Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Tolstoy and Happily Every After

written by Sara Ashbaugh

War and Peace is a novel about relationships, including romantic relationships between several of the characters. While these relationships provide important information on Russian culture, they also give insight into Tolstoy’s views on what a successful marriage looks like. None of the most successful relationships in the novel involve particularly passionate love; rather they focus on the importance of compatibility and partnership in a marriage. The surprisingly successful matches between Boris and Vera, Natasha and Pierre, and Nicholas and Mary are examples of this. In each case, the couples’ defining feature is how well they work together as a partnership. Boris and Vera, although they bicker frequently and struggle for power, ultimately help one another accomplish their goals. Although there is no struggle for power in the relationship between Natasha and Pierre, there is a power imbalance. The same power imbalance is seen in the relationship between Natasha’s parents, with the wife having more control. However, Tolstoy does not present this imbalance as a negative, on the contrary, it appears to be the reason the relationship is successful. It makes it possible for the pair to make decisions and work together effectively. Rather than treating idealized passionate love as the key to marital success, Tolstoy recognizes the power of simple compatibility. In fact, the relationships in the novel that did involve passionate love, like Nicholas and Sonya or Natasha and Andrew, were not successful. Tolstoy seems to have a realistic idea of what makes a successful partnership

Tolstory: Do you agree with his interpretation of history?

written by Devin (Ace) Austin
Throughout the book Tolstoy presents this complex idea of history being defined by smaller events that add up to larger events. Tolstoy uses this to say that the major figures of war such as the Tsar Alexander and Napoleon have had little impact on the actual impact of war. Tolstoy argues it is each soldiers decisions that decide the war rather than the planning by aristocrats. Maybe Tolstoy does have some bias against aristocrats as Tolstoy enjoyed peasantry and loved the average 19th Century proletariat. Do I agree? No. While it is true that the actual soldiers control some parts of war, it is the planning and placement of war that leads to conclusions. The people who controlled the planning and placement were aristocrats like Tsar Alexander and Napoleon. So to say that these historical figures should be disregarded because of their lack of actual fighting is nonsense. If not for these characters, would there even have been a war or just a battle between soldiers? I'm interested in you all's thoughts on this topic. 

Tolstoy and Hypocricy on History

Written by Sara Ashbaugh

            In his First Epilogue, Tolstoy discusses the process of interpreting history. In his opinion, it is impossible for historians to determine what is "useful" or “harmful” in the context of history, because the larger picture of the effects of actions cannot be known. Even if it could be known, historians’ limited understanding of what is “good” make those actions impossible to interpret. He even admits, “the action of every historic character has other more general purposes inaccessible to me” (Tolstoy, 999). However, in his interaction with and presentation of history, Tolstoy forces judgments on his reader of what actions can be considered “good” or “bad”. For example, Tolstoy condemns all historians for making judgments on the actions of Alexander I, saying “There is no one in Russian literature now, from schoolboy essayist to learned historian, who does not throw his little stone at Alexander for things he did wrong at this period of his reign” (Tolstoy, 998). Yet in Tolstoy’s presentation of Alexander I as a historical character, he paints Alexander's indecisiveness and passivity as the reason for his ineffectual leadership. In short, Tolstoy seems to believe his biased presentation of the facts is superior to other historians’ blatant judgments. Although he does not state, ‘in this instance Alexander was wrong’ or ‘in this instance Alexander helped history’, his use of language and presentation of Alexander in the context of the plot make those judgments clear to the reader without stating them outright. This holds true in Tolstoy’s presentation of all historical figures (from Speranski to Napoleon) and, more generally, in his writing on the events of the war. This bias is certainly acceptable for a novelist, and to some degree also for a historian. However, if Tolstoy considers himself in some way superior to historians attempting to make judgments on how individuals and actions have affected history, he is nothing short of hypocritical.  

Monday, December 8, 2014

Tolstoy, Gandhi, and the Age of Dissonance

An unexplored fact about Leo Tolstoy is that he was always fascinated with Indian culture and the Hindu religion. He even wrote “A Letter to A Hindu”, outlining his theological and philosophical perception of the Hindu vedas and responding to Mahatma Gandhi’s pleas for support in the Indian Nationalist Movement. Reading about this introduced me to the idea that Tolstoy had a wealth of knowledge about Hinduism- knowledge that inevitably must have pervaded his writing.

Music and Dance can been seen prevalently throughout Tolstoy’s novel- in the scene with the ballroom dance, in Natasha’s dance at uncle’s, and in Nicholas and Sonya’s dance. In Indian culture, dance or ‘tandav’ is often used to express anger, or war. So could the recurring theme of music and dance be an allegorical reference to the novel’s title, “War and Peace”? Music and dance have a long history in Indian culture in depicting emotions and stories. Classical Indian dances like the Odissi and Bharatnatyam use expressions and body language to highlight peaceful and angry emotions. Is it intentional then that the book’s many emotionally charged scenes unfold at dances and parties? In my opinion, the scene where Natasha decides that she loves Anatole is one of the most emotionally charged, and also takes place at a dance. Perhaps this was a subconscious effort to introduce dramatic flair to her dilemma.

Tolstoy’s own experiences have clearly painted a lot of his writings, and his interest in Hindu culture is not exempt from that. Dance and Music, War and Peace, Lust and Love- all merge into a single metaphor by the end of the novel, and culminate in what is a testament to all of Tolstoy’s life experiences.


Saturday, December 6, 2014

Baby Pétya

I was really interested in Pétya's death. First of all, I think that it was definitely necessary for a number of reasons. Aminata, I think it was you who was so fond of Pétya and who said in class that you still saw him as a baby. I'm positive that Tolstoy was manipulating us to think that way. I mean, Nicholas was 16 when he first went into battle and he wasn't portrayed that way to nearly the same extent. Here we have Pétya literally submerged in his own "fairy kingdom," conducting orchestras in his head and being not physically able to contain his feelings of love for men not that much older than him. He is completely a rosy-cheeked baby, who is meant to tug on the readers' heart strings. So why did he have to die? I think that Tolstoy wants to show us that war can be the worst. All throughout the book he's been making it out to be terribly exciting with all the battles and adrenaline rushes. Pierre wants to become a soldier because he wants to be part of something big and Nicholas and Andrew both wanted glory. The best way obviously to obtain these things is through killing each other on a battle field. So now the truth comes out and a young, innocent boy gets too excited to be part of something/prove himself and he dies. I think that this shows that war can be cruel and that it can hurt everyone, not just men. Now we're about to read about the Rostov's grief and (unless I'm mistaken) this will be the first time we see a family grieve for a loss sustained during battle. Already we've seen Denisov bury Pétya in a flower patch. I'm not going to lie, that almost evoked some tears.
What do you guys think? Is Tolstoy about to give us another perspective on war?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Was Napoleon Stupid?

I am extremely curious about Tolstoy's explanation of Napoleon's decisions once he reached Moscow.  In book 13, Tolstoy discusses Napoleon’s horrible decision making after the French arrive in Moscow. He does not prepare winter clothing, he sets the troops free in the city, and does not attempt to engage Kutuzov in any more battle.
Tolstoy states, “The most skillful strategist could hardly have devised an series of actions that would so completely have accomplished that purpose, independently of anything the Russian army might do” (Tolstoy 886). This quote is powerful, for Tolstoy is implying that Napoleon’s influence on his troops caused their retreat back to France. He is saying that, despite all of his genius, he failed his troops in Moscow. Tolstoy goes on to defend Napoleon though, talking about how he wasn’t stupid nor was he trying to fail his troops. I feel that Tolstoy contradicts himself somewhat there, for he says that Napoleon did the stupidest thing he possibly could do but he is not stupid.
So, why do you think that Napoleon made these decisions? Do you think he was not the genius Tolstoy and most people make him out to be? Or do you think he made some bad decisions at the wrong times? Or could he not have influenced their success because the winter would have defeated them anyways? I have so many questions about the portrayal of Napoleon during this time period as well as what Tolstoy believes influenced the retreat of the French.