Friday, September 30, 2011

The Symbolism of the Old Oak Tree

In our class discussion on Thursday, Iulia’s question about the association between the ephemeral oak tree and Prince Andrew’s transformation prompted me to wonder why Tolstoy chose an oak tree, specifically, to reflect Prince Andrew’s change. Is there greater meaning hidden in Tolstoy’s deliberate choice of an oak tree, which the reader easily overlooks? Or is an oak tree simply Tolstoy’s favorite tree? Why didn’t Tolstoy leave the tree’s type ambiguous as he did when Nicholas noticed the solitary tree dividing life from death on the battlefield? (P.162)

In Book Six the “aged, stern and scornful […]” oak tree mirrors Prince Andrew’s inner-turmoil (P.368) Prince Andrew is scarred from his near-death experience and the loss of his young wife, Lise. He is scornful of Pierre’s religious enlightenment and the joyousness of budding springtime that surrounds him. Prince Andrew maintains a tough exterior in order to avoid vulnerability and pain; however, after encountering Natasha his perspective on life shifts. The oak tree’s physical appearance subsequently changes, “Through the hard-century old bark, even where there were no twigs, leaves sprouted such as one could hardly believe the old veteran could have produced.” (P.371)

The below excerpt explains the symbolism of the oak tree, which coincides directly with the context of Prince Andrew’s transformation.

“The ancient Romans thought oak trees attracted lightening and thereby connected the oak tree to the sky god, Jupiter and his wife, Juno, the goddess of marriage. Thus, the oak is a symbol of conjugal fidelity and fulfillment. The oak tree was regarded by Socrates as an oracle tree. The Druids likewise ate acorns in preparation for prophesying. In addition, the Druids believed the leaves of the oak tree had the power to heal and renew strength.”[1]

This symbolism foreshadows the love between Natasha and Prince Andrew. The physical appearance of the oak tree serves as an oracle, suggesting fulfillment, marriage, healing and renewal. The strong connection between the oak tree's symbolism and the context of Prince Andrew’s inner-journey makes me believe that Tolstoy’s choice of the oak tree is anything but happenstance.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Serfdom in early 19th Century Russia

Throughout the past few chapters, the concept of serfdom has been highlighted quite frequently. This is mostly because of Pierre’s newfound religious ideals that involve liberating the serfs and treating them better by building hospitals and other important institutions. I thought it would be interesting to learn more about serfdom in Russia.
            Serfdom officially began in Russia during the 16th century and it became hereditary during the 17th century. These serfs were essentially slaves of the nobility and they worked the land on the estates. They were regarded as property and could be bought or sold to other members of the nobility. Furthermore, they faced the fear of being unjustly punished by being beaten or exiled to Siberia. After the Crimean War, Alexander II started to see the economic flaws within a system of serfdom. In 1861 the serfs were freed in Russia and were allowed to buy their land from the nobility.
            Since Tolstoy was writing War and Peace while the serfs were being freed, is it possible that he is suggesting that Pierre is ahead of his time? Additionally, since on of the primary reasons that serfdom ended was for the economy, is it possible that Tolstoy is juxtaposing the failing economic situations of nearly all of his characters (it seems like every family is trying to find more money) with the social structure that made Russia’s economy so weak?

 Information about serfdom from:
Image from:

Monday, September 26, 2011

Religion in War and Peace

Pierre was criticized for being an atheist by the freemasons in book 5.  In Russia, in the 1800's it was expected that everyone would be a devout catholic, but it seems that religion doesn't play much of a role in the novel.  I wonder what Tolstoy thinks of atheism. So far as we've read, we don't see any religious ceremonies except the last rights of Pierre's father.  I wonder if Tolstoy assumes we understand where he is coming from, and has little to no comment on religion, or if he has other views that he has not yet expressed. Wikipedia says that he eventually came to the idea of non-violence and finding religious satisfaction by searching within yourself, but it appears that he didn't come to these conclusions until after he finished War and Peace.  How should we view the characters's religious views?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Universal Youth

Youth—that ever-disappearing time in our lives that seems to grant unlimited possibilities of vivacity. The younger generation of men in War and Peace are in this time in their lives; they are exploring, discovering, and making mistakes Pierre, Nicholas, Boris, and Andrew all find various activities to occupy themselves; be it women, society gatherings, the war, or various sins, these men have many occasion to explore their youth. In this, however, they discover various perils of growing up: an unhappy marriage, debt, social status, and death. These men, who grow up so much in the first two years of the novel, seem to be in a perpetual state of self-discovery.

It is comforting to read War and Peace as a first year college student; one of the lasting aspects of Tolstoy’s novel is its ability to relate to young people in any generation. College students everywhere also find themselves entwined in tales of women, debt, social gatherings, perhaps war, and many sins. We see Pierre’s mishaps with high society analogous to our own various foot-in-mouth moments as we navigate our society today. Nicholas’s ability to lose his money faster than he gets it is all too familiar to many youth of our generation. Discovering how to act, what to value, and who to trust are all aspects of growing up that young people today share with the young people in War and Peace. So, although we are now centuries past the time of Tolstoy’s novel, the issues faced today by young people in the journey of growing up are universal—and that’s a little reassuring.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Freemasonry in "War and Peace"

At the beginning of book ten is where we are introduced to the freemasons. Pierre is empowered by this traveller, and later by Count Willarski, to change his life, stand up for himself, and reaffirm his faith in god. This is very interesting to me because there are so many negative stereotypes surrounding masonic society. Politically, both the far left and the far right distrust and denounce freemasons. They are seen as a powerful and threatening political and social force. Many conspiracy theories link them to the Illuminati or other secret societies on a quest for world control. They are supposed to be a sort of cult, which perpetuates its own existence and ends and nothing more, according to its critics. They were persecuted and killed by the Nazi's, by Saddam Hussein when he was in power in Iraq, and almost disbanded by Parliament in England after the french revolution. This last point is even more interesting due to its proximity in time to "War and Peace". I know all of this information about the masons because I happened to have interviewed a 90 year old man who was a freemason, and he complained about the conspiracies theories and the negative mass-media perception of what he viewed as an entirely law-abiding and possitive influence in society. That is also how Tolstoy portrays freemasons in "War and Peace"; They are a possitive influence on the world around them, turning a downtrodden and hopeless man into an optimistic and productive member of society. Pierre changes his life for the better, and renounces all negative influences in his life, after being initiated by the freemasons. He even stands up for himself, something we haven't seen from him as of yet in the novel. I just enjoyed seeing how Tolstoy describes the "traveller" (305) who changes Pierre's life. The traveller makes Pierre "(listen) with a swelling heart", as though his heart were growing in his chest with this new opportunity to find himself (307). This leads me to think that Tolstoy as a writer, though certainly having his own opinions politically and expressing them in his writing, is not afraid to give credence to highly controversial views and actions within his characters. I appreciate it.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Love and Be Loved

On page 288 Tolstoy describes the house of the Rostov's as saying "Seize the moments of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly. It is one thing we are interested in here," and I believe that this is Tolstoy's central message, at least up to the end of Book Four. Throughout this part of the book the only truly happy people are those who can love and be loved such as the Rostov's who radiate this loving and caring feeling. No where in the novel through book 4 is love shown as it is at the house of Rostov. With the exception of Vera they love and are loved by each other through these times of war and turmoil and prove to be one of though only places where there is some peace during this time. This feeling they radiate is alluring to others as those who spend time with them become infatuated with the family. Both Denisov and Dolokhov who stay at the house of the Rostov's become enamored with the family, and more specifically both of the daughters. They want to join this family and always be part of this exuberant, carefree lifestyle where this actually some happiness. "Believe me, I so adore your daughter and all your family that I would give my life twice over..."(301) says Denisov to the countess. Despite the fact that the Rostov's do have problems such as Nicholas' debt to Dolokhov, and the fact that the chance of their happiness lasting through the novel is very unlikely, I think that Tolstoy's true message is to "love and be loved" and to "seize the moments of happiness" as the Rostov's do.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

War and Peace? Peace, Society or World?

While doing some research about War and Peace I encountered a very intriguing  forum talk about the possible translations of the title of Tolstoy's book. The original title of this novel is "Война и мир" ( read as Voina i Mir) and by doing a simple Google Translate exercise we can see why it is so controversial. Copy the Russian version of the novel's name into Google Translate, select from Russian to English and what you will get is "War and Peace", right? Now delete the first two words, that is "Война и" and just leave the "мир" in there. It's not peace, is it? Some people argue that the real title of War and Peace is "War and Society" or "War and the World" and that the translation into English is wrong and does not convey the actual meaning intended by Tolstoy. On the other hand though, Tolstoy himself translated the novel in French and he chose " La guerre et la paix" as the proper words to express his view on the title. When doing the same Google Translate exercise trying to translate from French to Russian, surprisingly enough, we see "Война и мир" on the screen. 
When looking up the word "миp" in a real dictionary ( see end of post for references) we see that "миp" means: and 2.peace. Also,the French "paix" phonetically resembles "pays" which means country, thus being relatively similar in meaning to the Russian word for "world". Was Tolstoy trying to make his readers wonder what's up with this ambiguous choice of words or is this just pure coincidence?
What was Tolstoy's real intention? Was he going to talk about war and about peace, strictly referring to fights and battles and the short periods of peace? Or was he trying to talk only about war and how it affected society during the Napoleonic wars? Was this the best title for his book? Is " War and Peace" the best translation or should it have been " War and Society"?
I believe that the author's choice of words and translation into French is supposed to make us see beneath the surface of these words. After all, everything that happens in the book can be considered a war : the contradictory feelings of  the characters and the disputes between the wealthy people, the sudden changes in their lives are also wars at a personal level. Sometimes they encounter peace on their way to growth, sometimes they are defeated and have to start over again and lead many other battles with themselves and the people surrounding them. "War and Peace" is, in my opinion, not the kind of book which reveals everything from the title, but rather allows the readers to form opinions on their own. Maybe for some people this is a historical novel about the battles between the Russian and the French, maybe others focus more on the romance and society-related chapters, maybe some try to understand the meaning of both of these intermingled sides of the book. Thus, it seems to me that the important thing is to try to find the proper meaning of the book and of the title for oneself. I might even dare to paraphrase the title as "Battles and love", because this is how I relate to the book right now. What is the meaning you find beneath the title? Now, does it really matter what "мир" means?

( for the dictionary definition of "мир" I used  The Oxford New Russian Dictionary, 2007, Berkeley Books, New York)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Great Men, Great Disappointment

At the end of book three Andrew encounters his hero Napoleon, albeit not in the best of circumstances. During two chance encounters with Napoleon Andrew feels absolutely no interest in Napoleon despite previously having thought greatly of him.

He knew it was Napoleon-his hero-but at the moment Napoleon seem to him such a small, insignificant creature compared with what was passing now between himself and that lofty infinite sky with clouds flying over it.(253)

Being seriously wounded in battle changes Andrew’s opinion of Napoleon and of greatness. Just two chapters earlier Andrew expressed having no fear and a strong desire for glory stating; “Death, wounds, the loss of family-I fear nothing. And precious and dear as many persons are to me... I would give them all at once for a moment of glory, of triumph over men, of love from men...(230)” What does Andrews’s sudden change in perspective mean? Tolstoy himself provides us with help in his article Some Words about War and Peace.

In Some Words about War and Peace first published in 1868 Tolstoy describes six considerations for readers of War and Peace to keep in mind so that might better understand ideas that Tolstoy wishes to convey in his novel. The sixth consideration which Tolstoy describes as the most personally important consideration is “the small significance that in my conception should be ascribed to so-called great men in historical events.” (1094)

The concept of “great men” is the idea that some men due to their extraordinary character can influence events and shape history by themselves. Two obvious “great men” in War and Peace are Emperor Napoleon and Czar Alexander I. Knowing Tolstoy’s opinion on “great men” it is much easier to understand what Tolstoy intended Andrew’s change of opinion toward Napoleon mean.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Rostóv and the Emperor

One character in War and Peace who has started to interest me is Nicholas Rostóv. I was not surprised in Chapter 5 of Book 1 when he claims, "I simply feel that the army is my vocation" (35). Many other young men at the time clearly felt compelled to join the army as well, whether from love of their country or of glory. In this case Rostóv's action is typical.

In Chapter 5 of Book 2, he gets his chance to participate in battle and comes to the realization that he is a coward. "The fear of death and of the stretchers, and love of the sun and of life, all merged into one feeling of sickening agitation" (128). This also seems like a natural reaction, and it makes sense that an untrained soldier would be shocked and afraid when seeing the reality of battle for the first time.

My main interest in Rostóv comes in Book 3, especially in Chapters 9 and 12, where we see him take a new attitude, inspired by the Emperor. He seems to have overcome his fear of death and is now willing and even eager to die for his Emperor. "What happiness it would be to die - not in saving the Emperor's life, but simply to die before his eyes" (222). The Emperor is able to evoke strong feelings of love and patriotism from the soldiers, and for the time being at least he has cured Rostóv of his cowardice. He even requests to serve at the front in the upcoming Battle of Austerlitz. It is interesting that love of Emperor is stronger by far than love of country or family for Rostóv and I think it is because the Emperor is a personification of the strength and valor of Russia. I am curious whether this new found devotion will continue to lead to feelings of bravery or whether Rostóv will let down the Emperor he loves.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Princess Mary Bolkonski, Lesbians for Jane?

This idea may seem a little odd, or sudden, but just stick with me. At least for a bit.

The reader's reactions to a passage have always been a very important thing to notice while analyzing a text. While I was reading War and Peace, Book 14: Bald Hills. Prince N. A. Bolkonski. Princess Mary's Correspondence with Julie Karagina. I couldn't get this idea out of my head. Is Mary lesbian? Is she in love with Jane? Are they sharing words of love or just deep friendship? I have tried to analyze this idea, see what you think.

The main focus of Book 14 are the letters between Mary and Jane. The first letter that Tolstoy let us read between these lovers was one written by Jane and given to Mary. When Mary first heard about her latest letter "red patches showed themselves on [Mary's] face (76)". I won't include the entirety of this letter, only the first passage. I do this because this whole paragraph is nothing but sappy tales of love.

Dear and precious Friend, How terrible and frightful a thing is separation! Though I tell myself that half my life and half my happiness are wrapped up in you, and that in spite of the distance separating us our hearts are united by indissoluble bonds, my heart rebels against fate and in spite of the pleasure and distractions around me I cannot overcome a certain severer sorrow that has been in my heart ever since we parted. Why are we not together as we were last summer, in your big study on the blue sofa, the confidential sofa? Why cannot I now, as three months ago, draw fresh moral strength from your look, so gentle, calm, and penetrating, a look I loved so well and seem to see before me as I write? (78)

Jane finishes her letter with the phrase, "I embrace you as I love you (79)". I find that this letter clearly has tones of Romanticism, which makes me wonder what Tolstoy's purpose in this was.

Mary opens her responding letter with, "Dear and precious Friend, Your letter of the 13th has given me a great delight. So you still love me, my romantic Julie? (79)". Although Mary's letter doesn't have as many words of love, her opinion towards the sanctity of marriage is interesting. "I will tell you, dear sweet friend, that I look on marriage as a divine institution to which we must conform (80)" . These women talk of how they must wed and of decent suitors, but they never express the possibility of loving their husband.

I can't be certain of Tolstoy's purpose in having this exchange. Maybe he himself didn't even understand the possibilities of sexuality and just used his observations as a social commentary. Honestly, I might be going to far. But something is definitely up.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Fact or Fiction?

Think about something you have created that you were willing to defend.  Was it a paper, a painting, or maybe a song? For Tolstoy it was War and Peace.

There was controversy between critics when the novel War and Peace was first published.  Some critics proclaimed it historically inaccurate and condemned the novel for being more fiction than fact.  They accused Tolstoy of not fully depicting the hardships in Russia during this time period.  Critics believed that it was more for entertainment rather than historical fiction.

Tolstoy’s essay, "Some Words about War and Peace" (1868) ,  was written to dispute his critics.  In response to criticism that the novel did not display the suffering of the Russian people at the time, Tolstoy wrote, “on studying letters, diaries, and traditions, I did not find the horrors of such savagery to a greater extent than I find them now, or at any other period.”  He goes on to argue that the universal truths that are found in the novel can be relatable to everyday life.  This helps the reader understand the message of the novel rather than get caught up in the historical details. Tolstoy wrote the novel as art to explain history, not as a historical novel to be portrayed as art.  

Below is a link to sections of his essay:

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Actions (and Appearance) Speak Louder than Words

"We don't love people so much for the good they have done us, as for the good we have done them," writes Sterne. Princess Mary quotes his remark in Book 1, Chapter 16 of Tolstoy's War and Peace. I found myself frequently coming back to this passage. Something about this Sterne guy intrigued me. His words provoked a lot of thought and questions in my mind. So, I decided, why not do my blog about him. That way, I could discover for myself (and all of us) who Sterne was and why Tolstoy decides he's important enough to be quoted in his great novel.
Laurence Sterne

Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) was an English Sentimentalist writer, who, it turns out, had a great effect on Tolstoy. Tolstoy read at least two of Sterne's works, The Sentimental Journey and Tristram Shandy. The influence Sterne's assertions in these two works had on Tolstoy made it into the text of War and Peace and into many of his other works. Sterne was a firm believer, as many Sentimentalist writers were, in the belief that body language and appearance told more about characters than their stated thoughts did. Consequently, we see Tolstoy's emphasis on physical features and "significant looks." Take for example, his description of Natasha (33) or the way Princess Mary's eyes reflect her true feeling (91). In both of these instances, the physical being expressed more than their words alone could have. Emotion, body language, and physical appearance often tell us much of what we know about Tolstoy's characters. Thus, Sterne's sentimentalist approach to character development had a great influence on Tolstoy, as seen over and over again in War and Peace.