Lev Tolstoy – War and Peace; volume II

Quite a long section; this one was mostly concerned with Peace, specifically the lifestyle of the aristocrats in the novel.

“Well, here you want to emancipate the peasants,” [Andrei] went on.  “That’s very good; but not for you (I suppose you’ve never whipped anyone to death or sent them to Siberia), and still less for the peasants.  If they’re beaten, whipped, and sent to Siberia, I don’t think that makes it any worse for them.  In Siberia he’ll go on with his brutish life, and the welts on his body will heal, and he’ll be as happy as he was before.  But it’s needed for those people who are morally ruined, live to repent it, suppress this repentance, and turn coarse, because they have the possibility of punishing justly and unjustly.  Those are the ones I pity and for whose sake I would wish for the emancipation of the peasants.  Maybe you haven’t seen it, but I’ve seen good people brought up in this tradition of unlimited power, as they can’t become more irritated over the years, become cruel, coarse, know it, can’t help themselves, and become more and more unhappy.    (386-367)

This monologue is spoken by Prince Andrei to Count Pierre as the former’s condescending criticism of the latter’s charitable actions towards the many peasants on his estates.  Pierre has undergone the changes due to his recent admittance into the Freemasons and the value they place on serving mankind.  Though he eventually sours towards his fellow Masons’ inaction and hypocrisy, at this point he is devout in his idealism, and Andrei is cynically critical.  Andrei’s speech is somewhat misleading at first, with his declaration that the emancipation would be good, but “not for [Pierre].”  This may come across as fairly obvious: Pierre isn’t helping his peasants to help himself—unless you want to give credit to a (basically) selfish desire to be selfless—he’s helping them to help them.  But Andrei downplays the importance of the end result of helping someone in order to make their lives better; Andrei only sees the value in redeeming the upper classes from the abuses of the lower classes to which they’ve become used.

With the statements about how an abused and banished servant’s life would eventually even out—that blood would eventually find its level—Andrei reveals that he, at least in part, views peasants for their monetary and productive worth.  One has to wonder what exactly “and he’ll be as happy as he was before” means—how happy was this hypothetical peasant being abused in Moscow that it’s basically the same in Siberia?  And, of course, what of the other hypothetical peasant who’s whipped to death?  Andrei’s message, that the end good of freeing the serfs would be to morally redeem the gentry, comes across as at least a little hollow when one considers how coldly he treats the peasants in his examples.

Ultimately, Andei is trying to substitute moral decisions on the part of his social equals with litigation.  Just as a temperance activist attempts to proselytize about the benefit of not drinking, and a gun-control advocate proselytizes about the ideal society free from guns, Andrei waxes moral about the ideal society free from class abuse.  It’s a bit easier to argue that the world is better off without the abuse of peasants than it is to argue for prohibition and pacifism, but each depends on the law forcing individuals to take the moral high road, and so each is doomed to, if not necessarily fail, at least be a very bumpy trip up the road.

Andrei’s reference to those “brought up in this tradition of unlimited power, [who] as they become more irritated over the years, become cruel, coarse, know it, can’t help themselves, and become more and more unhappy” describes a process of getting used to the treatment, not a sudden change.  According to him, a person becomes accustomed and grows entitled, slowly getting worse and worse with their treatment.  The reference to self-loathing is interesting when one considers Andrei’s father, who seems to notice the absurdity of his own behavior occasionally, yet doesn’t seem capable of altering it.

It’s also interesting when one reads another passage concerning Andrei’s eventual fiancée, Natasha Rostov:

The butler Foka was the most ill-tempered man in the whole house.  Natasha liked to test her power over him.  He did believe her and went to ask if it was true [that the family had requested the samovar at the wrong time].

“This young lady, really!” said Foka, pretending to frown at Natasha.

No one in the house ordered so many people around or gave them so much work as Natasha.  She could look at people indifferently, without sending them somewhere.  It seemed as if she were testing whether any of them would get angry or upset with here, but people liked carrying out Natasha’s orders as they did no one else’s.

Having gone around her kingdom, as it were, tested her power, and convinced herself that everyone was submissive, but that it was still boring, Natasha went to the reception room, took her guitar, sat in a dark corner behind a little cupboard, and began to pluck at the bass strings, picking out a phrase she remembered from an opera she had heard in Petersburg with Prince Andrei.  For an uninitiated listener, what came of her playing would have been something that had no meaning, but in her imagination a whole series of memories arose from those little sounds.  She sat behind the little cupboard, her eyes fixed on a strip of light coming from the pantry door, listened to herself, and remembered.  She was in a state of remembrance.    (518)

Natasha just barely falls into the category Andrei referred to in the first passage—her father’s money troubles are a constant presence throughout the second half of this volume—but in this passage, it is made fairly certain that she is already headed down the road of someone that Andrei wishes (or wished) to redeem.

Of course, Andrei is a very inconsistent character, undergoing the most changes of heart of any character in this volume, so there’s no guarantee that he has not changed his mind completely about the process of developing entitlement.  A quick run-through is prudent:

  1. Andrei is thought dead after the battle of Austerlitz, and when he returns home, his wife dies in childbirth, surviving just long enough to make him feel guilty for getting her pregnant and forcing her to undergo the labor.
  2. He comes away withdrawn from his family, including his son, hiding away in an estate his father leaves to him in his will prematurely.
  3. A conversation with Pierre leads to a vague “epoch,” after which he begins building on his estate and writing about military matters for the betterment of his country.
  4. A run-in with Natasha and the image of a dead oak tree coming back to life with the spring inspires him to do more, sending him to Petersburg to actively join society to improve it from within.  There he meets a close adviser of Alexander I, Mikhail Mikhailovich Speransky, who he admires.
  5. He begins to see through Speransky and becomes disgusted with society.  Again visiting the Rostovs, he is once again enchanted with Natasha and resolves to travel and find the best way to educate his son, asking to marry Natasha before he leaves.
  6. Is absent from the prose save for letters and a constant influence from abroad for the better part of two Parts of volume II, during which time his fiancée nearly elopes with Anatole Kuragin.
  7. He returns, embittered by Natasha’s ill faith, withdrawn from his friend Pierre, and behaving similarly to his father.

All this is between 1806 and New Year’s 1810-11, and the first passage cited takes place in 1807, so it stands to reason that his feelings about the treatment of peasants and servants may have changed.

Nevertheless, it is intriguing that Natasha, whom at the time he planned to marry, would go out of her way to treat the serving staff so poorly.  True, it is a far cry from whipping them to death or sending them to Siberia, but it most definitely shows the beginning of the process to which Andrei alludes in his conversation with Pierre.  What one day is ordering a samovar taken out at the wrong time to demonstrate her superiority could the next be her ordering the driveway recovered with snow—as the old Prince Bolkonsky is seen doing early in the novel.  And though the staff is happy to serve her now, they may not as her demands become less and less friendly.

The last part of this passage is also interesting for the image of Andrei’s influence over Natasha’s life.  She plucks a vague tune meaningless to the “uninitiated listener” that rolls memories in her head, stimulating her imagination and sending her into “a state of remembrance.”  At the same time, however, she focuses externally on the here and now, fixing her gaze “on a strip of light coming from the pantry door,” keeping watch for any of the real people near her that might disturb her flight into fancy.


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