Volume I, Part I, Chapters I through VIII

Ways of talking:

“How can one be well … when one suffers morally? Is it possible to remain at ease in our time, if one has any feeling?”, said Anna Pavlovna. “You’ll stay the whole evening, I hope?”

The last question reveals the truth. In The Life of Johnson, entry for October 19, 1769, one finds

I told him that I had dined lately at Foote’s, who shewed me a letter which he had received from Tom Davies, telling him that he had not been able to sleep from the concern which he felt on account of ‘This sad affair of Baretti,’ begging of him to try if he could suggest any thing that might be of service; and, at the same time, recommending to him an industrious young man who kept a pickle-shop. JOHNSON. ‘Ay, Sir, here you have a specimen of human sympathy; a friend hanged, and a cucumber pickled. We know not whether Baretti or the pickle-man has kept Davies from sleep; nor does he know himself.

In this case, Prince Vassily’s insincere court manners seem more to the point than the enthusiasms of Anna Pavlovna Scherer, for whom “[b]eing an enthusiast had  become her social position.”

Pierre disturbs the reception because he does not know how to speak there. He speaks both with enthusiasm and with the wrong opinions. His opinions are naive and offensive; per se they are not as ridiculous as the viscount’s story about Napoleon and Enghien. Prince Andrei has his own weakness for Napoleon, but knows how discuss him with detachment, making distinctions. Prince Andrei has the advantage of knowing how the conversations work, and the corresponding disadvantage, that they bore him.

Bondage and freedom:

Prince Vassily considers that his children are the fetters of existence; yet his only apparent concern with them is to see the sons solvent and the daughter married. Prince Andrei considers that in marriage, “like a prisoner in irons, you lose all freedom.” His bondage seems to consist in putting up with trivial conversation for some hours every week. He is not held back from joining an army then forming to march to Austria, and from all appearances he is generally the free partner in the marriage; his wife fears him, and is bound for Bald Hills and the intimidating company of his father, willy-nilly. On the other hand, Count Rostov, with apparently four children (living, of twelve his wife has borne) and a dependent niece, heavily in debt, does not seem to feel himself fettered. Incompetence in money matters helps him feel free. Pierre is freest of all, and it does him no good.

2 thoughts on “Volume I, Part I, Chapters I through VIII”

  1. I am on my third reading of the novel, the last in 2009; and I am finally picking up more signs of Pierre’s treatment by Tolstoy as “hero” material. His unstudied speech, his out-of-place feeling in salon society contribute to a sense I have now of his standing apart from the crowd.
    He begins to shine for me in the scene in which he is positioned opposite Boris as the two of them wait on the old, dying man for some audience. Pierre smiles his “kindly smile,” and fears he may fall into conversation “awkward to himself”(54 Pevear).
    Because you quote Dr. Johnson, I am in a comic mood– and I am pleased to find I can read the scenes for their gentle comedy now, rather than for the drama I expected on my earlier readings.

  2. There is a good deal of comedy around Pierre; in the scene you mention, he has been passing sentence on Pitt, after the successful invasion from Boulogne, and has probably done well not to be caught at it by Boris. Tolstoy’s best comedy seems to involve characters he likes (or at least we are meant to like), and who are trying to be what they are not. So the old Prince Bolkonsky, who wishes to impose rationality on a sloppy world, makes for comedy, and so does his daughter, who is incapable of being the extension of her father that he wishes her to be, and which–as to geometry though never religion–she tries to be. The Rostovs are not that comical (though the father is ludicrous), for their ambitions (unless to solvency) are more easily reached: to be a hussar, to be a charming young woman, to enjoy city and country life. His distaste for the Kuragins seems to impair their comic potential.

    But why is Prince Andrei not comical? He has the absurd ambition to be a Napoleonic figure. He has married a beautiful woman who charms everyone else, and cannot tolerate her. This is all good material for comedy, and he has the intelligence to be fair game, but does Tolstoy ever give us Prince Andrei in a comical light?

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