War and Peace Newbies Read-Along Volume II, Parts I and II: Superfluous Men
Et bien, mes readers-along, si vous n’avez rien de mieux à faire, go to the master post for the read-along schedule and more.
Wait, aren’t all men superfluous?
No, and I won’t tolerate that kind of misandry around here. ACTUALLY, the “Superfluous Man” is a literary trope common in Russian lit of the mid 19th century, and usually means a character who doesn’t quite fit into society, despite having the ways and means to do so. The name comes from Ivan Turgenev’s The Diary of a Superfluous Man, which was published a good 10+ years before War and Peace and is definitely on my TBR, but the trope goes back as far as Pushkin, who seems to have influenced every major Russian author who came after him.
The Superfluous Man seems to be related to the Byronic Hero, with a little less romance and a lot less crazy… not so much mad, bad, and dangerous to know as slightly annoyed, fairly bad, and extremely eye-roll-inducing… in fact, I’d say the Superfluous Man has more in common with the Charmless Man than Lord Byron.
Couldn’t this song just describe every boring aristocrat in Anna Pavlova’s salon?
Anyways, I’m new to this whole Superfluous Man thing (don’t ask what I Googled to get there), but supposedly Andrei is a prime example. In this section, he returns from the dead (almost) and back to civilian life, and immediately becomes a widower and a father. He can’t protect his wife, can’t care for a newborn, and couldn’t even die in a blaze of glory properly. He’s displaced, alienated, and feeling pretty superfluous.
Pierre is pretty superfluous too, as we see him dominated by the evil Hélène… he can’t even make up his mind about whether or not it’s all his fault. Months of feeling impotent and icky come to a head when Pierre finally “mans up” and challenges her lover Dolohkov to a duel. He even wins! But, as one might expect, he’s left feeling as ineffectual as ever and banishes Hélène… leaving her with the majority of his fortune.
Do we have to talk about Nikolai? He’s home too, and he kinda-sorta-not-really breaks up with Sonya, but leaves the door wide open in case he changes his mind. He tells Sonya “You’re an angel, I’m not worthy of you, only I’m afraid to deceive you” and I swear to god I’ve heard that line before. Sonya, take some advice from Samantha Jones:
Nikolai strikes up a very…unsettling friendship with (the recuperated) Dolohkov, and Dolohkov immediately moves in on Sonya. Sonya’s hopelessly in love with Nikolai and turns down his proposal. To get revenge, Dolokhov lets Nikolai gamble away a sizeable chunk of the family fortune – it’s not totally clear to me if Dolohkov cheats him, or Nikolai just really sucks at cards. Safe to say that Dolokhov is feeling fairly superfluous and needs to get the upper hand, which he does, and leaves Nikolai the most superfluous of them all, having to explain to Daddy what he did.
Confession time: I did not prepare to summarize Part II, so this is gonna be real quick:
- Pierre meets a Freemason and turns into woke Pierre. I mean, this is basically your annoying friend who’s just become vegan/started Crossfit/saw Wonder Woman and is suddenly a radical feminist. Annoying, but mostly harmless. And yes, this is a bit of a philosophical aside that takes us out of the story, but believe me, this section is NOTHING compared to the farming BS in Anna Karenina.
- Boris “becomes an intimiate of Countess Bezukhov’s house.”
- Andrei and Marya watch after the baby when he’s sick. Quite sweet, actually.
- Andrei and Pierre have a lover’s quarrel, but the bromance is still strong with these two.
- Nikolai and Denisov are back on the battle field not seeing action, and living in appaling conditions. War is hell, etc. He sneaks another peek at his crush Tsar Alexander.
Superfluousness aside, I was quite taken with the different depictions of masculinity in these sections. There are several occasions when men weep, often in public or in front of other men (most affecting for me, when Andrei’s father embraces him upon returning home to a dead wife and newborn son, and “bursts into sobs like a child.”) There are also several violent outbursts, a few sincere expressions of regret and guilt, lots of sexual jealousy and competition, and again, that true bromance between Andrei and Pierre. It was all so manly, I found myself reaching for Sonia Tolstoy’s diaries during the writing of this post, to even things out.
Tell me, who is the most superfluous of men in War and Peace? If you can’t tell, it’s Nikolai for me…
I don’t know – it’s a toss up between Andrei and Nikolai for me. I know Pierre flounders about all over the place and doesn’t know what he’s doing, but I somehow imagine he’ll eventually find his place. The others I’m not so sure of. Interesting angle!
It’s funny re-reading the book, maybe because I am so much older now, but I am having such a different reaction to the characters than I did before. I don’t understand my previous sympathy for Nikolai at all. Oddly, I barely remembered Dolohkov at all. They are all pretty superfluous really, over-privileged, with no real passion or occupation, yet instead of doing something or taking up an actual cause, they just whine about it. Sigh. No wonder there was a communist revolution, eh? Your analysis is, as always, hilarious and spot on.
Andrei is growing on me as the story progresses, I have mixed feelings about Pierre and I wouldn’t miss Nikolai at all if he disappeared. I’m loving the book as a whole but I can’t help being a little disappointed by the lack of attention to the women in the story.
I couldn’t believe how far Nikolai went with the gambling debt considering he didn’t have the funds. Andrei may have cried at the loss of his wife but I wasn’t convinced. I am very happy there are no men in my life like any of them.
Yay, I got a reference – I got the Blur reference, yes! 🙂
I’d never heard of The Superfluous Man concept but I am definitely onboard with it as a method to judge some of the dudes in War and Peace. In a weird way, I started to enjoy Andrey’s character more once he was back home and “superfluous”, I thought it was an interesting way to take his character and I’m actually enjoying some of the things he’s doing now. It seems to me that Tolstoy is now directly contrasting him to Pierre, who tries to do the things he feels he should do (free serfs etc.) but actually isn’t very good at it and it seems to be making things worse off. (I think I’ve read that right but at this point I was reading quickly so it’s possible I’ve misread.)
I’m not quite understanding the point of Nikolai now. He mostly seems to be hanging around to string Sonya along, lose the Rostovs’ money, get in the way, and moon after the Tsar. Sure, he’s serving some sort of purpose… but I’m not entirely sure what that purpose is at this point.
Whoo hoo! Going forward, shall I make sure all references are to Brit Pop? 🙂
That’s exactly how I read the whole freeing the serfs thing. I didn’t mention it here, even though it was entertaining. Pierre is trying SO HARD to be woke and he just can’t do it right.
Nikolai’s whole storyline (I’m spoiled, so I know how he ends up) is perplexing to me! I’ll admit I’m a sucker for his scenes with Sonia (in the adaptation) even though he SUCKS they are super cute together.
Certainly Nikolai fits perfectly in this superfluous man concept, and right now I find him a very interesting character (I almost made of this a reply in Emma’s post, but it got just so long… Right now I’m unsure if these long replies are impolite or don’t follow any etiquette I should observe in a read-along, it’s my first as I said. Please let me know the rules if there are any!).
Let’s see. Pierre. The moment my wife and I started watching the series, I said to her “keep an eye on this guy, he is everywhere in Russian literature”. And there he is, the clumsy hero who can’t get things done right. Even freeing the serfs, as you both said, though he claims it’s just so easy to do good to people. You expect him to do dumb stuff. Like give his fortune to Hélène.
Andrei is the “hero hero”. He does what a hero would do, he seeks true glory, makes plans, takes initiatives, fights no unnecessary fights, takes no offenses from those bellow his rank. Someone asked in a previous post “does Andrei want to die?”. I think he didn’t really want to, but certainly he understood heroes die eventually, and that wouldn’t make him stop.
Unfortunately, he didn’t die, and now he falls as a hero would fall. Even now, when he reconsiders things, when he thinks war is useless madness and one can’t do good to strangers, he is keeping his father safe from trouble. Of course, he argues with Pierre that that is something he is selfishly doing for his own sake, but he fails to see that his conduct makes him miserable, whereas Pierre’s conduct towards others makes Pierre happy. In short, Andrei acts now as a hero for a single person, his father. He can’t help playing the hero, he wants to keep feeling the burden of being one.
Tolstoy openly makes a contrast between Andrei’s point of view and his father’s, and both of them have dramatically changed. Also, I agree with Emma when she says Tolstoy is making a contrast with Andrei and Pierre. Not only Tolstoy states three different opinions for each character, but he makes these opinions evolve and even change sides, and I can’t just grasp what Tolstoy himself thought, what side he took. He makes all opinions sound so legit!
Now, Nikolai. I think this character is curiously a bit more complex and has experienced the vaster number of scenarios. In advance, I’ll say I’ll make a lot of assumptions of Tolstoy’s point of view.
To this point of the book, Nikolai was not a bad member of the Rostov family. He is a loved son and nice to his brother and sister (Andrei is blander towards Marya, for example, and, even though they love each other very much, I tend to consider their relation as vertical, with Andrei as a superior). Now Nikolai loses all that money, he tries to minimize the problem but ends up saying he is sorry. As expected, his father agrees that any boy could have done that. In the end, he makes up his mind to pay that money back to his father, though no one expects that from him.
Regarding Sonya, that line you mentioned is certainly the oldest around. So, though I think Nikolai’s experience in wartime (being away so long from society) explains his change of feelings, he could have been more thoughtful of Sonya. (Natasha, in her turn, grows up, and her feelings change too). This is certainly a con for Nikolai.
As a soldier, I personally like Nikolai very much. I understand when you say he idolizes Alexander (btw, thank you for being so thoughtful with non-Canadians and caring about explaining McJesus!), but I think he contrasts beautifully with Andrei. Whereas Andrei fights the war with the mind, Nikolai fights it with the heart. I was actually very touched when, after crossing an entire battlefront and almost getting himself killed, he decides (after realizing his message was already useless) simply not to “bother” the tsar. I don’t think (assumption!) Tolstoy wrote that part as a warning for the readers then (“take care not to idolize anyone!” or “beware of the idea of nations, heroes and McJesuses!”). I think he meant to write something beautiful, something we have reconsidered and don’t relate to it the same way he did then (an evolution that hasn’t taken place with the Sonya-Samantha Jones situation).
It is also interesting to notice Nikolai has evolved to this point. Remember your earlier description of him: “scared, confused, ready to run away at a moment’s notice, and just wants to go home”.
Still as a soldier, Nikolai deals with soldiers of various ranks, above and bellow his (btw I think Boris has moved up and Denisov has moved down in this regard). He certainly doesn’t belong to the lowest ranks, but has had to give up accusing someone not to bring trouble upon the whole group. He has a warm friendship with Denisov and tries to intercede in his behalf. He gets in touch with terrible aspects of war (i.e. the hospital) and with the most sophisticated/bureaucratic ones (when he takes a petition to the tsar).
What I want to point out in the end is that Nikolai is a very ordinary man, but a man who has been to every scenario. A loved son who makes mistakes, a young man who wants to live his life, selfish enough to keep his girlfriend hanging, but selfless when it comes to his duties and Denisov. Is it a con he idolizes the tsar? It is certainly a pro he is not following Boris steps. He has gone quite around in society and in war. All characters have pros and cons, and I try to deal with Nikolai’s. Tolstoy won’t talk philosophy through his mouth, but I pay close attention when he chooses Nikolai’s ordinary eyes to show us the tragedies of the war.
I’m a little jealous of the fun you all are having here. I’ve not read War and Peace, but I just wanted to put in a positive plug for all the “farmng BS” in AK. I really liked that part. I also liked the part about Waterloo in Les Miserables, so it could just be me. 😉
Well, I caved and bought a copy of Anna Karenina now so that I can go back and reread stuff like the “farming BS.” It wasn’t the most fun thing to read, but it didn’t strike me as BS. I do have to go back to that part, though, to figure out what exactly Tolstoy’s point is. Now I have to go think about about Vronsky as a Superfluous Man. I guess he’s not totally inept, but if you are a career soldier and you miss when you shoot yourself in the heart, that’s pretty inept. (I will watch the 2012 move once I’m done reading, though I sure hope Wright/Knightley didn’t mess with AK the way they messed with P&P!)