Pierre’s Duel with Dolokhov

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It is one of the most memorable scenes in War and Peace: the duel between Pierre and Dolokhov. Tolstoy builds up the tension steadily. The scene is told from Pierre’s perspective, so that the reader really feels Pierre’s hurt feelings and damaged pride from a front row position.

Hélène

Pierre had married Hélène against his better knowledge. He knew that there was something strange about her, he had heard something about her improper relationship with her brother Anatole, but still he married her. It doesn’t take long for Hélène to show her true nature, but for now Pierre ignores his problems.

Rumours

Even when there are rumours going around that Hélène has an affair with Dolokhov, his friend whom he has offered a place to stay, has lent money and knows only too well, he does not want to believe them. Bottled up feelings, however, have the nasty habit of bursting out at the most inopportune moments.

The dinner

The old count Rostov gives a grand dinner, in true Moscow style, meaning that no expense or trouble is spared, in honour of general Bagration. Both Pierre and Dolokhov are present and they sit opposite each other. Because of the rumours about his wife, Pierre is in a bad mood and eats and drinks too much. At his wife’s command he is not wearing his spectacles (does she command him to see nothing?), but he is constantly rubbing the bridge of his nose (does he miss his spectacles and wishes to see better?). Pierre is becoming more and more convinced that the rumours must be true. Dolokhov’s insolence, sitting there across the table, merrily, is starting to annoy him more and more. He knows him better than anyone and he knowns that sadistic side of him, and he sees it in Dolokhov’s eyes right now. 

Pierre has finally had enough

He feels something terrible and monstrous rising in his soul. Dolokhov must be hoping for some kind of escalation, because he makes a toast “to the health of all lovely women, Peterkin—and their lovers!”. The terrible and monstrous feeling now takes complete possession of Pierre.  He rises, and as we know, he is big, and shouts at Dolokhov. All except Dolokhov are scared. Pierre challenges him.

The duel

The next morning they meet in a forest clearing and it turns out that Pierre has never even held a pistol. Dolokhov is an experience duelist and officer. All five people present know that this is murder. Neither Pierre nor Dolokhov apologises and the duel takes place. Pierre is willing to die and Dolokhov is willing to kill. Pierre is holding his left hand behind his back, because he knows it is not done to hold the pistol with both hands. He shoots first and is very surprised when he discovers he has hit Dolokhov in the chest, and he starts to sob. Dolokhov falls down into the snow, bites into the snow and raises his pistol. He refuses to give up. The seconds shout at Pierre to cover himself with his gun, but Pierre just stands with his feet apart, broadly. Everyone closes their eyes, Dolokhov shoots and… misses. Pierre lives!

When he comes home, Hélène makes a terrible scene and Pierre gets so angry with her, that he nearly kills her. 

Philosophy

The duel can be seen as a small scale version of the Napoleonic wars: Tolstoy even uses the same words here: “(…) the affair (…) was taking its course independently of men’s will”. Precisely the big idea behind the novel, history takes its’ course, in spite of our individual efforts to influence it.

The consequences 

The bear in Pierre has woken up. He is no longer the nearsighted and fat rich man that everybody takes advantage of and who is ordered around by his wife and used by his friend. He surprises even himself. He takes control of his life and tries to find himself. It will be a long journey, with plenty of hardship, but he’ll get there. 

Hélène has one lover after another and dies of the consequences of an abortion. Here too is an analogy with a bigger dispute, the Trojan wars in this case. This Helen may not have caused a thousand ships to launch, but she too was the cause of quarrel and bloodshed.

And Dolokhov? He survives and has learnt nothing. If anything he is even more bitter and cruel than before. He continues on his path of death and destruction. Except when he’s with his angel mother of course!

Tolstoy – War and Peace, part 4, chapters 3,4,5,6.

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2019

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Should Sonya have married Dolokhov?

In Tolstoy’s famous novel War and Peace bad guy Dolokhov proposes to good girl Sonya. She refuses him, but one of the readers of this blog wondered if she should have married him after all. So let’s try to analyse this romantic affair.

Sonya

Sonya is a poor orphan cousin living with Rostovs. Tolstoy describes her as a promising kitten at the beginning of the novel. She’s very pretty, loyal, sweet and has a strong sense of justice. She’s her cousin Natasha’s best friend and this little kitten is very much in love with her cousin Nicholas.

Dolokhov

Dolokhov is a good looking officer, notorious gambler and duelist. He has no connections or money. Most people consider him a cruel and cold hearted person. In fact the only person who thinks he has a heart of gold is his mother. Dolokhov is an enigmatic character. He seems disappointed in the world and feels a strong need to revenge himself.

Sacrifice

Dolokhov tells Nicholas that he will sacrifice anything for the people he loves, but we don’t see any proof of that; au contraire, he claims to be Nicholas’ friend but not much later tries to steal his girl, and when she rejects him, he punishes Nicholas by cheating him out of 43000 (precisely 43000, because 43 is the combined age of him and Sonya) roubles in a game of cards.

Sonya really does make sacrifices: she risks her friendship with Natasha in order to prevent Natasha from eloping with Anatole. Later she writes Nicholas to forget his promise to marry her, so that he is free to marry Mary.

Does Dolokhov love Sonya?

So why does Dolokhov propose to Sonya? I’m mostly inclined to say out of jealousy. In his mind people like Pierre and Nicholas get all the good things in life because of their name, connections and money, and for the same reasons they get away with anything. Perhaps he has heard or sensed that Sonya loves Nicholas and he wants to take her from Nicholas, who, after all, already has so much good luck*.

When he is recovering from the injuries he suffered in his duel with Pierre he confides in Nicholas, telling him that he is looking for “divine purity and devotion” in women; he needs a woman who will “regenerate, purify and elevate” him. It is technically possible that he saw those qualities in Sonya, and that that’s why he proposed to her.

The refusal

Either way, Sonya was right to refuse Dolokhov. His mother may have been blind to his faults, but our Sonya is a smart girl, guided by a strong sense of right and wrong. She inadvertently uses Nicholas as an excuse, probably thinking optimistically that Dolokhov will at least be happy for his friend. Her euphoric state immediately after the refusal speaks volumes; she made the right choice.

In 19th century terms Dolokhov would have been a good match for Sonya; the old countess, who disapproves anyway of a marriage between Nicholas and Sonya, clearly thinks that Sonya should have accepted him. But Sonya is to remain single and together with the old countess she’s going to live with Nicholas and Mary. Like a cat, Tolstoy writes, she had attached herself not to the people but to the home.

And as for Dolokhov’s need to be purified, regenerated and elevated? Well, he shouldn’t rely on a woman to better his life, let alone a sweet seventeen year old girl. He shows his true colours and punishes Nicholas severely for his cousin’s love: first by making him lose a fortune and then by not preventing the death of his little brother Petya. Tolstoy doesn’t tell us if he ever found the wife of his dreams.


*In the beginning of War and Peace, Dolokhov, Pierre and Anatole tie a bear to a policeman and throw them in the river. For this ‘prank’ Dolokhov gets reduced in rank to soldier. Anatole, who is rich and well connected, remains an officer. Pierre is a civilian, but doesn’t get any punishment because of his dying (and extremely wealthy) father. Nicholas, similarly, seems to have everything going for him, he’s a count, wealthy, makes a dashing career in the army, everyone likes him, and he comes from a warm and loving family. He too is protected by his family name: For being Dolokhov’s second in the duel, he ought to have gotten punished. Instead he gets a promotion.

Have you read War and Peace? And if so, what are your feelings about Sonya and Dolokhov? Should Sonya have married Nicholas?



© Elisabeth van der Meer / illustration from War and Peace


See also:

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2016/03/15/fyodor-dolokhov-the-bad-guy-from-war-and-peace/

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2016/01/24/love-in-war-and-peace-1/

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2016/02/07/love-in-war-and-peace-2/

Three wise lessons from War and Peace

Seize the moments of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly.

“Лови минуты счастия, заставляй себя любить, влюбляйся сам! Только это одно есть настоящее на свете — остальное всё вздор.”

Above all War and Peace is a celebration of life. Tolstoy wrote it in the realistic era, and as such life is depicted in all it’s aspects: happiness and sadness, love and hate. The book makes you cry and it makes you laugh. And that is price wisely the effect that Tolstoy wished to have upon his readers.

Mikhail Shishkin's Letterbook (not yet translated into English) made me cry so much when I read it a couple of years ago, that I wondered why I liked it at all. I came to the conclusion that when we experience emotions with the characters in the book that we read, it has a cathartic effect on us. While reading we relive past sorrows, and brace ourselves for horrible things yet to come. It helps us to realise that no matter how bleak things may seem, there will be good times again. Because that’s what life is all about!

 

Drain the blood from men’s veins and put in water instead, then there will be no more war!

As the title* suggests, without war there is no peace. Life is full of contradictions, and that is what gives it it’s flavour. War does not only bring out the worst in people, it can also bring out the best in people. This is beautifully illustrated by Natásha. When the Rostòv family has to flee Moscow because Napoleon is approaching fast, she forgets about her own problems and convinces her parents to not only let wounded soldiers stay in their abandoned house, but also to leave material things behind in order to make room for some seriously injured soldiers and take them with them to the countryside. ”The eggs… the eggs are teaching the hen… muttered the count through tears of joy (…)”.

All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love.

True love conquers all. Our first love is rarely our true love. Most of us need to make a few mistakes first, so that we can really appreciate the one we end up with. This was particularly true for Pierre and Natásha. Pierre married the cold but beautiful Hélène, under social pressure. Natásha was first in love with Boris, then with Andrey, then (big mistake!) with Anatole, before realising that she had always loved Pierre.

 

While there is life there is happiness

We all make mistakes and we all struggle with certain life questions, but the trick is to accept that there isn't always an answer and to move on. Nicholas loses a lot of money to Dòlokhov, and for a briefmoment contemplates suicide. Hearing his sister singing when he returns home, reminds him that there are still things that can make you happy and he faces the music, tells his father and moves on. He never gambles again.

Natásha lets herself be seduced by Anatole, she is mortified, doesn't want to see anyone and is certain her life is over. But at the end of the novel there is no happier wife and mother than Natásha.

Pierre looks for answers with the free mascons, but he finally finds them when he is emprisoned by the French and left without his powers as a wealthy man. After he has been liberated, he returns home a new man.

Enjoy War and Peace and above all enjoy life!

 

 

*In Russian the word for peace ’mir’ also means world, giving the title a double meaning.

**Alle quotes are from War and Peace

Photo by moi

 

Fyodor Dolokhov – the Bad Guy from War and Peace

Tolstoy loosely based the character of Fyodor Dòlokhov in War and Peace on his cousin, Fyodor “the American” Tolstoy, who was in his time notorious throughout Russia. A careless and hot-headed guy, who fought duel after duel, had a serious gambling addiction and cheated with cards as if his life depended on it. I wrote about him in my blog ( http://wp.me/p5zzbs-2n ) once.

The Tough Guy

Dòlokhov we get to know as a rather tough guy, who lives with the rich Anatole Kurágin. Dòlokhov himself has no money or connections and appears to take advantage of Anatole. Tolstoy, however, leads the reader to believe that without Dòlokhov, Anatole would be boring and uninteresting, and that as such, Dòlokhov is the one being used. (Tolstoy frequently uses this method of inversion with great success, it makes his characters real and convincing, think of Nicholas rescuing Mary, which turned out to be Mary rescuing Nicholas). Dòlokhov takes advantage of his other friends and fellow officers by cheating with cards.

 

Nonetheless Dòlokhov is greatly admired in this circle of young rich men and officers for his courage, the way he holds his liquor, his dare and his carelessness. He lives his life without giving a shit what other people think, and who wouldn't want to do that? In short, a party in St Petersburg wasn't a party without Dòlokhov.

The Officer

In the army Dòlokhov does well because of his courage, but his recklessness earns him several downgrades from his rank as officer.

 

“As if tired of everyday life he had felt a need to escape from it by some strange, and unusually cruel, action.”

 

Pierre Bezúkhov considers Dòlokhov his friend too, and lets himself be seduced by him. Later, after rumours of an affair with his wife Hélène, he sees him as a ruthless murderer, who takes pleasure in hurting other people, precisely because they have been (too) good to him. Because of that (an affair wasn't generally a good enough reason to challenge someone) Pierre challenges Dòlokhov to a duel.

Although Pierre has never before fired a gun and Dòlokhov has had plenty of experience, Dòlokhov ends up seriously injured after the duel. Years later, on the eve of the Battle of Borodino, the two meet again. Apparently Dòlokhov has understood what the rest of the world didn't: Pierre is not to be taken for a fool. He asks Pierre to forgive him.

Fyodor “the Persian” Dòlokhov

Like the American, Dòlokhov disappears from Russia for a while. When he returns he is dressed as a Persian and wild rumours of his actions in Persia circulate.

The Cheater

It is the people who are good to Dòlokhov who bring out the worst in him. The young and naive Nicholas Rostòv adores him, but Dòlokhov makes him lose 43.000 roubles, cheating him with cards. Dòlokhov had set the number 43 in advance, as that was the sum of his and Sonya's ages. He had asked Sonya to marry him ( http://wp.me/p5zzbs-4T ) but she declined because she was in love with Nicholas. After Nicholas loses terribly the Rostòvs get into serious financial trouble.

The Bastard

Years later the youngest Rostòv, Petya, by now also an officer, has a fatal meeting with Dolokhov. He too admires him no end. His hunger for action in the war against Napoleon is enormous, and he is convinced that he will find it there where Dòlokhov is. Against all orders he hurtles himself into a gunfight to prove to Dòlokhov that he is a real man. He gets shot by the French and Dòlokhov's cold reaction is merely “Done for!”, as if the utterance of these words afforded him pleasure. And so, once more, the Rostòv family becomes the victim of the ruthless Dòlokhov.

 

Fyodor “the American” Tolstoy married his gypsy girl, paid a high price for his crimes and led a quiet life ever since. If the same can be said of Fyodor “the Persian” Dòlokhov, we will never know.

 

 

Book: War and Peace from Tolstoy

Photos: the BBC and liveinternet.ru