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War and Peace Revisited

March 26, 2013

So, when I was a junior in high school, I read War and Peace.  At the time it took me less than a month to conquer this 1,400-page, giant beast of Russian literature.   And, although, I have always been a re-reader (most of my favourite books I have somewhere between five and fifteen times)  somehow I never got around to rereading War and Peace.  It. Was. Just. Too. Long.

But this December I decided it was time: War and Peace needed to happen.  Now, as I mentioned, before (in my high school hey day of novel reading) I burned through this bad boy in a few weeks.  This time however it has taken longer.   Actually, I haven’t war-peacefinished it yet—although I am close, oh so close.  This is not because I am a lot slower of reader than I was then—although it is true that I have a good chunk less free time—but instead it is more that I have self-consciously been taking it slow.  Indeed, several times I have stopped to read other books along the way, so to say giving myself a little spring break from the cold Russian winter.

Yet although it has taken me a bit of time, I have found revisiting War and Peace a remarkable endeavour.  It is always interesting to go back to something that you read at an earlier point in your life, and see how your experience with it changes.  So, I have decided to share a piece of this experience with you.

Okay.  This is probably the funnest thing.  So, when I read War and Peace in high school, one of my strongest memories of the plot was about how Natasha falls in love with this ‘really old guy’.  Now, rereading it, I have had to laugh when I realized that is this ‘really old guy’, aka Prince Andrei, is really in his early 30’s.   To my high school mind he was so old as to be practically dead, now he sounds like an eligible bachelor to me: Hey, are there any Prince Andreis around?

Secondly, there are a lot of themes in War and Peace (just like there is a lot of everything else: characters, plots, sub-plots…), but one of the themes that struck me most in high school is still perhaps the most thought provoking for me now.  Okay, get ready for some plot summary. In the novel, the same girl Natasha loves this man Andrei (remember the really, really, old 32 year old?).  She loves him and they want to get married but Andrei is worried about her being so much younger than him so he suggests that they have a year long engagement before they actually get married and he goes abroad.  Natasha reluctantly agrees to this arrangement, and misses Andrei like crazy, but then, a month before Andrei is about to return, Natasha meets this other guy:  Anatole.  Now, Anatole is a player and he flirts with Natasha but doesn’t really have any intentions towards her.  Natasha though is seduced, she falls hard for Anatole even though she doesn’t know him that well–   but he is just so sexy!  So, in a rash decision she calls off the engagement with Andrei and tries to run away with Anatole.  Her family finds out and stops her from leaving with him, and expose the truth that Anataole is actually already married, but Natasha’s engagement is already ruined.

Of all the plots of War and Peace, this was the one that stuck with me the most after high school.  It carried with it a major lesson: the choices you make have consequences.  After Natasha realizes what she did, she wants to get back together with Andrei but he is so hurt and betrayed he says no.  Later he dies in the war.  I feel like when we are growing up we are feed things like ‘everything will be okay’, or ‘just apologize and it will make everything alright.’  But War and Peace taught me that was bullshit.  The things we do, the choices we make, they have consequences and sometimes those consequences are irrevocable.

There is another character, Pierre, who deeply and ardently loved Natasha, but she never really loved him like she loved Andrei.  But in the end, they get married.  They have children and things are okay, but there is the sense that this is the second-rate ending—not quite the happily ever after we all wish for—more like, the well-life-goes-on ending.  Now I don’t know what this taught me.  I guess, in a way, it taught me about settling.  Now, I am not saying all my single friends out there need to settle and marry some guy they don’t really dig—I sure hope that never happens, for them or me.  Really, though, I think it is more of a lesson about life.  Life isn’t always perfect.  Life isn’t always what it could have been.  And somehow,  you just have to live and make the most out of it.

Maybe Natasha should have refused Pierre and gone looking for another Prince Andrei, for another deep love, but in not refusing him she fulfilled his happiness and his love for her.   And, set against the backdrop of own our self-oriented, self-seeking culture, I do think there is something to be said for that.  So, I don’t know.  But the world War and Peace presents is complicated and messy.  It is a world without easy choices.  It is very like our own world.

These were some of the questions that absorbed me when I read it in high school, and now when I read it again they still have a hold on me.   I don’t think I have any more answers now than I did then: if anything I have less.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 27, 2013 10:44 am

    I’m still meandering my way through Anna Karenina, so War and Peace sounds like a challenge I won’t be undertaking any time soon. Sigh.

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