Monday, September 29, 2014

At War With Shakespeare

In reading War and Peace, I have become more and more interested in Tolstoy’s life as a writer. It is always exciting to analyze the influences on an author’s writing style, and it is evident that Shakespeare didn’t influence Tolstoy. My teacher from high school loves ‘War and Peace’, and when I told her that I was reading it, she sent me George Orwell’s essay entitled ‘Lear, Tolstoy and the fool’.[1]
In his essay, Orwell briefly summarizes Tolstoy’s pamphlet criticizing Shakespeare, and then goes on to discuss what he thinks of Tolstoy’s opinion that “Shakespeare might have been whatever you like, but he was not an artist.”

I think it is interesting to observe Tolstoy’s writing of ‘War and Peace’ in the context of his hatred of Shakespeare. Orwell argues in his essay that if Shakespeare is all that Tolstoy sees him to be, how did he become so widely admired?  Orwell suggests that Tolstoy’s argument must be based on the ‘epidemic suggestion’ or on the idea that certain political events or artists become popular at intervals of time, and gain fame like a sporadic uprising.

“Goethe pronounced Shakespeare a great poet, whereupon all the other critics flocked after him like a troop of parrots, and the general infatuation has lasted ever since. The result has been a further debasement of the drama — Tolstoy is careful to include his own plays when condemning the contemporary stage — and a further corruption of the prevailing moral outlook. It follows that ‘the false glorification of Shakespeare’ is an important evil which Tolstoy feels it his duty to combat.”

“However, Tolstoy is not simply trying to rob others of a pleasure he does not share. He is doing that, but his quarrel with Shakespeare goes further. It is the quarrel between the religious and the humanist attitudes towards life. Here one comes back to the central theme of King Lear, which Tolstoy does not mention, although he sets forth the plot in some detail.”

Orwell also points out the similarity between the lives of King Lear and Tolstoy. He especially points out the act of renunciation, which marked both their old ages. Orwell tells us that “Tolstoy, like Lear, acted on mistaken motives and failed to get the results he had hoped for.” Going into the rest of the novel with this perspective on Tolstoy’s opinions and lives should definitely make reading ‘War and Peace’ a more fulfilling experience.

[1] Orwell, George, Sonia Orwell, and Ian Angus. The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. London: Secker & Warburg, 1968. Print.
The essay can also be found online here:

Friday, September 26, 2014

Andrew and the serfs

Does Andrew have a point when it comes to his opinions on the well-being of the serfs? Pierre's efforts to help them failed miserably. The schools and hospitals presumably stayed empty and efforts to decrease their workload actually forced some of them to work more. Prince Andrew tells Pierre that it is natural for them to do physical labor- that they need to work in order to be happy just as Andrew needs to contemplate life. Obviously he thinks that he is far superior to the serfs. So superior does he think himself that he calls their condition animalistic. He takes their humanity away and speaks of them like they are objects. There is no way that Andrew could possibly know what they want or what they are thinking and to assume that he does is extremely condescending and frankly terrible. Is there anything that can be done to actually help them or will those changes make things harder somewhere else?

As I read this section, I thought back to the interactions between Pierre and the chief steward who suggested that it would be impossible for them to be happier than they were at that time under Pierre. What would happen if the serfs were freed? Where would they go? They would have no money or easy means with which to get money. In fact, I wonder if the only way for them to get a job would be to become indentured servants at another estate. They would get nothing out of the ordeal except for a less stable job with perhaps a crueler boss.

This situation is similar to when the slaves were freed in America, except then, some vague efforts were being made to help them. Despite these efforts, many freed people wound right back up as slaves of indentured servitude. It seems to be that in Russia at this time, a serf had a brighter future enslaved than freed.


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Dolokhov: A Phony?

Chapter 10 of Book 4 introduces a completely new side of Dolokhov compared to how he has been described previously in the book. Until now, we looked at Dolokhov as a character who did not seem capable of having a nice personality. He was very one sided, always causing trouble, and he did not seem to have many positive traits. This changes when Tolstoy describes how Dolokhov acts around his mother. His mother loves him passionately, and describes him has having a “lofty, heavenly soul” (286).  Dolokhov continues to describe how he doesn’t care what other people think of him, as long as the ones he loves think highly of him.

So, the question is, who is the real Dolokhov? I understand that every human being is multi-dimensional. But I feel like these are two complete extremes of Dolokhov, and he has to be acting a little bit in at least one of his situations. He could be acting much tougher and arrogant than he actually feels. Or, he could be deceiving his mom into thinking he is a perfect gentlemen.  Maybe he really is just very complex, and genuinely loves his mom and his family members and genuinely loves to stir up trouble.

I love how, just when it feels Tolstoy has given us a simple character, he adds the perspective of Dolokhov’s mom to remind us that every human has many characteristics and dimensions.  So what do you guys think? Do you think that Dolokhov is really kind-hearted or mean-spirited? Or that maybe he has a little of both? 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Love, "Marriage", and Duels.

Hello all,

My thoughts while reading book four were all over the place. In the beginning, things were incredibly happy with the homecoming of Nicholas and Denisov. People were joyous and kissing and hugging and creating new memories. However, things quickly changed with their presence. Things were tense with Sonya and Nicholas. They were so obviously in love with each other. Tolstoy does an incredible job, in my opinion, of depicting the thoughts and emotions of a man the age of Nicholas. I find it so interesting that these types of emotions are so relatable and recurrent throughout history even though cultures change entirely.  I was puzzled, however, how they so openly knew about their love but decided to act against it. Love, an incredibly complex emotion albeit, seems to triumph even in reality. Why does Tolstoy choose not to act upon their love? Is it an attempt to appeal more to the reader? What were your guys' thoughts throughout this?

Pierre is incredibly unpredictable in my opinion. His actions, declaring a duel against Dolokhov, threw me entirely. Also, even though he came out the victor against the man who was presumably Helene's other partner, Helene's opinion of Pierre lessened. She thought that it was foolish of him to do something of this nature. I would think, in a society that one can declare duels in, that the victor of such a conflict would run away with the girl. This is not the case. Why do you think Tolstoy did this? With Pierre losing Helene, do you think that Tolstoy was just emphasizing the fact that Helene was in the marriage for his fortune? After Helene declared that she wanted a portion of Pierre's fortune amidst the separation, my thoughts towards this theory strengthened.

Let me know what you think! Thank you guys,


Friday, September 19, 2014

Philosophy in War and Peace

Tolstoy employs social aspects of human life in his writing which make his works extremely relatable to readers. Philosophy is generally a large part of human lives whether it is faced explicitly or implicitly. Nobody knows what the correct way to live is and characters such as Pierre, Andrew and Nicholas are young and in their prime,only beginning that journey. Whether success is medals and glory as viewed by Andrew or loyalty to the Tsar and being a valiant soldier as seen by Nicholas, it is all relative. As a social writer, Tolstoy expressed some of his views on life and self betterment through the plot and characters in the novel. It is largely known that he was intrigued by the complex and largely ambiguous concept that is life and death. It is no surprise then that as Andrew is in the dividing line between the two he gains some insight into what is important in life. Andrew is said to think about " the insignificance of greatness", " the unimportance of life" and " greater unimportance of death". It is interesting to view the contrast in the situation. The one who gave so much importance to glory now views greatness as trivial. Andrew now views his previous hero as " little insignificant Napoleon". It is a great lesson on the futility of pride and how what humans think is important really isn't and what is taken for granted is what truly matters. One would only wish to be as lucky as to get closer to figuring out the ambiguities and mysteries surrounding life. Tolstoy's writing therefore shows the interconnectedness of human beings, how our differences are nothing in comparison to our similarities.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Pierre's Masculinity

War and Peace has so far focused heavily on Pierre Bezukhov who I think is a very interesting main character to have since he doesn't always live up to the social constructs one would usually think a main character of a dramatic novel like War and Peace would. Specifically, I'd like to look at the construct of masculinity. Pierre is the center focus of the peace times of War and Peace which is not very masculine since he never leaves the protective sphere of society to go to war, but at the same time his greatest vices are women, drinking, parties, etc, which are all masculine pastimes. His partiality to women especially lends him heterosexual privilege, but the fact that he doesn't seem to actually attract many women somewhat undermines that. Because of all this, he is a relatively average character in terms of masculinity. When he marries Helene, however, things shift for his character. First of all, he has to give up his vices. On the other hand, he's able to land a beautiful and coveted women. When her rumored affair reaches him, he challenges Dolokhov to a duel which would've been a very masculine way of settling things back then, but then immediately regrets it. However, his regret is internal, and the fact that he is still able to wound Dolokhov (as ungraceful and probably accidental as the act might've been), still he is able to prove himself to some degree. When Helene finally confronts him about the incident and ridicules his masculinity by saying that any woman married to him would want to have an affair with a more worthy man, he nearly becomes abusive in an attempt to display his masculinity in the worst way possible. I'm curious to see how his character will grow from now on and if he'll keep struggling towards a higher degree of masculinity now that he has the public's eye on him or if he'll recede back and be just as naive and submissive as ever. The end of his fight with Helene when he gives her control of his estates in Great Russia and leaves for Petersburg makes me think that perhaps the latter is more probable, but who knows! What do you guys think?

Monday, September 15, 2014


Pierre is a prime example of how status and money does not make one adverse to coercion or give on the power to manipulate. Although in Book 3 we see his elevated status to Count Bezükhov along with a new fortune he is still being pulled in different directions by nearly everyone. Pierre does everything from giving the princesses money to marrying Helene.  Yet he always believe he is the one holding the cards and making each decision.  It just makes sense to him that these people would love and be interested in him so he is swept along in it all.  But I wonder if it is coercion by others or by himself?  He is smart enough to realize Anna Pávlovna treats him differently but he doesn’t quite seem to connect why.  Pierre has always been easily manipulated and rather withdrawn but is this his mental state or his way of coping and not having to deal with the reality of these people using him/disliking him? Does he have more depth or is he merely serving as a facilitator and furthering Tolstoy’s theme of coercion?

Friday, September 12, 2014

Review of The War and Peace Project

Grinnell alum Laura Baltzell ’83 began the War and Peace Project in 2008, when she began making collages on each page of a 1970’s soviet edition of War and Peace. Six other artists joined in on the project. After touring a number of prestigious museums around the world, the piece now resides in the ­Burling Gallery. There are nine sections of about 70 pages each, arranged in five neat rows.

The first two clusters of pages have a warm and ornate aesthetic; the text is highlighted with fringes of gold, yellow and red. The style seems to mimic the extravagance of the Russian aristocracy. The theme of the third block is cooler, many of the pages are blue and green, and are reminiscent of the hues of nature. Although I don’t know if the sections are arranged chronologically, these pages seem to depict where we are in the book now because the characters are in nature. As the piece progresses, white becomes the dominant color, which makes me think that winter plays a role in Book 3. Suddenly, the tone changes. The text is covered and mangled by splotches of red and cut-out images are imposed on the page. As I continued, the words were covered completely and the collages became uglier, darker, and physically heavier as well. The textures represent violence and darkness. Baltzell glues three dimensional items onto the pages. One such item is a small blue self-help book called Little Treasures. This was my favorite touch because it referenced Tolstoy’s devotion to self-improvement and it was just so darn cute. I encourage you to check out the exhibition!


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

War is the Force that Gives Us Meaning. At least for Nicholas and Andrew.

I admit, I pulled the title from the scheduled talk by the Pulitzer-winning journalist Chris Hedges. But it is what precisely Nicholas and Prince Andrew found. In war they found the means to fulfill their desires (one, a patriotic sentiment and the other, escape from a miserable marriage) by attending the war. Alright, so they entered the war to satisfy their desires. Nicholas Rostov enters the war believing that sacrificing for one's country is a meaningful goal.

On the contrary, Prince Andrew could care less about what others think of him. In fact, he prefers it that the people who don't understand him to fear him. Yet, his hopes of becoming a "hero" suffers a serious blow when the Russian army gets soundly beatings by the French and the diplomats still view the war as an abstract theory. The Russian army's lack of discipline also disappoints Andrew. Andrew wants to establish himself as a prominent figure in war as to give his life a meaning.

Without their realizing, the war bestows them other meanings. Nicholas Rostov never faced open hostility in his life; as he famously mused, everyone loved him and he expected the soldiers would act the same way. His belief fractures when he calls on Telyanin for stealing Denisov's purse. The officers want Nicholas' apology even though he did the right thing. The big revelation soon follows: Nicholas realizes with a shock that the enemy actually wants to kill him just because he is from the Russian Army.
The war showed Nicholas the harsh reality of life. Nicholas' social standing or vibrant, young personality does not automatically guarantee people's affections. As he lay wounded, he realizes for the first time what death entails--its voidness. Similarly, Prince Andrew impulsively aids the doctor and his wife. He regrets afterwards because while he may saved them, the action did not give him any recognition. While Andrew remains chagrined over kind behaviors, however, the reader sees that his inner thoughts return to the dying soldiers of the battlefield. The reader can hope that the horrors of war would eventually render Andrew into a more compassionate man who finds meaning in little things than in dreams of grandeur.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Family Values

What really struck me in Book 1 of War and Peace was the difference between the Bolkónski family and the Rostóv family. When I think of wealthy families and family structure I do not think of the loving and supportive family of the Rostóvs but much more of the splintered, money-driven family of the Bolkónskis. The Rostóv family more highly values supporting each other with love whereas the Bolkónski family places higher importance on education and intelligence. While Natasha is welcome to interrupt adult social conversation and have a conversation with her parents during her name-day celebration, Mary’s main contact with her father involves lectures about calculus and other intellectual material. Although different in many ways, both families are important and influential in the high society of 19th-century Russia. Why does Tolstoy develop two wealthy families with very different structures and values?