Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Line Between Life and Death

Tolstoy expresses how he feels about death by showing characters at high risk of dying.  In soldiers’ encounters with the enemy, in old age, and in sickness War and Peace shows people struggling with death.  Tolstoy first introduces death, saying there is a line dividing the living and the dead.  This line is drawn on the battlefield between two opposing armies.  In this instance soldiers are aware of how easily they could end up on the wrong side of that line.  A soldier, because he is at such high risk of being killed, is forced to understand the he can die in the upcoming battle. 

Denisov gets sick and makes the reader think that he is going to die in the hospital.  He seems to have lost faith in his country and lost the will to live.  He appears later in the novel, healthy and in good spirits.  Andrew on the other hand gets sick and after a long struggle dies.  Old Bolkonsky is ready to cross the line.  He is suffering from dementia, and just wants a place to die in peace.  Unfortunately for him, he is forced to leave his home and dies uncomfortably.  Tolstoy’s killing of these characters seems unfair.

At the end of the novel some characters have died and others have remained alive.  Tolstoy seems to make the point that there is a fine line between life and death, and who lives is a matter of luck.  Denisov could easily have died and Andrew could easily have lived, but in reality the one who gets to live is random.  Tolstoy’s view on death, like his view on history, is that it is out of our control.   We can try to control when people die with the help of doctors, and by keeping our loved ones out of harm’s way, but in the end death can come to anyone.

Growing Up in War and Peace

One of the primary themes Leo Tolstoy explores in War and Peace is what it means to become an adult. In the first book, we meet Natasha and Pierre, two main characters that grow from naïve children to mature adults over the course of the novel. Tolstoy believes that growing up occurs primarily through surviving the hard times life inevitably hands you and that these times mold you into the person you are destined to become. To Tolstoy, growing up occurs not because of your individual choices, but because of the uncontrollable force of history on each person’s life.

Tolstoy feels the great force of history affects every individual life and that no one can escape this force. The reader sees this especially with Natasha, as the war deeply influences when she finally grows up. The war kills both her lover, Andrew, and her brother, Petya. These combined experiences become her defining moment, and the moment she becomes a woman. Tolstoy shows the effect history has on individuals with Pierre, too; Pierre becomes a man when the French irrationally and unjustly imprison him. Thus, while individual choices and events certainly do shape you, Tolstoy asserts that the larger forces in the universe have more power than any individual ever could.

The Spirit of War

I have been inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s idea behind war in War and Peace, the Spirit of War.  My favorite minor character is General Kutuzov, this is because Tolstoy uses him to explain this idea.  General Kutuzov commands his army in a very passive and patient way because he believes in the Spirit of War; this being the driving factor behind the soldiers’ actions on the battle field.

The Spirit of War is the reason why people can bring themselves to kill other human beings on the battle field.  They become a slave to this spirit and perceive their actions to be morally acceptable.  The focus is brought from the whole, where is there is mass murder and bloodshed, to the self, where survival is the only concern.  The solider no longer becomes worried that he is killing other innocent people, because all he can think about it surviving.

The Spirit of War has another very important role in the course of the battle.  The reason why General Kutuzov was such a profound generals is because he knew he had little effect on the outcome of the battle.  War is a very chaotic element and military officials like to feel as though they are the ones controlling and creating it, when in fact this is far from the truth.  In his novel, Toltosy continually played on the fact that commands fall to pieces as they travel to the front line.  This is because the Sprit of War is at play; all of the combined effects of each soldier fighting for their own respective lives makes each battle unpredictable and uncontrollable.

The Spirit of War is another force that is there to remind us that life ultimately is uncontrollable and the best way to survive is to just follow where it takes you.

Death and Rebirth

Little did I realize as I began my journey into Tolstoy’s War and Peace that this very long novel would change my perspective on death.  One of the prominent themes in War and Peace is the interconnections between death and re-birth.  Many times in the novel we read about death giving way to new life.  This new life can be physical or metaphorical. Tolstoy portrays death not as an end to life, but as a path to a new life or a new awareness.  
The primary characters encounter death in some form during the novel which always leads to a new life or a new realization. When Andrew’s wife, Lise, dies during childbirth, she brings a new character, Nicholas, into the novel, who grows up to dream of military glory for Russia like his father, Andrew.   The death of old Prince Bolkonsky provides a new life for Princess Mary, who for many years lived under his rule.  His death awakens in Mary “all the personal desires and hopes that had been forgotten” (636), and she becomes a strong and independent woman.  Furthermore, the death of Prince Andrew and Petya creates a profound change in Natasha.  This change provides her with the maturity and the experience to be able to marry Pierre and fulfill her destiny as a mother and wife. 
Death in War and Peace is not an end, but a revival of life.  Pierre, Princes Mary, and Natasha all had to experience the suffering of death before they were able to understand how to live life.  Before, I believed death was an end to life, however, I now believe that death is a beginning.

The Insignificance of Individual's Lives

            Tolstoy has much to say about war and history throughout War and Peace; it seems as though he views them as characters instead of events. Tolstoy’s frequent returns to war or history suggests that individual’s daily life problems are incredibly insignificant.  War and Peace is an interesting novel because it seemingly contradicts the major theme of the insignificance of individual social problems by spending hundreds of pages discussing the often-unimportant decisions of the aristocratic families. Still, in the end, it is clear that Tolstoy had greater perspective on the important events in life.
            Tolstoy suggests that the grand themes of both war and peace are greater than any individual conflict. This is most specifically through Anatole’s redemption in the mind of Prince Andrew. Even thought Anatole tried to steal and ruin Prince Andrew’s fiancée, he is forgiven because of the war. Prince Andrew recognizes that a fight over a woman is ultimately insignificant in the face of war and is able to feel sorry for Anatole when he is in pain. Tolstoy reinforces his point that the individual lives are relatively inconsequential through his inclusion of the second epilogue. The first epilogue mostly discusses what becomes of the remaining main characters Princess Mary, Natasha, Nicholas, Pierre, and Prince Andrew’s son. The second epilogue, and the end to the novel, however, goes to great length to detail Tolstoy’s views on war and history. Tolstoy chooses not to end his great novel with his characters, but rather with the larger themes that are important. In increasing desperation throughout the novel, Tolstoy emphasizes that War and Peace is not just about the social lives of the Russian aristocracy. His second epilogue is a final plea to the reader to understand what is and is not significant. Individual social lives are certainly interesting to follow and getting wrapped up in the daily choices of others is often appealing. Still, the world is full of greater forces that are simply more important. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Patriotism in War and Peace

Given that war and patriotism are often closely linked it is not surprising that patriotism is an important theme in War and Peace. From reading the War and Peace it is clear that Tolstoy views war as an unnatural occurrence that goes against basic human nature. What is it that Tolstoy considers to the cause of war? I think there are several things Tolstoy considers to contribute to the start and continuations of wars but patriotism is definitely among them.
Both war and patriotism are portrayed as negative things in War and Peace. Tolstoy portrays the aristocracy as people who due to their patriotism blindly follow and never question the government. It is the aristocracy who Tolstoy is most critical of that is presented as the most patriotic part of Russian society. In the beginning of the book in Anna Schérer’s soiree Pierre express support for the French Revolution and the ideas of liberty and equality of men. The rest of the aristocrats present strongly disagree and express support the monarchy. When Rostopchin gives a speech about the war and mentions the emperor the crowd is quickly are inspired and several men promise serfs for the army. Carried away with patriotic feelings and a quest for glory Andrew is wound and Petya killed.
I think Tolstoy believes that people have a duty to do what is right and what is good for humanity. However, what is good for humanity is not compatible with patriotism and what is best for one specific county.

Religion’s Role in Achieving Inner-peace

Tolstoy explores the role of religious institutions in obtaining inner-peace, a state his positive characters strive to achieve. We see this struggle in Mary, Natasha and Pierre’s emotional development over the course of War and Peace.

Although religious faith allows Princess Mary to cope with her father’s torment, Mary never finds inner-peace because her soul is incessantly searching for the eternal, which prevents her from accepting the present. Natasha also turns to the church for inner-balance. After her love affair with Anatole, Natasha begins to attend church and pray for forgiveness. Although she grows calmer, it is not religion that brings her temporary tranquility; it is the simplicity and structure of her lifestyle, facilitated by the church, which calms her. Pierre joins the freemasonry in hopes of achieving inner-fulfillment and peace; however, the freemasonry only grants Pierre an ephemeral sense of structure and belonging. In captivity Pierre is isolated from the superfluous distractions of the aristocracy. He learns to live simply and achieves true inner-peace through self-reflection and hard work.

Of these three characters, only Pierre finds inner-balance. Tolstoy demonstrates that religion provides one with structure, acceptance and stability; however, religion does not necessarily facilitate the achievement of inner-balance. As seen in the Russian peasantry and Pierre, inner-peace is achieved through self-reflection, simple living and hard work. You must eliminate life’s unnecessary distractions in order to determine your place in the world. Once you determine who you are and who you would like to be, then you gain purpose, understanding and inner-balance.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Russian Patriotism

Patriotism is often most strongly defined when placed in opposition with something. This is the case in Leo Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace, set at the time of the Russian War of 1812. Tolstoy imbued his novel with a strong patriotic theme because he was frustrated with the Russian aristocracy’s love of the French during a time when Napoleon was invading their country. By ridiculing the Russian aristocracy’s imitation of the French and creating strong Russian protagonists Tolstoy created a feeling of Russian pride in War and Peace to show both that Russia would triumph over Napoleon in 1812 and that Russian culture was respectable on its own, equal to or better than that of Western Europe.

The important families in the novel each take sides in the cultural dispute. The Kuragin family religiously adheres to French culture and customs to the extent that they continue their devotion to the French as Napoleon invades Moscow. Meanwhile, the Bolkonski and Rostov families follow traditional Russian customs and practices. Tolstoy urges us to sympathize with the Russians, portraying the adherents of French culture as shallow, scheming, and cowardly, while the Russians are patriotic and heroic. Tolstoy despises the idea that French culture is somehow superior to Russian. Therefore he ridicules members of the Russian aristocracy, such as the Kuragins, who only know French and cannot even speak Russian, suggesting that by speaking another country’s language at the expense of their own, they are implying that their culture is inferior. This is why Tolstoy’s protagonists have such strong Russian characteristics: they reflect the author’s own patriotism.

As his protagonists vehemently oppose Napoleon and adhere to traditional Russian culture, Tolstoy supports his view that Russia’s culture is worth more than that of France. The strong sense of nationality apparent in the Bolkonski and Rostov families coupled with their numerous virtues make them characters that the audience can easily identify with. By setting Russian culture against French in the form of the War of 1812 and declaring Russia the winner, Tolstoy sets Russia above France and the rest of Europe on an intellectual and cultural level. In this way the theme of patriotism serves to praise Russian culture and to criticize those who abandon the traditions of their homeland.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Pierre's Anguish about Karataev's Death

In Book Fourteen both Petya and Karataev die. Although the death of Petya is tragic, the death of Karataev has a greater effect on me. Karataev represents simplicity, kindness, peacefulness and, above all, hope. Karataev's story about the old man wrongly accused of murder, demonstrates that Karataev anticipates death. In fact, it seems as if he welcomes death. Pierre respects Karataev's perspective on life, including his approach to death; however, Karataev's feeble condition makes Pierre feel very uncomfortable. He avoids interactions with Platon and marches ahead of him in line. Although I believe Pierre has found peacefulness and a new appreciation for a simple life, his reaction to Platon's death makes me more skeptical of the permanence of his transformation. Pierre still fears death. Therefore, he is not completely at peace. When the blue-gray dog begins to howl beside Platon's corpse, after he is shot by the French soldier, Pierre does not turn around but simply exclaims, "What a stupid beast! Why is it howling?" (941) The dog's howling expresses Pierre's inner-pain, which he refuses to accept. I think Pierre's indifference is a measurement of his anguish as well as an indication that he has yet to accept death. He is therefore not truly at peace.