Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, December 28, 2015

TOLSTOY: After the Ball (Faded Love)

The Declaration of Independence proclaims that American government was designed for (among other things) “the pursuit of happiness.”  Alexis de Tocqueville believed Americans are generally restless and wear themselves out in the pursuit of happiness.  Some Great Books readers may ask if this condition is unique to Americans.  Don’t people in other nations also want things they don’t have?  Don’t other people want to be happy too?  Leo Tolstoy’s short story After the Ball doesn’t answer these questions directly.  But it does give good reasons why so many people end up unhappy.  It doesn’t much matter if you’re American or French or Russian.  Most people want a happy life but this desire is often thwarted by the harsh conditions of reality.  Such was the case with Ivan Vasilevich in Tolstoy’s tale of love and disillusionment. 

Ivan begins the story with a proposition.  “You would say that by himself a man cannot tell good from evil, that it’s all a question of environment, that we are prey to our environment.”  Right out of the gate the reader is confronted with a question.  As citizens and as human beings are we formed by social conditions or does moral formation depend on individual effort?  Many readers no doubt agree with Tolstoy that “if ever the individual man were to be improved, one would have first of all to change the conditions in which people live.”  Aristotle may agree.  In Politics (IGB2) he wrote “every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good.”  We can only live a good life in relation to other people.  We can only find happiness within the context of a stable social order.  Anyone living inside that social order has to conform to certain rules.  Anyone living outside those rules is, according to Aristotle, either a beast or a god.  Ivan Vasilevich was neither a beast nor a god.  He was just your typical rich and handsome young Russian nobleman with his whole future lying ahead of him.  And he was in love.  He says “I had fallen in love many times, but this was my greatest love.”  He was still young; falling in and out of love is what young people do.  Ivan was filled with a college student’s idealism but he also loved partying, especially at the local dances.  That’s where he fell in love with Varenka.  Ivan says “It was impossible not to admire her.  According to the rules, so to speak, I shouldn’t have danced the mazurka with her, but in fact I danced with her almost the whole time.”  What are petty rules when a man’s in love? Ivan was head over heels in love.  He tries to explain his feelings.  “I was not only cheerful and contented, I was happy, I was blissful, I was good…”  He goes on but we get the idea.  He was happy.  He was in love and life was good.  Love was the only rule he needed.  Or so he thought.

An ugly external reality was about to intrude on this blissful state of innocence.  Varenka’s father was “a colonel with silver epaulettes on his jacket.”  He loved his family, was a gracious host, and a good dancer.  But “everything according to the rules” was his motto.  Varenka’s father didn’t agree with Ivan that rules were made to be broken; rules were the backbone of military discipline.  Without rules armies fall apart and society disintegrates.  The day after the party Ivan saw what military discipline was all about.  At first he didn’t understand what was going on.  “They’re making the Tatar run the gauntlet for trying to desert” a bystander explained.  The brutal ordeal sickened Ivan.  And to make matters worse Varenka’s father was the officer in charge of the whole affair.  College students may break the rules but political and military leaders must strictly enforce them. That realization destroyed Ivan’s innocence.  He simply could not reconcile the pure love he felt inside himself with the harsh reality he saw on the outside.  Many readers may want to ask, along with Ivan, how can love survive in a society like that?  “Love?” Ivan replies “my love began to wane that very day…my love just faded away.”      


Blogger SMJ said...

I think, in order to survive, romantic love must be sheltered from the harsh reality of everyday affairs. The simple fact is that people are often not what they appear to be. We carry with us a public face and a private face. What we reveal in the public arena is what we believe is necessary for social acceptance. What we feel in the privacy of our thoughts is often concealed from others who might judge us severely. The colonel is a prisoner of his social class. Military justice is harsh. There is no room for compassion. Soldiers live by a strict code of obedience and discipline which is blind to feelings of sympathy. So, when romantic love collides with brutality, something must yield. A lesson is learned, and a loss of innocence is the price we pay for that lesson.

12/31/2015 1:04 PM  
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