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War and Peace 2013: Entry 9--Reading Seven

N.B.: This post will discuss only the events through the end of Chapter 11 of Part 1 of Book II. 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.

Before I proceed, I want to apologize a) for being late with this blog post, and 2) for stopping this reading in the wrong place. Obviously, it should have concluded with Chapter 9 and the Christening of Andrew's baby. Oops. In a way, though, I'm quite pleased that the reading concluded where it did, because it gave me this blog post's epigram.

Seize the moments of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly!

Again, this reading alternates among our various leads, weaving them together in still more intricate ways. Nicholas serving as Dolokhov's second when the latter duels Pierre? Sure! Let's add that connection, too! But what really caught my attention were the parallels drawn between Pierre and Andrew, their marriages, and their guilt.

Pierre, as we have seen previously, is essentially a passive character who only occasionally bursts forth with great feeling. His general mode is one of almost childlike indolence and willingness to be led. However, the same willingness to do what is expected that lead Pierre to marry Helene is what causes him to challenge Dolokhov. Pierre has been told, repeatedly and by multiple sources, that Dolokhov is his wife's lover. Just as with his "love" for Helene, he struggles against it before finally succumbing. Here, it is the general atmosphere of the dinner for Bagration, and the final trigger of Dolokhov's childish theft of the lyric sheet that is rightfully Pierre's, that cause Pierre to stop struggling and accept what everyone is telling him. But the pattern is the same: those around Pierre keep acting as if he must be feeling something or that something much be true and, eventually, contrary to what he knows his own feelings to be, Pierre accepts their judgment over to his own.

It is telling that it is Dolokhov's theft of the lyric sheet--something the Pierre doesn't really care for inherently, but that was given to Pierre because of his position in society, and that Dolokhov doesn't care for but he took from Pierre because he could--that triggers Pierre's rage. The lyric sheet, of course, is the stand-in for Helene, the woman whom neither of them love but over whom they are willing to kill each other. Pierre, with his fool's luck, manages to seriously wound Dolokhov without killing him and avoids getting hit himself even though he presents himself Dolokhov to be killed, hoping to be absolved for wounding him.

The duel makes Pierre see, though, that he was prepared to kill a man over a woman that he didn't love--that he had never loved. He's filled with guilt at this thought, finally realizing that his complicity in his marriage to Helene was a sign of weakness, not of love. Ideally, Pierre believes, he and Helene will go their separate ways, acknowledging that the marriage has been a failure. Helene, however, being a genuinely unpleasant woman, decides instead to cling to anger and resentment. Pierre's anger at her refusal to immediately assent to a separation, while certainly poorly expressed (to put it mildly), is an understandable outlet to the internalized guilt and self-hatred Pierre has been building up, focused toward what Pierre (wrongly, I believe) sees as the cause of his weakness: Helene.

Prince Andrew, who returns from the war just as his wife is about to die, is faced with a different kind of guilt: namely, the guilt at having inadvertently caused his wife's death. "Ah, what have you done to me, and why?" asks her face as they prepare to bury her. This sentiment has been repeated over and over, and is in fact the only experience we have of Lise after Andrew returns, which is essentially the same of saying that it's the only experience Andrew has of Lise after his return. He is suddenly, perhaps for the first time since their marriage went sour, forced to recognize that Lise is an independent person whose happiness was tied up with his and wasn't trying to make him miserable. They were poorly suited, yes, but she never harmed anyone and loved everyone. She may have been vain and shallow, but she was not vicious or bad-natured. And yet she died in childbirth, delivering a son to a father who, if he had ever loved her, had stopped doing so some time ago. Andrew sees this--sees what this improvident marriage has ultimately led to--and seems to be haunted by it.

The obvious connection here between Pierre and Andrew, of course, is that neither loved their wives and that both marriages ended unhappily, though, admittedly, in vastly different ways. (Of course, to paraphrase Tolstoy himself, all marriages that end unhappily end unhappily in their own way.)This might seem like a dull or a moralistic lesson to be drawn, but that doesn't stop it from being accurate. Just because it's a cliche to say that love is the most important thing in life and that it's the key to human happiness--that doesn't mean those ideas aren't true. If anything, the fact that the notion has become such a cliche argues for its veracity. Sometimes the oldest truths are the hardest to remember, especially when everything keeps insisting that you forget them.

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  1. Pierre in an interesting character (as are they all, which makes for good reading). I doubt it's what Tolstoy was going for, but I can't help picturing Pierre as a person with a mild developmental disability. Somehow his passivity and ability to be molded by external forces comes across as more than just a character trait, but rather as a genetic or mental disability. But that's probably just a side-effect of reading the book with 21st century experiences. Can't shake the impression though.


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