Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, March 10, 2008

TOLSTOY: War and Peace

Opening up a novel like War and Peace isn’t so much like reading a book as starting out on a quest. To read almost 1,400 pages of any book requires a great deal of commitment and perseverance. Especially for a novel set two hundred years ago in a culture that in many ways is quite different from our own. So it’s only fair for the reader to ask at the outset: What kind of world or society are we entering in this novel? What values do these characters have? What motivates them? How are they like us? How are they different from us?

Those are fair enough questions but the answers may vary depending on the reader. Tolstoy is a writer of vast knowledge and skill. It should be no surprise that readers can’t always agree on the meaning behind the epic story Tolstoy lays out before us. And make no mistake, there’s no doubt from page one that this will be an epic novel. In the background, just over the horizon, is the omnipresent threat of war. Specifically, there’s the threat of war with Napoleon.

With no preliminaries Tolstoy drops us into the midst of an upper-class Russian soiree. It’s polite society but war is obviously on everyone’s mind. One princess proclaims: “I can’t understand, I simply can’t understand why men can’t get on without war. Why is it we women want nothing of the sort?” This is an age old question: Would there still be wars if women ran the world? It’s as valid a question today as it was in Russia in 1805, maybe even more so. In 1805 it would have been unthinkable for a woman to serve as Secretary of State. It is possible in modern American society. So there’s at least one big difference in our respective cultures.

Another age-old question isn’t quite so clear: For men is marriage more a blessing or a curse? One of the main characters, Prince Andrey, is fairly recently married and is talking to one of his male friends: “tie yourself up with a woman, and, like a chained convict, you lose all freedom…Drawing-rooms, gossip, balls, vanity, frivolity – that’s the enchanted circle I can’t get out of. I am setting off now to the war, the greatest war there has ever been…” Is Prince Andrey complaining about being married or about having to attend all those soirees listening to gossip or is it something else entirely? Prince Andrey is married to one of the most charming and beautiful women in Russia. What’s he complaining about? Why is he gladly going off to war and leaving such a beautiful, loving wife behind?

It appears that Andrey is going off to war mainly to get away from his wife, or at least to get away from these god-awful soirees. Like most men he’s seeking adventure and like many men he isn’t finding it in marriage. Young men have a natural impulse to test themselves out in the real world – preferably against other young men if they get the chance. The best chance of all is a chance for glory in war. According to the princess who spoke at the soiree, “women want nothing of the sort.” Women mainly just want their men to settle down, marry them, love them and help them raise a family of their own. At least that seems to be the case in Russian society at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Whether it’s still true in modern America probably depends on the woman you talk to. There are more opportunities for young men these days and there are certainly more opportunities for young women. But there are still wars going on and there are still marriages taking place. The names and the places have changed. Life has not. Wars still take lives; marriages still produce babies. The human impulse to kill is still alive. The human impulse to love is still alive. And much to men’s chagrin, there are still soirees and parties and assorted social gatherings. Life goes on. Tolstoy reminds us of this fact in his great epic novel covering both war and peace.

-- RDP


Blogger SMJ said...

.......that some kind of life is going on in this world depicted by Tolstoy can hardly be denied. But the real question is whether that sort of life is worth living or not. Is a life spent going to soirees filled with endless petty gossip worth pursuing? The men, with very few exceptions, are as simple minded as the women they court and marry. Do any of these people actually work for a living? Do they have any conception of what goes on in the world outside of their regal mansions? Tolstoy draws a severe contrast between life in a Petersburg soiree and the looming prospect of war with Napoleon. Is it any wonder that Prince Andre is bored with his silly wife and looks forward to going off to fight a war? It doesn't really matter which war. Any war will do. Anything to get away from the tedious routine of society affairs.

War provides a bleak alternative to the pleasant diversions of Petersburg society. Nikolas Rostov is one of those young men enraptured by the prospect of war, for he firmly believes he will fight bravely and bring great honor to himself and his family. He soon discovers that he is, in fact, no braver than the next man, and that death overtakes us all, regardless of rank. His enthusiasm for war diminishes when he is wounded and lying on the ground, wondering if he will survive.

As Tolstoy's novel develops, we see life from different perspectives, although primarily focused on the destinies of four noble families, the Bezukhovs, the Rostovs, the Bolkonskis, and the Kuragins. Yet never from the point of view of the common man.
It is as if Tolstoy believes the destiny of Russia lies solely with the actions of a few wealthy families. On the other hand, these noble families are described in such a way as to make admiration difficult. We know that human nature does not change, but the circumstances in which we find ourselves vary from moment to moment, from one generation to the next. So what, then, is so special about the people in Tolstoy's novel? Nothing at all. When compared to the serfs who work the plantations and farms of these noble families, we find nothing separates them but their money and their manners. If anything, on the rare occasions that we encounter the poor, we find them more sympathetic. Their simple lives are focused on staying alive, on having enough to eat and doing their daily work. That doesn't mean they are morally superior to the rich. But their priorities are different. Life, for them, is a constant struggle which they endure as best they can. Whereas for the rich, we find their troubles are often of their own making, and they spend far too much time worrying about their money and their social status.

Fortunately, with Prince Andre and Pierre, we observe that even the rich have a conscience, and so their personal handling of their estates and of the serfs under their control, reflect the range of moral choices available to those of us whose conception of the world exceeds our own personal happiness and extends, willy nilly, to something larger. In some philosophies, this might be described as the search for God.

3/10/2008 8:49 AM  

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