Tuesday, March 4, 2014

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?


  1. I definitely think if I read War and Peace, I might see it differently. I sometimes rushed through parts to get through a reading in time and when you reread something, it's easier to catch details that weren't so obvious the first time. Another part of it is what Kelly said about how War and Peace has so much going on that each group she teaches sees it differently, so at different times in your life you might be more interested in different sections or characters because you relate to them more.

  2. Funny you should mention divorced persons, Iulia! The first time I read "Family Happiness," I was a twenty year old and was swayed by Tolstoy's argument, though at that time I knew I did not want that type of "Family Happiness" for myself as a 20th-century woman. When I read it now, as a divorced person in my 40s, I think 'oh, brother' when I read it and that those two would have divorced in the 20th century :)

  3. This is actually my second time reading War and Peace as well, though the first time I read it was 5 or 6 years ago (so that much of the plot had passed out of my memory by the time I started reading it again for this course). Strangely enough, I don't think my character preferences have changed much at all: I still empathize the most with Pierre, Natasha, Mary, and Andrew (in that order). However, I feel like now I have a far different perspective on these characters; (arguably) I'm now looking at them from the viewpoint of a young adult rather than a child. So I think that experience has played a decisive role for me.

  4. Alex, your comment reminds me of an experience I had before coming to college. I already knew I was going to read War and Peace in my tutorial and I told my math professor about it. She said that I was going to love it and that she has been reading that book at different points in time throughout her life and every time she read it she got a different meaning out of it depending on the stage she was in her life.

    Professor Herold - Thank you for mentioning that! Obviously, none of us have had such experiences so far so it's interesting to hear that perspectives are influenced by our own experiences. Also - I'd be interested to know if any of my peers disagree with your points- is "Family Happiness" happiness to be desired in this century?

    Chris, that's interesting - I would have predicted you would have changed your mind on at least one of the main characters. Well - if you read it again a third time when you're old and have time to do it outside of a class :) it would be fascinating to know if you stay consistent with your current opinions and if so, what that might mean about you as a reader?