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War and Peace 2013: Entry 6--Reading Four

N.B.: This post will discuss only the events through the end of Book II of Part 1. Unlike with The Odyssey, the eventual resolution of the story is not necessarily common knowledge, so I will make every attempt to avoid spoilers as we go. Also, there seems to be some weird chapter numbering going on with some editions of the novel, Kindle and otherwise. I've updated the reading schedule to make it clearer where the readings end and will be more than happy to answer any questions if you're confused.



"And why did I come here?"--Nicholas Rostov

What we merely glimpsed last time, i.e. the inner lives of men in battle, is brought home vividly in this reading. Again, our entry points are Andrew and Nicholas and, even though they are part of the same engagement, their experiences of the war couldn't be more different. They share, however, a mindset that seems deluded from the outside but which, I imagine, is almost certainly necessary if one is to ride headlong into battle as cannonballs are flying all around you.

Andrew, as an adjutant to General Kutuzov, needn't really spend any time on the front lines of the battle. However, he finds himself restless (and disgusted?) with his life as a messenger, receiving honors for delivering news of an essentially inconsequential victory. Being his father's son, while he may be friends with Bilibin (can't you just imagine him acting smug on a Sunday morning talk show?), he will never be one of les notres; he is, decidedly, not one of "ours." Incidentally, while I haven't read the academic literature on this point, but did "ours" strike anyone else as, well, super gay? I mean, aside from the boasting about women it all seems very...well, homosocial, at the very least. Sort of like a effete fraternity.

This attitude, and Bilibin's glibness, stands in direct contrast to Andrew's seriousness of purpose and desire to not only be useful, but to shine brilliantly at the front. Andrew wants his own Toulon moment where he will rise from nowhere to lead the Russian army in triumph against the French. It's interesting here to note that, despite the fact that Napoleon is the enemy of the Russians--Anna Pavlovna at the very beginning says that she actually believes him to be the Antichrist, a not uncommon opinion--Napoleon as a person had a tremendous impact on people all around the world. Earlier, Pierre is terribly effusive in his praise for Napoleon's modern ideas, and now we have Prince Andrew, wishing to, like Napoleon, rise from the ranks to become a great leader. (Fun fact not directly related: Beethoven originally named his Third Symphony the "Bonaparte Symphony," only to later rename it "Eroica" after his admiration for Napoleon soured.)

Indeed, Andrew does perform bravely--repeatedly insisting to be sent to the front, where he throws himself into the battle instead of hanging toward the back, though he does so by assisting instead of attacking, something I think is telling of his character. His encounter with Tushin the artillery officer, however, leaves him feeling empty. Here, Andrew thinks, is a man who is clearly a brave and good soldier. All that Bagration (again, a real person) asks Tushin, however, is why he left two guns to be captured by the enemy. We know, and Prince Andrew knows, that Tushin is blameless, and that in fact he and his guns are the heroes of the battle, while a coward sits among them, dining in comfort. Andrew defends Tushin, but is very uncomfortable doing so, and is rather graceless when Tushin tries to thank him. As earlier with the incident involving the woman on the cart and the drunken officer, Andrew has such high standards for his own behavior that he is disgusted when people fall short of them and then he has to intervene. It's almost as if he feels sullied by their bad behavior--a very strange attitude for a potential hero to have.

As for Nicholas, well, his moment of potential heroism is very brief, and instead he is quickly wounded--not seriously, but bad enough to remove him from the battle. In that instant, however, the psychological change he undergoes is almost comically large. He loses all of his illusions in a moment, and is instead faced with the fact that there is a good chance he will die in some field somewhere away from his family and everyone who loves him, and that hardly anyone will notice. The question of why he is there--why anyone who fought in this giant conflagration did so--will continue to haunt Nicholas, and Tolstoy, and hovers over this book. Nicholas, himself, I don't think it spoils anything to say, finds a reason to fight. What Tolstoy thinks of that reason, well, we'll get to that in the winter.

The vast bulk of the next reading (which I'm just realizing now should have ended elsewhere than it does for thematic reasons--oh well) will see us back on the home front, especially with the Bolkonsky family at Bald Hills, but our good friends Pierre and the Rostovs give a check-in, as well. For those not fighting the war, life continues apace, even as many things are put on hold.

Don't forget, you can follow the project on Twitter via @WandP2013 (#WandP2013).

Comments

  1. In this section I can see why you liked Prince Andrew so much. He certainly does seem worthy of being the "hero" here, though I find myself also particularly taken with Tushin. And I haven't given up hope on Nicholas yet, though he does seem pretty immature. Perhaps his experiences here will change him?

    I struggled from the start with the way Prince Andrew treated his wife. Admittedly, they are a poor match, but this 21st century woman doesn't find that an adequate excuse for his coldness toward her back on the homefront. As a result, he has yet to really win me over.

    I was surprised at how romanticized the idea of battle and war was for the characters -- at least at the start. I realize their experiences in this engagement may be changing their first impressions.

    Time will tell.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Andrew's behavior toward his wife is indefensible, it's true. They are, indeed, a horrendous match--a sort of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet for the Russian set. And while I liked Andrew a lot in these early sections, I really fell in love with him later on as his life takes some interesting turns.

    Several of the characters definitely romanticize the war. I think it's part and parcel of what Tolstoy's doing, which is essentially trying to explain how this completely insane, massive, unprecedented thing--the Napoleonic Wars--happened. But, more on that...in December.

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