Sunday, January 9, 2011

Book Eighteen - War And Peace - Part Two

Random thoughts – 

I’m not sure how Russian society defined the titles “prince” and “princess” during the early 19th century. There are lots of them in this book and they don’t appear to be related to the emperor’s family. I’m afraid to do much Googling because I don’t want to be spoiled.

Neither Pierre nor Mary realizes that they are attractive to the opposite sex (and in Pierre’s case, to society in general) because of their wealth. Seriously? I’m not wealthy but I imagine it would make me wary of a new suitor’s motives. 

And now, a semi-rant on sexual politics --
Anatole was not quick-witted, nor ready or eloquent in conversation, but he had the faculty, so invaluable in society, of composure and imperturbable self-possession.
As a result, he waltzes in and emotionally seduces three women.
As always happens when women lead lonely lives for any length of time without male society, on Anatole's appearance all the three women of Prince Bolkonski's household felt that their life had not been real till then. Their powers of reasoning, feeling, and observing immediately increased tenfold, and their life, which seemed to have been passed in darkness, was suddenly lit up by a new brightness, full of significance.
This guy is good looking and pays attention to these women and suddenly their lives are meaningful! The sky is bluer, the air crisper… he brings new life to Mary, to Lise, the mustachioed princess married to Mary’s brother (and about to have his child) and to Mary’s French “companion.” They’re all so gullible and naïve! Did these people not at least read? I mean, they were living in the country so didn’t have many “suitors” but didn’t they read? Granted, there probably weren’t many books illustrating the potential problems of spurious men, especially because most published books were written by men, but still. They all spoke French and surely there were French novels warning them about these matters. How could this one sleazy guy, just because he was charming and good looking, figuratively seduce these women?

Of course, women didn’t have many options at the time. Mary’s father would decide whether she married him and because she is charmed, she convinces herself Anatole is kind when he is not. She sees what she wants to see rather than what he is. The companion is poor yet convinces herself the Prince will marry her because she’s so pretty. Naturally, Prince Anatole hopes when he marries the rich Mary she will bring along the companion so he can have a spot of slap and tickle in the cupboard. Tolstoy is, unfortunately, spot on with all of this. Why do we allow ourselves to be deceived?

There is a plot twist here which makes me very happy, but I’ve already said too much. I’ll say only that Mary is the same self-sacrificing woman as Esther in Bleak House. Women are either completely virtuous or scheming temptresses. It’s the Madonna/whore syndrome – seriously, has our gender ever been that simplistic? Why must we be one or the other? Is there no man prior to the 20th century who saw us as three-dimensional creatures capable of rational thought?

To his credit, it isn’t only the women Tolstoy reduces to stereotypes.  

Prince Vasili  --
"Well, Lelya?" he asked, turning instantly to his daughter and addressing her with the careless tone of habitual tenderness natural to parents who have petted their children from babyhood, but which Prince Vasili had only acquired by imitating other parents.
Vasili is definitely not a good guy, and his son Anatole is an empty-headed pretty boy. If women are either Madonnas or whores, what are men? Devious manipulators or seducers? That was definitely not the case with my man Levin in Anna Karenina. I believe I have found the woman Tolstoy wants me to like, Mary, but I’m not sure I’ve yet found the man he wants me to like. Prince Andrew and Rostov seem likely characters but I don’t believe it is either of them.

Time will tell. 

P.S. I love a book I can sink my teeth into! Thanks, Leo. You're all right, dude.

1 comment:

  1. I love your thoughts on the stereotypes of womena nd Anatole's lack of depth. I couldn't believe that passage about him bringing light into their world for the first time. Seriously? I'm completely with you though, love a book that gives me something to chew on.