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.