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War and Peace 2013: Entry 7--Reading Five

N.B.: This post will discuss only the events through the end of Chapter 7 of Book III 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.

"My vocation is to be happy with another kind of happiness, the happiness of love and self-sacrifice."--Princess Mary Bolkanskaya

This reading is composed of three vignettes which hop between the three main families of the novel (Pierre [a family unto himself now], the Bolkonskys, and the Rostovs) by using the fourth, supporting family (the Kuragins) as a bridge. Whatever else one thinks of this novel, I think credit must be paid to the construction of it: Tolstoy is juggling the various storylines marvelously and ensuring that we never grow overly tired of any one character or group. Instead, like a good soap opera writer, we see just enough of each group that we're tantalized for the next time we see them and what will have developed in the interim. He's also starting to further muddy the waters of the various families, as it were, creating more connections among them: Pierre marrying Helene Kuragina is but the most obvious example, though the meeting of Prince Andrew and Nicholas Rostov is perhaps the more important one since it unites for the first time the two main families of the book.

Aside from that, the thing that strikes me most is the study in contrasts between Pierre's engagement and marriage and Princess Mary's rejection of Anatole. In both cases, our main characters essentially let their fates be determined by others, but to very different ends and for different reasons. Pierre allows Prince Vasili's smoothness and audacity essentially to coerce him into a marriage with Helene. Mind, it's not as if Pierre isn't drawn to Helene, but it's made obvious that he didn't really consider marrying Helene until everyone started to assume he would do so, and that even once he knew it was going to happen, he couldn't bring himself to propose. Conveniently, Prince Vasili isn't the kind to let the simple matter of a lack of an engagement get in the way of announcing an engagement.

It's easy to wonder why Pierre didn't just SAY SOMETHING! After all, he's an adult, a man of considerable means and influence, and he just goes along for the ride when making what could be the most important decision of his life. His complicity in allowing his marriage to be arranged by others, regardless of how he feels about Helene, would be shocking if we didn't already know Pierre to be someone easily guided by others. Indeed, it's easier to see how Pierre ended up in an almost certainly unsuitable marriage to Helene than it is to understand how his friend Andrew found himself in a miserable marriage to Lise. But it does go to show that Pierre's almost an empty vessel to be guided by more powerful forces, and that these can turn out well for him, as they did in the events surrounding his father's death, or less well, as in this case. Pierre is operating under the mistaken belief that being led in his actions will bring him happiness. I don't want to spoil anything for the reader, but I think it's painfully obvious that, whatever else his marriage to Helene might bring him, it will not bring him happiness.

Princess Mary, on the other hand, is not an empty vessel at all. Her religious beliefs, as well as her own belief in her proper role in the world, are tremendously secure. However, she was willing to, if not quite abandon these, then instead to bend them to changed circumstances if she were to be Anatole's wife. In fact, she is quite taken with the notion of marrying this handsome man and allowing herself to experience marital love. However, she chooses not to. Now, to a modern reader, her choice might look obvious; not many women of my acquaintance, after all, would give themselves in marriage to a man who was trying to seduce their companion. However, Princess Mary is neither a modern woman nor a woman with many options. She is rich, yes, but, as the everyone takes pains to point out, she is very plain in every way. And marriage is the only way that she will be able to leaver her father's house--period. So it is a choice, and I would say even a brave one, when she rejects Anatole.

However, I think she was clearly heavily influenced by her father in her decision. Princess Mary is a fairly sheltered woman, and I suspect that, had her father not deliberately suggested something nefarious between Anatole and Mademoiselle Bourienne, she might have taken Anatole even after finding them together. However, her father's outburst proved to her that, not only was her father very astute and a good judge of character, but that he genuinely cared about her deeply and didn't want her marrying some cad just so she'd leave Bald Hills. In his own, terribly perverse way, Mary's father loves her and wants her to be happy--and I think these events prove that to Mary, so she follows his all but explicit advice to reject Anatole.

Both Pierre and Mary allow others to guide their decisions about marriage, but Mary's turns out, on the surface at least, to be a much wiser decision than Pierre's. One can argue that it would have been different had Princess Mary gotten advice from someone who didn't have her self-interest at heart--but I think old Prince Nicholas is plenty interested in keeping his daughter around. Rather, I think it's because, while Pierre is truly empty in terms of ideals, Mary has firmly held beliefs that still allow her to find multiple pathways to happiness. Her faith not only gives her the ability to see that her father is correct in this instance, but it provides her with the strength to reject Anatole, and the solace of knowing that there is another happiness awaiting her. Pierre keeps waiting to be led to happiness--Mary finds it within herself.

The next reading will also deal with the question of faith, only in a very different context. As we finish Part 1, we'll be reading about our military men, Nicholas and Andrew, and their lives leading up to and during the most famous battle of the early Napoleonic campaign: Austerlitz.

Don't forget you can follow the blog at @WandP2013 and find posts about it on Twitter using the hashtag #WandP2013.


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