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.  


  1. I hadn't thought of the incongruity between the list of battle dates and the overblown, pretentious nature of Pierre's initiation into the Freemasons; that's quite interesting. As for Pierre, however, I'm not sure if Tolstoy is mocking his ambitions so much as he is showing us their naivete, which might not necessarily be a bad thing; I only differentiate between the two because the narrator seems to want to instill in us a degree of sympathy for Pierre. As we discussed today, Pierre's desire to believe in something has both good and bad sides - after all, Pierre's adoption of Masonic tenets, while perhaps having initially only a nominal effect on Pierre's own life, at least leads Pierre to shake Andrew out of his skepticism and doubt.

    In light of the reading for today (in particular, the scene with the oak tree), it seems to me like Andrew's skepticism and uncertainty seem less like "wisdom" gained from reasoning and more like unfortunate dispositions, moods to which he has fallen prey. Certainly, however, Pierre's uncritical conversion to Freemasonry seems intellectually disappointing.

    I think you make an interesting point with regard to "black and white" characters - while I don't think the dichotomies between Helene and Mary and Pierre and Andrew are glaring enough to be considered "bad character design" or something of that nature, I do think that in particular Helene seems a slightly unrealistic character (or that Tolstoy overemphasizes her faults). However, perhaps Tolstoy will continue to develop her.

    1. Interesting comments Jordan! It's interesting discussing Pierre because I see Tolstoy's efforts to create a character we sympathize with, but for some reason I am repeatedly frustrated with him. I'd be curious to see if anyone else in the class feels the same way (or if distinct opinions of Pierre exist among our classmates. I hadn't really considered Pierre's lasting effect on Andrew until class on Friday, and Professor Herold's point about the extremes of hopelessness and happiness/devotion do seem to frame moderation (in Andrew or possibly in other chararacters later). I may have been too harsh in judging those characters as "black and white," and I do appreciate Tolstoy's/narrator's distinctive epigrams that characterize the prominents repeatedly. The choice of who the narrator/Tolstoy develops tellingly points to the importance of certain figures.