War and Peace Notes – Introduction to the Collection

In Spring 2013, I enrolled in a lower-division undergraduate course called “Slavic 90A: Introduction to Russian Civilization”. During this class, we covered the geography, history and culture of the country. As one of our assigned readings, Lev Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” took a significant portion of our time. As we finished selected chapters, we were required to reflect and write commentary on the material.

Since a fellow student informed me that he would be enrolling in the course soon, I offered to compile my notes on the novel to share. In the process, I thought it would be fun to publish these same notes online. Who knows? Maybe a casual reader will stumble upon them, and will strike up a conversation on Tolstoy’s classic. Or perhaps, my observations might help out another student tackling this lengthy Russian novel. If you’re interested in seeing my collection of notes, click here and let me know what you think.

Photo of War and Peace Dance via WikiMedia Commons

War and Peace Notes – Epilogue and Final Thoughts

Written for Slavic 90A: Introduction to Russian Civilization – Spring 2013. Read more of my previous notes on “War and Peace” here.

We’re finally finished!

Part One of the Epilogue of “War and Peace” starts off by recounting the actions of Napoleon and Tsar Alexander during imperial France’s failed campaign into Russia. Then the aftermath is shown. Lev Tolstoy reveals the faiths of the novel’s characters seven years from where he last left off in Book Four. Two main marriages occur. 

In 1813, Natasha and Pierre get married. The union is described as a paralleling “last happy event in the family of the old Rostovs” after the sad death of the elder Rostov (1225). This match between Pierre and Natasha seemed appropriate, since they are both characters who have both matured considerably over the progression of “War and Peace”. Pierre has found his peace with his spiritual search through surveying religion and Russian patriotism, while Natasha has settled out of her childish ways and capricious whims for the love of a man.

The marriage is happy and satisfying, as demonstrated in Pierre’s feelings: “After seven years of marriage Pierre had the joyous and firm consciousness that he was not a bad man, and he felt this because he saw himself reflected in his wife. He felt the good and bad within himself inextricably mingled and overlapping.” (1246) Tolstoy wrote that Pierre’s emotions were inexplicable, something outside “logical reasoning”, because Pierre for the most part, ignored the bad parts of himself and the marriage (ibid.).

Furthermore, a second harmonious union happens. The marriage between Nikolai and Princess Marya starts joyfully, because Nikolai is able to restore honor and wealth to his family. Here, Tolstoy portrays a realistic truth in his writing, an endeavor which should be applauded, since often authors often deliver an easy, straight and narrow path in their character’s romances. Instead of ending up with his cousin and childhood love Sonya, Nikolai marries Marya. The diversion shows that life does not follow a singular path as one often sees in the simplest literature and fairytales, instead in adulthood, choices have to be made; old loves have to be dropped.

Tolstoy asserts that things eventually work out well for those who persevere. A clear example of is shown in the case of the romance between the ever-so patient Marya and the family-loving Nikolai. So, whether it is the collective events of history or the life of one individual, Tolstoy argues that such moments and their “ultimate purpose is beyond our comprehension” (1225).

Additionally, Tolstoy explicates his views of history once more. In Part One, Tolstoy looks at the bee from the point of view of a child, poet, bee-keeper and botanist. Each person has his own opinion on the bee, all taking in different experiences and understanding of the bee itself (1224).

Then, in Part Two of the Epilogue, as done before, Tolstoy extrapolates the science of history to the fields of natural science.  From comparing historical writing and biographies to paper currency and coins (1281), historians to botanists (1282) and humans to animals (1285), Tolstoy reiterates: History is subjective, with no rights or wrongs, but only the will and movement of the masses forcing action into place. After the events, we humans put things into context to the best of our understanding of a mysterious and incomprehensible truth.

Last notes:

Reading War and Peace was a joy. Although, its massive length was at times discouraging, and admittedly, it would have been easier to skim the chapters…we have at least won the bragging rights of having read a great Russian classic. Lastly, the novel has imparted immense knowledge and insight into early 20th century Russian society to us. In my opinion, the time spent reading was worth it!

Works Cited: Tolstoy, Leo, Louise Maude, Aylmer Maude, and Amy Mandelker. War and Peace. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.

 

War and Peace Notes – Impressions of Sergei Bondarchuk’s Film Adaptation

Written for Slavic 90A: Introduction to Russian Civilization – Spring 2013. Read more of my previous notes on “War and Peace” here.

Film Title & Year: War and Peace (2003)
Director: Sergei Bondarchuk
Length: 403 minutes, divided into three disks (phew!)
Summary: “A painstakingly detailed adaptation of the Tolstoy novel which follows the interconnected lives of a group of Russian aristocrats from 1805-1812, including Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.” – via Worldcat.

Note: This epically long film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1968.

Transforming the colossal work of “War and Peace” into a four segmented movie was surely a tedious task. By sacrificing some of the whimsical and humorous scenes in “War and Peace”, including Dolokhov’s drunk hooliganry with a bear and policeman, Nikolai’s misfortunate gambling experience and the Rostovs’ enjoyful hunt, director Sergei Bondarchuk instead focuses more on a character-driven plot through Andrei, Natasha and Pierre.

The exclusion of the some frivolous “War and Peace” scenes translates well time-wise into an otherwise already lengthy film. As a benefit, the movie provides visual context to a foreign audience. It provides details that might have been easily missed by a person without background knowledge on early 19th century Imperial Russia. The selection of dress and setting seemed very authentic to period portrayed, showing that Bondarchuk paid careful attention to keep true to Tolstoy’s 1800s.

In addition, the film features internal monologue, so that viewers can directly hear the thoughts of War and Peace’s characters. It was an exceptionably nice technique, which was absent in Tolstoy’s original writing. Overall, the movie seems to remain faithful to the novel.

Works Cited: Bondarchuk, Sergeĭ, Lyudmila Savelyeva, Vyacheslav Tikhonov, and Leo Tolstoy. War and Peace. West Long Branck, N.J: Kultur, 2003. Film.

 

War and Peace Notes – Tolstoy’s Views on History

Written for Slavic 90A: Introduction to Russian Civilization – Spring 2013. Read more of my previous notes on “War and Peace” here.

At the beginning of Book Three Part III, Tolstoy introduces two methods to view history. The first regards history as flowing in a continuous process, in which there “can be no beginning to any event”, whereas the other method attributes historical events as the result of the will of a strong character–usually “a king or a commander” (882). He disagrees with the latter method. Tolstoy states that the “first fifteen years of the nineteenth century in Europe present an extraordinary movement of millions of people” (ibid.). Additionally, he proposes that we “must leave aside kings, ministers, and generals”; he parallels historical observation to a nearly scientific process. During this study, historians dissect history into common small units “by which the masses are moved” to come closer to the truth (883). These units are periods of time when the masses stir great historical revolts and movements.

Tolstoy also suggests that history is propelled by the collective will of the common folk rather than just one individual. In Chapter 2, Tolstoy reiterates his point by describing the dilemma of the commander of chief during war: a lack of choice. Perhaps even self-consciousness over one’s choice. Contrary to public belief, a general or commander cannot clearly and immediately deliver the best, most efficient order amidst the dangerous battle time. Choices are difficult in this high-pressure environment. Faced with lack of sleep, poor diet, the rush during the “series of shifting events”, and other factors demand that the general react, so the commander’s task is undoubtedly harder (885-886). So when an order is given, it is one that is, in fact, bigger than the individual himself argues Tolstoy.

Works Cited: Tolstoy, Leo, Louise Maude, Aylmer Maude, and Amy Mandelker. War and Peace. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.

 

War and Peace Notes – Tolstoy’s Comments on Russian Opera

Written for Slavic 90A: Introduction to Russian Civilization – Spring 2013. Read more of my previous notes on “War and Peace” here.

Distinct Russian opera did not form until the 1830s. Italian-Russian composer Cavos entered the art in 1807, but did not particularly tailor his work to Russians until his patriotic Ivan Susanin (later adapted by Glinka) in 1815. Afterwards, composers like Verstovsky, Alyabyev and Glinka came on the scene. However, all this occurred after the time frame of War and Peace (1805-1813). Opera was not written specifically for the Russian at Natasha’s viewing. So it is easy to understand Natasha’s dissatisfaction with opera, one that greatly contrasts her enjoyment of authentic Russian folk music at Uncle’s cabin.

In Book II Part 5, Tolstoy slightly mocks the Russians’ adoration of opera as a foreign art. Natasha initially dislikes the opera, preferring the her homeland’s folk music and balaika* (Part IV). At first, she considers the performance as  “so pretentiously false and unnatural that she felt ashamed for the actors” (602). Furthermore, she does not understand why her fellow audience members are so captivated about the scenes on stage. Instead, Natasha is distracted by Anatole, Helen and the other guests, noticing their outfits and appearances, rather than really paying attention to the opera itself.

However, by the end, Natasha ironically changes her mind to follow suit when the acclaimed actor Duport is applauded. In this fictional world, Duport was evidently a wealthy actor who received “sixty thousand rubles a year for this art” wrote Tolstoy (605). As the crowded called to this this famous man, Natasha “no long thought this as strange”, “looked about with pleasure, smiling joyfully” and conceded to Helen’s admiration of this actor (ibid.). This quick change of emotion is comical, sardonically displaying how elite Russians sometimes placed higher value to foreign art over their own native art.

*Wikipedia Entry on Balalaika: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balalaika)

Works Cited: Tolstoy, Leo, Joseph Frank, and Lena Lenček. War and Peace. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2006.

 

War and Peace Notes – Tolstoy on Fear During War

Written for Slavic 90A: Introduction to Russian Civilization – Spring 2013. Read more of my previous notes on “War and Peace” here.

Tolstoy does an excellent job in portraying the feelings of confusion and fear during the midst of war. In Book One Part One, the reactions to the war are mixed. As a young soul who has returned to his homeland, Pierre is unintimidated by the war. He does not see a reason to fight a war against Napoleon. Because Prince Andrei is bored and undecided on what else to do with his life, like most men, he commits to fighting the war (30). On the other hand, Princess Lisa states how she doesn’t understand the need for war, by associating it as only a man’s thing, as no woman “would want anything of the kind” (27). Although she tries to maintain a calm demeanor in her comments, on the subsequent page, Princess Lisa displays her feelings of angst and fear regarding the war. As a woman, she cannot engage in the war as a combatant and admits that she greatly fears for her husband Prince Andrei’s future.

In Book One Part Two, the later chapters 9 and from 14 to 20 particularly focus on the logistics and soldiers involved in war, seeing as the scenes take place on the combat grounds. In chapter 19, a young Russian officer from Prince Andrei’s brigade tries to rally his comrades when he states, “Afraid or not, it makes no difference, you can’t escape it anyhow” (189). This is a perfect line describing the futility of fear, yet the human inability to avoid it. In fact the feeling is so powerful, it can even cripple the best soldiers and quickest minds. When Rostov falls from his dead horse and finds himself alone in the middle of a battlefield, Tolstoy describes fear as “the one single emotion” that “possessed [Rostov’s] whole being” (201). He flings his pistol at his enemy and flees, but fortunately is saved by some Russian snipers.

From the reading, we see the varied reactions of some Russian elites on the French-Russian conflict. Not everyone was in favor of fighting Napoleon, but more or less, all were affected by the ongoing battles, which would lead to the grand French invasion of 1812–a rather important year for the Russians.

Works Cited: Tolstoy, Leo, Louise Maude, Aylmer Maude, and Amy Mandelker. War and Peace. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.

War and Peace Notes – Tolstoy on Hunting as a Pastime

Written for Slavic 90A: Introduction to Russian Civilization – Spring 2013. Read more of my previous notes on “War and Peace” here.

Russia includes many different ethnic peoples, who gather around a rich collective culture. Besides music, one of popular hobby during Tolstoy’s time was hunting.

In Book Two Part IV of War and Peace, Tolstoy toys with the idea of a mysterious and undefinable Russian spirit calmed by music and beloved hobbies. Uncle’s singing and balalaika playing captures young Natasha’s attention. In spite of Natasha’s elite social status and French-influenced education, she connects to the folk music in the same way as Russian common-folk do. Natasha dances gracefully with such movements that “were inimitable and unteachable Russian ones”; she is “able to understand all that was […] in every Russian woman and man” (549). Tolstoy demonstrates that traditional folk music is one way to touch that enigmatic Russian soul.

Evidently, we also see how Russians prize the hunt as a favoritr past-time in Part IV. Here we understand that like horses, who also have names in Chapter 4, borzoi* were important companions to the Russians during the hunt. In the start of Chapter 4, the Rostovs head off to hunt wolves with no less than 54 of their dogs (530). The relationship between hound and humans seemed quite natural, since Tolstoy writes: “Each dog knew its master and its call. Each man in the hunt knew his business, his place and what he had to do” (ibid.).

Impressively, Tolstoy devotes such great detail to these hounds. Nikolai Rostov and his neighbor Illagin show tremendous interest in their borzois Milka and Erza. Milka is favorably described as “a black-spotted bitch with prominent black eyes” (528). Illagin’s borzoi Erza has a particularly beauty “of a small, pure bred, red-spotted bitch” and “muscles like steel, a delicate muzzle and prominent black eyes” (540). The introduction of Erza’s beauty amplifies how she rivals Rostov’s dog Milka in physical appearance and hunting ability.

*Wikipedia Entry on Borzoi: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borzoi)

Works Cited: Tolstoy, Leo, Louise Maude, Aylmer Maude, and Amy Mandelker. War and Peace. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.

 

War and Peace Notes – Tolstoy on Marriage and Filial Piety

Written for Slavic 90A: Introduction to Russian Civilization – Spring 2013. Read more of my previous notes on “War and Peace” here.

In a similar manner to the Rostovs, the Bolkonskys also respect their parents. However, Andrei is more sensitive to his father’s advice against remarrying. In last week’s reading, Prince Andrei promises his skeptical father to delay the wedding a year, despite how it torments his fiancée Natasha so much. Nikolai Rostov demonstrates his slight unhappiness that his sister Natasha should be married off, yet also doubts alongside his mother Prince Andrei’s intent to marry Natasha (525). As Rostov clearly points out, it should be quite easy for Andrei to ignore the elder Bolkonsky’s wishes to immediately elope to Natasha instead of waiting. Nevertheless, the characters all understand that they have a certain duty to be “obedient fils” et filles, sons and daughters (523).

Works Cited: Tolstoy, Leo, Louise Maude, Aylmer Maude, and Amy Mandelker. War and Peace. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.

War and Peace Notes – My Mistake about the Word “He”

Written for Slavic 90A: Introduction to Russian Civilization – Spring 2013. Read more of my previous notes on “War and Peace” here.

I got confused in this part: My professor let me know it was the elder Bolkonsky who cried, but due to my language processing of the word “he”, I imagined Prince Andrei in this scene.

More specifically, I had imagined Prince Andrei crying in his father’s arms, rather than the senior, because in the previous scene, Prince Andrei “began to cry, as children cry” after the his son’s birth (351). At the same time, the death of Princess Lisa must have caused Prince Andrei to be extremely emotional, since both a happy event and tragedy occurred simultaneously.

In the following scene, the Oxford translation states: “Two hours later Prince Andrei stepping softly went into his father’s room. The old man knew everything. He was standing close to the door and as soon as it opened his rough old arms closed like a vice round his son’s neck, and without a word he began to sob like a child.”

I see that grammatically it makes sense that the old man was the person crying, because he’s the main actor/subject in the sentence. However, when I saw the the phrase “he began to sob like a child”, my thoughts transferred back to Prince Andrei’s emotional turmoil and role as the elder Bolkonsky’s son.

*Fun Fact: In Russian, there’s a neat distinction between the pronouns which English can’t match. More precisely, there’s его/её “his/her” and свой “his/her own”.

Compares these two examples:
-Ferris Bueller hates his (own) hair. Феррис Бюллер ненавидит свои волосы.
-Ferris Bueller hates his (other person’s) hair. Феррис Бюллер ненавидит его волосы.

Works Cited: Tolstoy, Leo, Louise Maude, Aylmer Maude, and Amy Mandelker. War and Peace. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.

 

War and Peace Notes – Tolstoy on Free Will and War

Written for Slavic 90A: Introduction to Russian Civilization – Spring 2013. Read more of my previous notes on “War and Peace” here.

Tolstoy artistically expounds the intricacies of war through War and Peace. In the Appendix, Tolstoy later questions why men engage in war and kill one another. His answer is that there is an “elemental zoological law” that impels us to destroy each other (1315). The law exists in direct contradiction to our notion of freewill. If there is such an innate evil in humans, then it’s an internal conflict. We begin to doubt whether our actions are dictated by our own free will, a higher being (God?) or our animal instincts. Interesting, right?

Works Cited: Tolstoy, Leo, Louise Maude, Aylmer Maude, and Amy Mandelker. War and Peace. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.