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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

TOLSTOY: War and Peace - Book 2, Part 1

Dueling is out of fashion these days. Drive-by shootings are more likely to occur now. There were times in American history when it was perfectly acceptable (if not legal) to duel. Before he became President, Andrew Jackson was shot and got shot by a man in a duel. Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel. In War and Peace we find out that dueling was also a method sometimes used by the upper classes for resolving personal conflicts. Pierre is a member of the upper class but he is not the kind of man who should be dueling. Dolokov, on the other hand, is not strictly of the upper class but he’s exactly the kind of man you would expect to be involved in a duel. The question for readers is this: why does Pierre pick a duel with Dolokov?

Pierre is a complex man so the reasons he has for dueling with Dolokov are also bound to be complex. First of all, Pierre is insecure about his masculinity while Dolokov is a man’s man. Dolokov is strong, brave and reckless. Other guys seem to like him and many are drawn to him just for the adventures. I picture Dolokov as something of a Russian Hemingway. Pierre is introspective and not nearly as self-assured as Dolokov. Pierre’s one of those men who are “only strong when they feel themselves perfectly pure.” And how many of us are ever perfectly pure?

This whole idea of being perfectly pure is a big part of the reason that Pierre married his wife Ellen (Heléne) in the first place. He wanted to know her, in the biblical sense, and felt guilty about lusting after her. In his eyes it was an impure marriage from the start because at heart Ellen is really a promiscuous sexpot. It’s not clear if that’s really true or if it’s just a case of Pierre projecting his own desires and insecurities onto his wife. “I never loved her,” Pierre said to himself; “I knew she was a dissolute woman…but I did not dare own it to myself.”

Ellen may or may not be a dissolute woman in reality but she has been spending a lot of time with Dolokov lately. Pierre is thinking about these things and starts drinking more and more as he sits across the table from Dolokov at a dinner party. Given these factors as a starting point it’s not that hard to see Pierre’s mind make the leap from one thing to another to another…until he’s teetering on the edge. He’s already worked up in this state of mind when Dolokov grabs a paper literally out of Pierre’s hand. That’s the last straw. Before he has time to reflect Pierre challenges Dolokov to a duel. This is amazing since Pierre has never fired a gun.

Dolokov is a complex character himself. Is he one of the bad guys, or basically a good guy who’s trying to get by in a corrupt society? From all appearances and the way he acts you would tend to think of Dolokov as a self-centered bad guy. Here’s the way he thinks of himself: “People think me a wicked man, I know…and they’re welcome to think so. I don’t care to know any one except those whom I love. But those I do love, I love in such a way that I would give my life for them, and all the rest I will crush if they get in my way.” Is that good or bad? You make the call. If you’re one of those Dolokov loves then you think it’s a good thing. If not, you may think it’s bad; in Pierre’s case, very bad. Pierre was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and things got crossed up. Dolokov is the kind of guy you want on your side in a street fight. He’s not the kind of man you want to cross, much less one you’d want to duel. Then a remarkable thing happens: Pierre wins. Not since David beat Goliath or Appalachian State beat Michigan has there been such a big upset. Meanwhile at the Rostov house there’s a general feeling of “Seize the moment of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only thing real in the world; the rest is all nonsense.” Is it true that the only real thing in the world is to love and be loved? After what Pierre’s been through, can’t love also be nonsense sometimes…or worse?

-- RDP


Blogger SMJ said...

Pierre is certainly not the first man to be attracted to the wrong kind of woman, and he won't be the last. But he allows himself to be ensnared by the siren smile of a heartless woman, a spider woman who uses her seductive beauty to hypnotize the men around her. Though Pierre doesn't love Heléne he certainly wants to have his way with her. His problem is that he cannot seem to reconcile his base desires for pleasure with his noble quest for a virtuous life. He discovers soon enough that he cannot have both. Something has to give, so he packs up his things and gets out of town, leaving the spider woman the bulk of his fortune.

There is not much doubt that Heléne is a dissolute woman. She flaunts her sexuality all over town. Wherever she goes men follow her erotic trail and she does nothing to discourage them. The more often we see Heléne the more dissolute she becomes. She's like a 19th century Madonna brazenly flirting her way through the drawing rooms of Russian high society.

With Dolokov, we find a different flavor of vulgarity. The thing about Dolokov is that he is not burdened with many original ideas. For him, the world is a Manichean pasture divided into opposing camps populated with either friends or enemies. How one manages to get admitted into either camp is not entirely clear. But it probably involves much flattery along with a healthy tolerance for crude behavior. In truth, Dolokov is not much more than a Russian copy of a southern good old boy. Not too bright, and loyal to a fault. His venal encouragement of Rostov's abduction of Natasha cannot be explained except by reference to the biblical snake in the Garden of Eden. What makes Dolokov especially dangerous is that he, unlike the simple-minded Anatole, is cunning and utterly fearless.

Dolokov allows himself to be seen repeatedly with Pierre's wife, then acts surprised that anyone would take offense. He is rude and obnoxious. He offends Pierre publicly with his callous joke at dinner. It seems to me that Dolokov was baiting Pierre, hoping for a showdown. In that, he succeeds. He provokes Pierre into a duel that Dolokov thinks he cannot lose. But lose he does, and unfortunately for others in the story, Pierre does not kill Dolokov but only wounds him. It seems that snakes have a strong instinct for survival.

3/19/2008 1:10 PM  

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