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Monday, March 31, 2008

TOLSTOY: War and Peace - Book 2, Part 4

When young people get ready to head out into the world to try and make it on their own, the question they should be asking themselves is: how’s the best way to live? What they actually do is more like this: now that I’m no longer living under my parent’s roof what kind of exciting lifestyle can I follow? Usually after a few years of hard knocks their lives become more prosaic. Then it’s no longer a philosophic decision: what’s the best way to live? Or a hedonistic choice: what lifestyle do I want to adopt this week? The most important questions now become dull questions like how can I pay for my kid’s braces or how to get those new gutters installed.

Nikolay is in the early stages of manhood. He’s a soldier and likes being in the army. There’s not a war going on right now and a soldier’s life seems pleasant enough. But he’s achieved this peace of mind only because “by fencing himself off from all the complexities of existence, he was living so quietly and peacefully.” What Nikolay has been doing is shutting himself off from the “whirlpool of life, with many difficulties and business to attend to, with the steward’s accounts, with quarrels and intrigues, and ties, with society…” In other words, he doesn’t have to fool around with mundane tasks like paying the bills or looking after gutters or attending to social responsibilities. He can hang around the barracks and drink beer with his buddies. That way he can avoid taking on the real burdens of manhood for a few more years.

Normally this wouldn’t be a good idea. In Nikolay’s case maybe it may not be so bad. Back home the Rostovs have made a mess of their finances. Unless something is done soon they’ll go broke. What the parents want is for Nikolay to come back home and help get the family back on its feet. Nikolay is being asked to clean up a mess he didn’t make by marrying a rich girl he doesn’t love. Nikolay had hoped to avoid shouldering the burdens of adulthood for a little while longer but instead faces a dilemma: should he marry a rich woman, Julie Karagin, to save his family, or should he marry Sonya, the poor woman he really loves? He bluntly asks his mother: “What, if I loved a girl with no fortune would you really desire me, mamma, to sacrifice my feeling and my honor for the sake of money?” He doesn’t think his parents should place him in this position. It’s even more painful for the Count and Countess to be in a position which forces them to ask Nikolay to compromise his principles, not to mention his heart.

Meanwhile life goes on. People grow up and find their own lifestyles. Some aren’t as successful as the Rostovs and some are more successful, though maybe not in material terms. Has the old uncle/Rostov acquaintance found the key to happiness by his simple lifestyle in the country? Here’s a description of the Uncle: “Through the whole district the uncle had the reputation of being a most generous and disinterested eccentric…he had always persisted in refusing all public appointments, spending the autumn and spring in the fields on his bay horse, the winter sitting at home, and the summer lying in his overgrown garden.” This lifestyle seems to work for him. It would be hard to imagine Vera and Berg could find happiness sharing a house with a hunting dog. The Count and Countess certainly wouldn’t feel at home there.

But Natasha and Nikolay are content to be there for one evening. They have supper after a long, cold day hunting outdoors. Everything seems charming to them. Part of the charm is that they can get back to their estates or fancy home in Petersburg whenever they choose. They don’t have to live like peasants. There’s a long tradition of praising the rustic life: Rousseau, Thoreau, Whitman on down modern back-to-nature movements. These people are a lot like Natasha and Nikolay, mostly city dwellers and dreamers trying to avoid those annoying adult problems.

-- RDP


Blogger SMJ said...

The truth is that Nicholas did contribute to the financial mess the Rostov's now find themselves in. His gambling debt of 40,000 rubles to Dolokhov is no small matter. His father had to borrow money to pay it. And there are indications this wasn't the first time he lost money in this manner. His carefree lifestyle has been tolerated by his family for too long. Now the chickens have come home to roost.

You have to wonder just what are these "principles" that Nicholas is being asked to sacrifice? The principle of doing whatever he wants regardless of other people's needs? What about the principle of helping out your family when they are in trouble? He is so wrapped up in himself that he can't see his family's financial troubles are partly his own responsibility.

Of course, Tolstoy's sympathies do not lie with the Rostovs. Instead, he provides a convenient contrast with a chapter on Nicholas' "uncle, " whose simple, rustic manners cannot hide the soul of a good man, like Pip's father in Great Expectations. Tolstoy wants us to see Uncle as a good-hearted country bumpkin unlike his sophisticated relatives from the city. Throughout War and Peace we are given opportunities to observe the lives of decent, hard working peasants in contrast to the wealthy, noble families of St. Petersburg. It's not hard to see that Tolstoy believes Russia's salvation must come from these simple peasants who work the land, unlike those immoral, spoiled brats who frequent the soirees of high society. Thus, Napoleon's invasion of Russia can be seen as the coming of Judgment Day when God's chosen will finally be identified and the damned will be punished for their wicked ways. But in this world, unfortunately, when war arrives on the doorstep of Moscow, we find that the innocent along with the guilty will endure much suffering and death.

4/01/2008 7:58 AM  

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