From Method to Meaning in War and Peace
Publication Year: 1998
Published by: Northwestern University Press
This book wasn't intended; it just happened--on and off, off and on, over nearly two decades. I was living on a sheep farm in the foothills of Mount Equinox in Manchester, Vermont, with my then-wife, Ann, and our seven children: haying in the summer, cidering in the fall, skiing all winter, making maple syrup in early spring, writing book reviews for the New York Times...
HOW DID TOLSTOY do it? How did he so believably narrow the gap between fiction and life? There is hardly a critic (pro or con) since War and Peace was first published who has not, one way or another, paid homage to his "verisimilitude," to the "unique illusion of reality" he created,2 the "celebrated life-likeness of every object and every person in his world," to the point whcre they seem to "inhabit...
Part I. What Happens the Most
1. Balancing Immediacy with Overview
SINCE LIFELIKENESS (like-life-ness) is first cousin to universality--not like your perception of life, or mine or theirs, but everyone's--perhaps the place to begin probing for its sources is with Tolstoy's mixture of what Boris Eikhenbaum called "minuteness and generalization," his ways of universalizing the particular without sacrificing particularity.1...
2. Tolstoy's Perpetual Present
IN SUCH ENDING-ORIENTED NOVELS as Pride and Prejudice and Madame Bovary, time is predominantly psychological. Chronological time may still exist in the outside world where everyone grows older at a uniform rate, but the tragic or comic hero is on a roller coaster and the only time that counts is the time that is running out. Her or his destiny determines the rate at which time passes because all scenes postulate...
3. A String for His Pearls
AS WE HAVE SEEN, Tolstoy's universalizing techniques dramatize what happens the most, and do so in ways designed to stimulate the reader's associations. But we still don't know by what organizing conception he guides the course of his narrative and the direction of his protagonists' development: the internal circuitry connecting one episode to another...
Part II. The Fusion of Opposites
4. Natasha: Tears in Laughter
OF HIS FIVE protagonists, perhaps the one most central to Tolstoy's meaning and method is Natasha. She enters the novel on her thirteenth name day (or Russian birthday). We hear a chair falling over, the sound of footsteps running, and in she darts to the middle of the drawing room where her parents are making conversation with their tiresome callers....
5. Pierre: Pursuing Perfection
TOLSTOY CONFRONTS his five protagonists with challenges designed to expose their false assumptions about free will, about superimposing their own design on God's world, though the kind of confrontation differs depending on which protagonist is involved. Pierre's hubris is in assuming that the problem of evil can be solved. Natasha's, at least when we first meet her, is her assumption that no such problem exists: that at any...
6. Nicholas: Hamletizing Horatio
AS WE HAVE SEEN, Tolstoy's theme throughout Natasha's and Pierre's development has been the indivisibility of opposites: for Natasha, of joy and sorrow; for Pierre, good and evil. Nicholas Rostov lacks Pierre's philosophical inclinations--abstract questions about the meaning of lfe or God's goals for mankind do not keep him awake at night. Indeed God never enters his mind, for he puts his faith in man--not in some heavenly...
7. Princess Mary: Metamorphosis
PRINCESS MARY'S ROUTE from dedicated submissiveness to quiet self-assertion is in many ways the reverse of Nicholas's development, As the novel opens, she puts her faith in God and assumes that she is free, indeed obliged, to be totally passive, self-sacrificing, believing that "sorrow is sent by Him," and only executed by man; that her role is to...
8. Prince Andrew: Nurse and Father
IN WHAT MAY BE the earliest version of Tolstoy's opening scene, there is (as R. F. Christian has pointed out) no Prince Andrew. His father, then under the name of Prince Volkonsky, is there. So is his sister. But Tolstoy's manuscript deletions indicate his hesitation: "At first," Christian tells us, "Volkonsky is described as having only a daughter. Then 'one daughter...
9. The Structure of Protagonist Development
BECAUSE THEY NEVER consciously formulate the phoenix pattern, Tolstoy's four surviving protagonists remain spontaneous; and because they remain spontaneous they are able, through countless confrontations and reversals, to become unconsciously aware of the integrative design that they never formulate. But with our overview and cumulative exposure...
Part III. The Protagonists' World
10. Encompassing Humanity
IF WAR AND PEACE has a climax, it is the two engagement scenes that lead to the two Rostov marriages--not for what they resolve so much as for what they reveal about the novel's organizing conception. But climactic or not, this tale is not about courtship and marriage. Tolstoy chooses episodes, scenes, incidents, interactions, even fleeting gestures that will allow...
11. Tolstoyan Wisdom
WHILE THE CRITICS have disagreed about many things to do with War and Peace, all agree that it is a cautionary tale telling us how best--and how best not--to use the will. In John Bayley's words, the novel is a "giant pattern" of intricately plotted rewards and punishments here on earth, "as authoritative as Dante's in the world to come."l Until now we...