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…