Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Interesting how the social fights the natural: early scene in “War and Peace”

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This occurs early in Book I, at Anna Pavlovna’s soirée. (I am rereading the earlier parts in the light of what I’ve learned about the characters and because I keep noticing new things, like how Anna Pavlovna is determined that the natural be banished in favor of social convention.)

The vicomte told his tale very neatly. It was an anecdote, then current, to the effect that the Duc d’Enghien had gone secretly to Paris to visit Mademoiselle George; that at her house he came upon Bonaparte, who also enjoyed the famous actress’ favors, and that in his presence Napoleon happened to fall into one of the fainting fits to which he was subject, and was thus at the duc’s mercy. The latter spared him, and this magnanimity Bonaparte subsequently repaid by death.

The story was very pretty and interesting, especially at the point where the rivals suddenly recognized one another; and the ladies looked agitated.

“Charming!” said Anna Pavlovna with an inquiring glance at the little princess.

“Charming!” whispered the little princess, sticking the needle into her work as if to testify that the interest and fascination of the story prevented her from going on with it.

The vicomte appreciated this silent praise and smiling gratefully prepared to continue, but just then Anna Pavlovna, who had kept a watchful eye on the young man who so alarmed her, noticed that he was talking too loudly and vehemently with the abbe, so she hurried to the rescue. Pierre had managed to start a conversation with the abbe about the balance of power, and the latter, evidently interested by the young man’s simple-minded eagerness, was explaining his pet theory. Both were talking and listening too eagerly and too naturally, which was why Anna Pavlovna disapproved.

“The means are… the balance of power in Europe and the rights of the people,” the abbe was saying. “It is only necessary for one powerful nation like Russia — barbaric as she is said to be — to place herself disinterestedly at the head of an alliance having for its object the maintenance of the balance of power of Europe, and it would save the world!”

“But how are you to get that balance?” Pierre was beginning.

At that moment Anna Pavlovna came up and, looking severely at Pierre, asked the Italian how he stood Russian climate. The Italian’s face instantly changed and assumed an offensively affected, sugary expression, evidently habitual to him when conversing with women.

“I am so enchanted by the brilliancy of the wit and culture of the society, more especially of the feminine society, in which I have had the honor of being received, that I have not yet had time to think of the climate,” said he.

Not letting the abbe and Pierre escape, Anna Pavlovna, the more conveniently to keep them under observation, brought them into the larger circle.

Tolstoy writes explicitly of Anna Pavlovna’s role at conducting and controlling the soirée. And I love how the little princess communicated how much the vicomte’s anecdote impressed her: not just repeating the verbal compliment, but complementing it with a gesture.

But the point is how quickly Anna Pavlovna moves to stifle any outbreak of natural feeling and interest, undirected by social conventions.

Update: I mentioned that for this readthrough I’m keeping a Word document with character names and brief descriptions. For Anna Pavlovna I noted:

To Anna, observing correct form is everything, thus her approval of the men greeting her aunt not showing their boredom or impatience. She recognized their feelings, and her approval is for their having the social manners to hide those feelings and perform social rituals well. Anna Pavlovna dislikes Pierre immediately because Pierre lacks a social mask. “The young man had not yet entered either the military or civil service, as he had only just returned from abroad where he had been educated, and this was his first appearance in society. Anna Pavlovna greeted him with the nod she accorded to the lowest hierarchy in her drawing room. But in spite of this lowest-grade greeting, a look of anxiety and fear, as at the sight of something too large and unsuited to the place, came over her face when she saw Pierre enter. Though he was certainly rather bigger than the other men in the room, her anxiety could only have reference to the clever though shy, but observant and natural, expression which distinguished him from everyone else in that drawing room.” Thus Anna Pavlovna’s great distaste when Pierre doesn’t talk when he should (to Anna’s aged aunt) and insists on talking when extended conversation is inappropriate (when he attempts to give her a detailed critique of the Abbe’s plan for peace. Naturally, Anna hides her dismay. Tolstoy writes: ““We will talk of it later,” said Anna Pavolovna with a smile.” I’m sure that, however forced that smile may have been, to all appearances it was cheerful and friendly.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 May 2017 at 1:55 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life

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