way, I anticipate Tolstoy will develop this self-consciousness further as opposed to wallowing in it; in Pierre's case, that really is what Tolstoy does: wallow. Pierre is also present in Nikolai's self-searching. But Tolstoy describes this after the fact; Nikolai has now become an alcoholic. I see Pierre as split between these two characters, and it seems as if Tolstoy is going to take this naivete in a different direction than War and Peace. Do you think Tolstoy's messages about self-discovery have changed between writing the two novels?

Friday, March 14, 2014

Perception of Tolstoy's History Over Time

    As I skimmed through the Second Epilogue, trying not to get lost in all the repetition of ideas, I found myself not terribly excited about this section of War and Peace. I wasn't surprised by that-for the most part, I found the sections on history more than little tedious. The ideas themselves were not always the problem, but more how they were written and placed in the text as a whole.
    What I keep wondering is how did people react to the sections on history when War and Peace was originally published? The novel itself was fairly popular, but that doesn't mean people were actually reading these lectures on how Tolstoy thought history should be analyzed and perceived. Did people generally enjoy the sections about history or just skim to the more exciting parts? For that matter, does Tolstoy's way of earnestly presenting his thoughts on history add to the novel as a whole or were the various stories and how they unfolded enough to convey the message?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Conceptual Conflicts

In the second epilogue, Tolstoy spends a large amount of time examining the dichotomy between freedom and inevitability. Indeed, Tolstoy claims to have distinguished the "two fundamentals of which man's whole outlook on the universe is constructed--the incomprehensible essence of life, and the laws defining that essence" (1070). Drawing upon Tolstoy's remarks in the epilogue and the events of the novel, natural binaries start to emerge, in correspondence with the aforementioned remark: essence vs. the laws of essence, content vs. form, freedom vs. inevitability, life vs. death (although this seems slightly more tenuous), worldliness vs. other-wordliness, immanence vs. transcendence, and consciousness vs. reason. 

Moreover, the characters of the novel seem to fall neatly into these binaries. After all, Andrew dies, experiencing "an awakening" through a transcendence of the world via death (871), while Pierre finds happiness and freedom in life by learning "to see the great, eternal, and infinite in everything" (977). It seems that we could draw similar distinction between Princess Mary, who is described as "a soul burdened by the body," (1038) and Natasha, who devotes herself entirely to her family. As Alosha pointed out in her blog post earlier this week, neither side of the binary, at least as expressed in the contrasts between characters, seems to be objectively better than the other. However, if this is the case, then how do we resolve the apparent conflict between ways of life that seem so diametrically opposed? Tolstoy writes that to really understand human life we must take both freedom and inevitability into account (1071), but does this more fruitful way of looking at human life find embodiment in any of the characters of the novel?

On the topic of binaries: It's an interesting coincidence that the title of the novel itself expresses a dichotomy between two opposing concepts.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Pierre's Enlightenment

I find it interesting that Tolstoy characterizes Pierre's newfound happiness as a return to simplicity: "The absence of suffering, the satisfaction of one's needs and consequent freedom" (p. 896). Tolstoy contrasts Pierre's total faith in man's ability to achieve happiness in life to Andrew's conclusion that "positive happiness is implanted in us merely to torment us and never be satisfied" (p. 896). Pierre is a "feeling" character. Tolstoy implies that those who are too analytical or intellectual will not find joy in life; however, joy is not necessarily the aim of life for every man. I do not believe that Andrew is an inferior character because he achieved self-actualization in death rather than in life. Pierre possesses a disposition towards emotionality and nature while Andrew is more rational and thoughtful but neither is implicitly superior. 

Pierre's enlightenment also immunizes him to the mob mentality that controls the French officers. I find it interesting that while Pierre is a very impressionable character he is able to recognize that a "mysterious force" (p. 898) causes them to act without agency. For the first time in his life, Pierre acts of his own free will. His ability to distinguish when others are not exercising their free will is indicative of the enormous growth he undergoes as a character. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

"There it is!... It again!..."

In Book 13, as the French are moving out and taking the prisoners with them, Pierre notices the "it" come back. The narrator explains "it" as "that mysterious callous force which compelled people against their will to kill their fellow men" (897). I was very intrigued by the way Pierre sees this in the previously friendly French faces and understands that they are no longer the same men that can be reasoned with. Also of note is the role of drums in the scene. The drums act as a cue to Pierre that the "it" is there again. (It would be interesting to follow up and see where else drums come up.) To me, a pacifist, this scene gives me the room to believe Tolstoy had criticisms of waging war. War, besides the destruction it has caused Russia and the lives that have been sacrificed, changes individuals in way I do not think we've really seen. After World War I, the U.S. really saw what war did to humanity and those that witnessed it through the "Lost Generation." Yet, in War and Peace, I don't feel like we've really seen anyone in shell-shock other than when experiencing moments of cowardice. We've also seen another small hint that Tolstoy may have been against war (or at least understood its effects on an individual level) when he has Rostov recognize a Frenchman as homely. I think that as a class, we have discussed and understood Tolstoy's belief that war is not scientific nor affected by individuals. However, I'd love for us to discuss how Tolstoy feels about war given what it does to the individual. For example, this "it" will be seen again by the world in World War II. Tolstoy very accurately describes humanity's tendency to obedience and conformity as psychologists have seen through various experiments after WWII. These men are being driven by a will to commit atrocities that they would find impossible to commit outside of war. Thus, my question posed to the class, how does Tolstoy feel about war?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

War as Related by the Narrator

Once again at the beginning on Book 13 we see the narrator pontificating about the insignificance of individuals in the face of larger historical laws. However, this section immediately follows Pierre's close encounter with death and the death of Andrew. Do these individuals really count for nothing?

The theme of universality seems to carry over, as Andrew accepts the unearthly love of death just as humans should accept the inevitability of the tides of history. I am continually baffled by the narration of War and Peace, as the intricate details of a few characters are painstakingly told, then immediately followed by philosophical ruminations on the inconsequentiality of humankind.

Does this juxtaposition echo Tolstoy's own uncertainty about the meaning of life? Are readers supposed to choose either individuality or universality as the take-away of the "novel"?  

How do we relate to writing?

As I am reading War and Peace the second time, many of the motifs and themes that had escaped me the first time are becoming more apparent, I start to notice more aspects of the personality of characters and it is a very interesting experience.

I know that most of the rest of the people in our class are having their first experience with War and Peace and potentially with Tolstoy as well. The question that our conversation in class on Monday brought to me was - how do we engage with the characters we see? What makes us see good or evil in one or another and why do we like some better than others? Obviously, some of them do really good deeds, others not so much, some are just oblivious to the unhappiness they cause. Yet, in my previous class on War and Peace, there was someone who really liked Dolokhov and kept insisting that he is a good guy ( and as Rostov discovered, he does have a family that he loves very much) and now Cynthia brings up a very good point about Helene's honesty about her manipulative nature which could redeem her.

It is very interesting to me how much of ourselves we allow into our readings. Like I mentioned in class, Natasha seemed like a charming ideal of femininity to me (although I didn't love her) and I was obsessed with Andrew, with his calm and composed nature and his ability to anchor other characters and learn from his experiences. This time around I respect Mary so much more than I did the first time, I find it hard to relate to Natasha's exuberance anymore and Andrew, although still appealing, has lost his capacity to awe me. I was a first-semester first-year when I first read War and Peace and I definitely grew up since then. Thus, is the way I relate to characters now a result of my growth or a result of being able to re-read the book and noticing the details I couldn't see the first time?

My question for all of you is - do you think that upon reading the book a second time you would empathize with the same characters or change? And if you think you would change your minds, would that be a result of your own change?

For instance, just to change the frame a little bit - imagine reading Family Happiness as a happily married individual 20 years from now. Imagine reading it as a recently divorced individual. Although Family Happiness is not an accurate description of modern life - could it maybe have a different meaning for you in different contexts?

Friday, February 28, 2014

Bednaya Sonya (Poor Sonya)

Near the beginning of our discussion of War and Peace, Kelly said in class that she feels bad for Sonya. At first, I was not in a position to relate, because we had hardly seen anything from this character. During Book Eleven, however, my sympathetic feelings for Sonya really came alive. When the Rostovs are packing to leave Moscow, the Rostovs treat Sonya almost as their servant girl, asking her to do, for lack of a better word, the bitch-work. Meanwhile, Petya and Natasha run merrily through the walls, clearly not recognizing the weight of what is happening around them. This scene solidified my notions that Tolstoy intends for our sympathy of Sonya. Right before describing Sonya's hardworking attitude compared to Natasha's and Petya's lack thereof, Tolstoy gives us minimal, but present, access to Sonya's feelings about Nicholas's potential engagement with Princess Mary. There is no connection between Sonya's feelings about Nicholas and her doing all of the packing other than the fact that she is simply a pitiable character. This proximity of what I've come to think of as "Bednaya Sonya" moments solidifies any strong assumption to identify Tolstoy's intention to make us feel bad for Sonya. If this is the case, I am somewhat upset with Tolstoy for granting us so little access to Sonya's feelings, while Natasha's frivolous feelings are all over the damn place. Where are we in terms of Sonya and Natasha? I have felt increasingly sympathetic toward Sonya, but my feelings toward Natasha have wavered between sympathy, pity, annoyance, and sometimes a simple lack of respect. At this point, Tolstoy will have to do a lot for me to gain confidence in Natasha as well as Tolstoy's portrayal of female characters. I'm right on the edge, but haven't jumped off yet. I'm pretty damn close, though.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Natasha and Andrew

by Alosha Southern

I found the description of the relationship between Natasha and Prince Andrew to be one of the most complex manifestations of romantic love in the novel. While other relationships have centered on initial
infatuation (Pierre and Helene, Andrew and Lise) and then quickly disintegrated, the arc of Natasha and Andrew’s relations differs sharply. Having known her as a girl, Andrew is struck by the liveliness and genuine quality of Natasha’s character and she evidently recognizes a similarly authentic aspect in him (Andrew is after all, criticized for being curt in society as he refuses to put up the proper façade of polite interest in people he regards poorly), or is she just a young girl being swept off her feet for the first time? Do you think Natasha’s love for Andrew will fade over time?

What I found most interesting was the scene when Andrew proposes and “something in him had suddenly changed; there was no longer the former poetic and mystic charm of desire, but there was pity for her feminine and childlike weakness, fear at her devotion and trustfulness, and an oppressive yet joyful sense of the duty that now bound him to her forever. The present feeling, though not so bright and poetic as the former, was stronger and more serious (422).” It is in this moment that the “honeymoon phase” of their relationship comes to an end, and while the love Andrew feels for Natasha is not intensely romantic, Tolstoy describes this new love as being more enduring, more mature. At first, I found it depressing how this new emotion encompassed pity, fear, and an oppressive sense of duty. However, in reality, human emotions are always incredibly nuanced, and so it is not impossible or even surprising that Andrew could fear/pity Natasha while still loving her. Furthermore, the simple fact that Andrew can mentally articulate these reservations he has about their relationship speaks volumes; Pierre felt a vague sense of forboding concerning Helene, but failed to analyze those feelings earlier.

Image source:Ростова_пастернак.jpeg.  Artist: Leonid Pasternak.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Digressions into the Philosophy of History

Interestingly enough, after the more personal and less directly historical Books 6, 7, and 8, Tolstoy begins Book 9 with a long philosophical digression on the nature of history, causation, and freedom. To me, this seems to only reinforce one of the points Tolstoy makes regarding history – that ultimately, everything is historical, even the most intimate details of the personal lives of individuals (such as the touching scene between Pierre and Natasha at the end of Book 8). Of course, this touches upon the distinction Tolstoy draws between the “individual life” and the “elemental hive life” of the individual, and upon Tolstoy’s rather odd statement that one’s “individual life is the more free the more abstract its interests” (537). It would seem that Tolstoy is claiming that, the further one removes oneself from practical affairs, the more one escapes the “hive life,” the historical drive. But it seems that the decision to withdraw from practical affairs is just as susceptible to transformation into historical fact as practical action—so perhaps Tolstoy means that withdrawing into abstract affairs makes one less susceptible to the social impulse of history.

This brings up another point: that, for Tolstoy, history seems to be psychologically and socially driven, but not causally or consciously driven. History marches toward a goal, but the goal is chosen not by a rational principle but by “the unconscious, general hive life of mankind" (537). Yet we should probably be careful in saying that for Tolstoy history is irrational, given Tolstoy’s remark on page 537 about the nature of irrational events. It might be better to say that, for Tolstoy, the progress of history does not conform to anyone’s conscious aims. Moreover, history is not driven by any sort of recognizable causality—we cannot pick out a neat, discrete set of causes for a given historical event; we can only say that the totality of historical facts prior to the event led to the event via coincidence. Given the weightiness of Tolstoy’s discussion of history, the beginning of Book 9 marks a pronounced shift in perspective (or perhaps a pronounced declaration of a perspective) on the lives of the characters.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Nature of Epiphanies

    As Book Eight ends and the story shifts from peacetime affairs to war, I noticed that in the last chapter of Book Eight, Pierre has an epiphany while seeing the comet of 1812 dash across the sky. The theme of nature as a source of wisdom and inspiration is not a new one, but what I thought was interesting was how this epiphany is developed compared to earlier ones.
    While this epiphany parallels Andrew's in Book Three, it is distinct because Pierre is in a city when he experiences it and rather than realizing the pointless nature of pursuing glory, he is rising above his everyday existence. Also, this epiphany is the last moment of peacetime before diving back into the war while
Andrew's epiphany came at the end of a war section. What is the significance in depicting Pierre's epiphany this way compared to Andrew's, especially using a phenomenon that is fairly rare and traditionally considered a sign of danger and the end of the world. In terms of plot, what does this foreshadow about the Russian side of war and/or the war in general?

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Nicholas Mature?

As we continue reading, I think we can all recognize that Nicholas has gone through some difficult experiences. He has seen war; he knows what it's like to feel like a coward. Nicholas also lost a large sum of money. Regardless of how unaware Nicholas is of money, it was still difficult for him. Yet, Nicholas continues to disappoint. He's like the endearing boy that says something really rude at a family gathering but which everyone forgives because he's such a pet. Why can't we criticize Nicholas like we do others? For example, I think that originally I let him off the hook too easy. He could have done more for Denisov. However, since he was so caught up in his anger towards the French and Boris' role, he didn't try to get Boris on his side. At first, it's easy to justify Nicholas' anger because I can understand his anger at feeling like a pawn. Yet, on further inspection, it's Nicholas' pride that's hurt- not his ideology: "Rostov had been out of humor from the moment he noticed the look of dissatisfaction on Boris' face..." (358). We've seen Nicholas grow, but has he actually matured?

One of the other facts that convinces me that Nicholas has not matured is his adoration for the tsar. The way he idolizes him reminds me of the infatuation of the narrator to the other little boy in Childhood (I apologize for not remembering the names but I'm at the Posse Plus Retreat and didn't bring my book with me). Our narrator consciously justified the actions of the other boy in order for it to fit with his feelings for him. Nicholas is doing the same thing. I think our narrator purposefully makes Nicholas look silly tin order to demonstrate his child-like nature: "Beside himself with enthusiasm, Rostov ran after him with the crowd" (361). Can we imagine Andrew behaving is way? I don't think even Pierre would chase after a Freemason in this manner. Finally, I was disappointed that Nicholas had the opportunity to mature as he was asking the right questions: "Terrible doubts rose in his soul... Next he thought of that self-satisfied Bonaparte... liked and respected by Alexander. Then why those severed arms and legs and those dead men?" (364). Nicholas could have continued exploring these doubts and dealt with internal conflict as we see Andrew do it. Instead, Nicholas drinks. Is Nicholas maturing at all or at a slow pace?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

War? In Peace?

I was immediately confused at the beginning of Book 5 when the list of important battle dates were given yet the narrative doesn't transition to the war front. Indeed, in the first 12 chapters we only catch glimpses of the action and even see a repetition of the epigram describing Anna Pavlovna's dinner parties. The solemnity of Pierre's initiation into the Freemasons society seems artificial when precluded with battle dates. Here Tolstoy seems to mock Pierre's ambitions by contrasting them with the life and death matters occurring on the war front. 

In a similar vein, the overbearing theme of Christian beliefs pervades Book 5, as Pierre seeks a new mentor to follow almost unthinkingly. The narrator seems to have a condescending tone when describing Pierre's induction to the Freemasons, followed by Prince Andrew's denial of these beliefs. I wonder whether the seemingly flowery language associated with Pierre's lofty ideals was typical of Russian society and how prevalent atheism (albeit hidden) was in the early 1800s in Russia. 

Finally, the absence of women in this section provides a nice relief from Book 4, as Helene and Mary provide stark contrasts as tempter and sympathizer. Again in contrast, Pierre and Andrew come to the fore as irrational naivete combats pessimistic wisdom. Does Tolstoy truly believe characters and beliefs can be so black and white? The dichotomies are so glaringly demonstrated, yet neither of the options (Helene vs. Mary; Pierre vs. Andrew) seem optimal for living one's life ideally. Tolstoy seems to establish that such extremes are not to be desired and should be approached with caution.  

Monday, February 10, 2014

Tolstoy's Women

As we have finished our Fourth Book from War and Peace, we obviously know Tolstoy has a way with words. We've established that we like some characters, dislike others, yet many times we are not sure why we feel like this; we are just enraptured by Tolstoy and his prowess. For this reason, I would like to talk about the women of War and Peace, their portrayal and our feelings about it, and potentially get some of your insight on how you relate to some characters as opposed to others.

In this book we have met Lise, Andrei's wife, who does not have a fair fate and her destiny is relatively tragic. Nevertheless, even now, reading this book the second time, I cannot relate to her at all and I keep on empathizing with Andrew. Lise is beautiful, charming in society and does not have any traits to make her displeasing other than her husband's dissatisfaction with her. Does anyone else share the same feelings about Lise?

Helene is a character that we don't even see that much, she is mostly portrayed as an object of veneration for men because of her looks. However, even before we quite understand she has an affair with her brother or before she starts cheating on Pierre, we dislike her. Is it because we don't know her as anything else but a marble figure? Is it because we think she is not worth of Pierre or because she appears to be shallow? Mary is at the opposite end of the spectrum, we learn that she has very intense spiritual feelings, that she is in tune with her thoughts and has a powerful will to understand, but she is not as beautiful as Helene, she lacks social skills and she oftentimes seems naive. I personally am fascinated by Mary and can't understand how I paid so little attention to her the first time I read the book. Why don't we dislike Mary despite her lack of beauty and charm? Why does it seem so unremarkable that she lacks beauty even if Tolstoy emphasizes her plainness every chance he gets?

Of course there's Natasha, but I still think of her as a child and as a rather undeveloped character, there's also Sonya, perhaps Anna Mikhaylovna. Who is compelling to you, whom do you dislike and why?

I have a few more opinions on why Tolstoy is constructing the characters the way he is, but I will save them for until after I receive a few comments on the topic to see if we are on the same page.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Positivity: Delusion or Necessity?

Chapter 2 shows the first signs of a common thread throughout Book 2: positivity in times of peril. I was especially confused in this chapter at the many "congratulations" thrown around even though the Austrians had just suffered a loss. Somehow, all of the men in the scene, except Prince Andrew, manage to spin Mack's defeat into a victory. I shared Prince Andrew's sentiments about the importance of acknowledging the high stakes of the war. But this type of unwarranted positivity continued throughout Book 2. The end of Chapter 4 has perhaps more exclamation points, all of pure joy, than any other page in Book 2. This excitement ensues from news that Mack has surrendered with his entire army. The recipients of the news are quick to understand that they cannot respond with nerves, but with excitement. The last line of Chapter 4, "Well thank God! We've been sitting here too long!" (117) shows a step above courage--excitement. Andrew seems to view this attitude as delusional and foolish.

Do you agree with this attitude? After reading Chapter 2, I fully endorsed Andrew's skepticism. But as the book progressed, I came to see a common theme of creating positivity out of the small victories, even to the point of finding elements of victory in a larger defeat. After considering this point, I realized that this is really what war is about; both sides will suffer massive losses, but the small victories will add up for the ultimate victor.