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War and Peace 2013: Entry 13--Readings Twelve and Thirteen

N.B.: This post will discuss only the events through the end 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.

"[Julie] knew that for the Penza estates and Nizhegorod forests she could demand this, and she received what she demanded."

These two readings take place during a time of relative peace in Russia (one of the few over the course of the book), allowing Tolstoy to focus on the subjects of love, marriage, and courtship. It is these sections and storylines that often make me think of War and Peace as a close cousin of Jane Austen's novels--Pride and Prejudice with more snow and furry hats, if you will. Of course, that is to oversimplify the works of both writers, but they do share an interest in how young people fall in love and how that experience intersects with, but doesn't necessarily overlap with, marriage.

The quote above comes from the brief section where we read about poor Boris (remember him?) becoming engaged to the suddenly wealthy heiress Julie Karagina, Princess Mary's letter-writing friend. Boris doesn't love Julie--and Julie is aware of this, it seems. However, Boris, after a chance encounter with Prince Andrew during the first Napoleonic campaign, has been guided almost purely my status-seeking. He's a social climber, aided in no small part by the war. Wars, because they both take the lives of capable young men and have a tendency to encourage rapid promotion of the seemingly capable, are ideal times for young men of ability--or young men who can appear to have ability, which often amounts to the same thing--to make their name in the world and reinvent themselves (for an Austen reference, think of Captain Wentworth in Persuasion). Napoleon did it, if course, inspiring all the young men in the novel; of them, however, only Boris has actually achieved a new status. He started the novel as a poor relation of the Rostovs, his mother desperately puling every string she could to get him a better position; now he is about to become a very wealthy landowner, all of it achieved, it seems, without actually doing anything very special. As with Princess Helene, Boris presents the image of a young man of ability, and the world agrees to accept that image.

Until he makes a successful marriage, however, he has no substance behind the image--hence his need to marry, and to marry well. Though he actually prefers Princess Mary, she is completely unaware of his attempts to woo her--her own devotion to her father and brother have entirely obscured for her the possibility that she might herself get married. So, Boris settles on Julie Karagina, who is more than wiling to be wooed by him. While it is, for both parties, an almost entirely transactional relationship, they wrap it in the guise of melancholic romance, which Pierre tells us was the style at the time. At least, however, neither Boris nor Julie seem deluded as to the nature of their bond. If they are to be thought of as mercenary, perhaps they are mercenary in the same way that Charlotte Lucas is in Pride and Prejudice when she accepts Mr. Collins' offer of marriage--with eyes open and holding marriage and romance to be two separable things.

Poor Natasha, however, has her eyes firmly shut to the realities around her, which almost leads to her ruin. Anatole Kuragin is a rake of the first order, seducing women wherever he goes. Indeed, having previously been made secretly to marry one of his conquests in Poland only encourages him rather than chastens him. Natasha, like several Austen characters before her, is easily seduced by the concentrated attentions of such a handsome and charming man. She is very poorly equipped to deal with the pressures of Princess Helene and her handsome brother, and actually makes a plan to elope as a result, a plan only thwarted by Sonya's refusal to leave her friend to her ruin. While Natasha is clearly suffering a major lapse of judgment here, it is important to remember that, just as Kitty Bennet's actions were largely the result of her poor education at the hands of her parents, so, too, we must look at the Rostovs overly indulgent parenting style as a source of Natasha's willfulness. A fuller exploration of the "vibrancy" of her character will have to wait for another time, but it suffices to say for now that, unfocused and unguided, youthful exuberance rarely ends anyplace good.

The continuing conundrum of Sonya and Nicholas also reached a pinnacle in these readings, with Sonya even receiving a Sir Thomas-style dressing down about ingratitude from Countess Rostova. (And you thought I couldn't work in a Mansfield Park reference.) As the live-in poor relation who has been treated as one of the family since birth, Sonya is in no position socially speaking to assert her own claims on happiness. Yet Nicholas seems to love her, and she loves Nicholas dearly. And on still a third hand, the Rostov family fortune is shrinking, and Nicholas will need to marry quite well if he hopes to restore it. It is, in many ways, an impossible situation. Only Nicholas can bring matters to a head, however, and he still seems content to wait. Perhaps he is not as decided on Sonya as he claims--or perhaps he is simply hoping that the family fortunes turn around before he marries the poor relation.

I've barely scraped the surface of this section--I haven't even mentioned Pierre's positively Pascal-like need for distraction from Life and how it mirrors Natasha's inability to attend to any one thing for more than a few moments; or the fact that, when disguised as a man during the episode with the mummers, Sonya behaves quite differently as is much more forceful, and Nicholas takes fresh notice of her; or the acute insight into Princess Mary's psychology we receive regarding her awkward meeting with Natasha and Natasha's subsequent breaking off of the engagement. Truly, this is a rich text.

Don't forget to post a comment here or shoot a question on Twitter: @WandP2013.

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