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/

Tolstoy and Homer

As I write this I'm sitting by the Mediterranean Sea, enjoying a view that has been the same for thousands of years. It’s the perfect place to write about the similarities between Homer and Tolstoy.

As I have written before, Tolstoy considered himself equal to Homer. He was so obsessed with the classics, that he taught himself Ancient Greek in a mere couple of months when he was in his forties, so that he could read them in the original. You can find Homeric elements in all his literary works. I say elements and not influences, because they are not in the least bit contrived, far from it. They are the foundation of his writing, his natural instinct.

Typically Homer

The epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey were written some 2800 years ago, assumedly by Homer. They are about the Trojan War and its aftermath and have been extremely influential. The major themes of the Iliad are glory, honour, wrath and fate. The Homeric hero would rather die honourably and receive eternal glory than be a coward. The war is constantly interfered with by the eternal gods, who use the war to fight their own petty battles with each other.

Fascination with war

Tolstoy may have been a pacifist, but he did like to write about war, often drawing from his own memories; he went to war in the Caucasus as a young man. Going to war for him was like going back to an ancient, primitive world, where men are one with their horses, and where pots are hissing and steaming above the fire at night. It provides a chance to escape from daily life and responsibilities, and to prove yourself. Striving for glory is important. In War and Peace Nicholas and later his younger brother Petya can't wait to go to war. In the Iliad Paris is scorned for his unwillingness to fight. For Hadji Murad there simply is no other way of life, he will fight until the end.

Contrast with home

Nevertheless, both writers contrast life on the battlefield with that that the heroes have left behind: home, family, and working the land. The shield that Hephaestus makes for Achilles is adorned with more peaceful scenes than war scenes. In between battles the hero Hector visits his family, showing his tender side. Hadji Murad’s life had always been rather violent and the Russians regard him as a heroic and legendary figure, but he too gets sentimental thinking about his mother and his family and it's the welfare of his family that motivates him.

To die heroically

When Hector faces Achilles in a man to man fight, he is initially scared, but eventually he faces Achilles and dies a hero. Hadji Murad dies heroically as well, still standing, even though he is mortally wounded; he keeps fighting until he literally falls down. The scene is extremely Homeric and Tolstoyan at the same time: no one can describe the moment of death quite the way Tolstoy can, but the blood streaming into the grass is pure Homer.

Fate

The outcome of wars is decided by the arbitrariness of the gods or the tsar or Napoleon. We humans are mere mortals, without control of our destiny. And because of this the message of these two gigantic writers is that life has to be lived and enjoyed right now.

“As when the smith an hatchet or large axe

Temp’ring with skill, plunges the hissing blade

Deep in cold water, (whence the strength of steel)

So hiss’d his eye around the olive-wood.” (Homer – The Odyssey)

“With a solemn, triumphant march there mingled a song, the drip from the trees, and the hissing of the sabre, “Ozheg-zheg-zheg…” and again the horses jostled each other and neighed, not disturbing the choir but joining in it.” (Tolstoy – War and Peace)

Books in my suitcase:

George Steiner – Tolstoy or Dostoevsky

Homer and Tolstoy

© Elisabeth van der Meer – photos by me and from Wikipedia


Liever in het Nederlands? http://www.vanpoesjkintotpasternak.wordpress.com

A Russian Affair is two years old!

Two years ago I wasn't sure if the world was waiting for a blog about Russian literature, but hey, I'm the kind of girl who reads Nabokov's comments on Pushkin's Eugene Onegin for fun, so it was only natural that if I was going to have a blog, that that should be the subject.

My aim was to keep it as accessible as possible. I regularly hear people say that they find Russian literature daunting, even intimidating, before they've even read one page! So I took it upon myself to use this corner in cyber space to take away that prejudice. And judging by the comments I have already convinced some of you.

Inspired by the fantastic BBC series War and Peace, I wrote several posts about that epic Tolstoy novel. People were particularly interested to find out about the relationship between brother and sister Hélène and Anatole and Is there really an incestuous relationship in War and Peace? (http://wp.me/p5zzbs-4L) became by far the most popular post on my blog. Another favourite was Fyodor Dolokhov – the Bad Guy from War and Peace (http://wp.me/p5zzbs-5t).

Undoubtedly the most fun to make was In the Footsteps of Tolstoy and Turgenev in Paris (http://wp.me/p5zzbs-4F). For two days I wandered through Paris with Google Maps, searching the addresses where the two writers lived. I was particularly keen to see the house where Turgenev had lived for many years with the Viardot family. Nowadays there is an authentic French patissier on the ground flour of the house on the Rue de Douai. They serve a delicious breakfast and I thoroughly enjoyed sitting there and watching tout l'arrondissement buy their pain quotidien there.

The most interesting blog post to make was Turgenev's birds (http://wp.me/p5zzbs-7h). It was a spontaneous post inspired by another blogger. It showed beautifully why Turgenev was such an accomplished writer. Fathers and Sons is a masterpiece, and it features many subtle details that make it very atmospheric. Unconsciously our brain makes all kinds of associations while reading, even if you don't pick up on it. By focussing on a seemingly small detail, birds in this case, I managed to show that that detail was put into the novel with a purpose.

In 2016 I have started a series of “Typically …”. So far we've had Tolstoy, Turgenev and Dostoevsky. In 2017 I shall write about Gogol, Chekhov, Goncharov, Pushkin and Lermontov. But you can also expect spontaneous blog posts like In the Footsteps and Turgenev's Birds.

My goals for my blog remain the same: to show you how fascinating, rich and most of all fun Russian literature really is!

Reactions, questions and requests are always welcome. Happy reading!

*** Photos by me, except Anatole and Hélène from the BBC's War and Peace.

 

Love in War and Peace 2

The rise and fall and rise of Countess Nataly (Natásha) Ilyinichna Rostóva

Natásha. Out of all 580 characters she captivates us perhaps the most. Although Tolstoy depicts her as particularly sweet and attractive, she devours no less than four men in the course of her young life. The reader experiences a whole range of emotions with her. Now you're shouting out loud to her and in the next book you're reaching for the tissues. Natásha. Such a character!

Boris

Her first love at the age of thirteen is Boris Drubetskoy. The love evaporates when Boris is at the front.

Prince Andrey

In 1808 she meets Prince Andrey Nikolayevich Bolkonski (an at least ten years older widower, who's wife Lise died giving birth) for the first time. At Natásha's first important ball in 1809 they dance together and Andrey is charmed by her. They get engaged, but Andrey's father insists they wait a few years before they get married. Andrey has to go back to the army and leaves Natásha alone for an indefinite period.

Anatole Kurágin

Then we come to the bit that upsets us the most: in a turn of events least expected, Natásha lets herself be seduced by that obnoxious Anatole Kurágin. Our dear, sweet, honest Natásha!

Anatole has seen Natásha for the first time at that same important ball and looks at her “as one looks at a wall”(!). Countess Hélène Bezúkhov (Pierres unfaithful wife, also suspected of incestuous relations with Anatole) introduces Anatole to the still happily engaged Natásha in 1811. Anatole immediately makes it clear to her that he finds her attractive and wants to start an affair with her.

With help from scoundrel Dòlokhov, Anatole decides to abduct Natásha. He tells her that they will get married, even though that is impossible, because he is already married, but only (Count) Pierre (Bezukhov) and Dòlokhov know that. In a fit of complete and utter insanity Natásha agrees to this idiotic plan and breaks off her engagement with Andrey. Because she knows very well that her family would has different opinion about Anatole, she keeps it a all secret. Anatole, meanwhile, obviously only wants to sleep with her.

Dumbfounded. Yes, I wasn't Andrey's biggest fan either. He comes across as rather arrogant. But they were in love, and Natásha appeared to have a positive effect on him, while she became more serious.

Thanks to Sonya, Anatole is found out. When Pierre hears about it, he gets so angry that he gives both his wife and Anatole a piece of his mind. He sends Anatole to St Petersburg and tries to keep the scandal in Moscow to a minimum.

Reunion with Andrey

Natásha is ill (depressed) for a long time and Andrey becomes his former satirical self again. In 1812 he gets seriously wounded in action and fate reunites him with Natásha. She looks after him and the two of them still have feelings for each other. Soon they are dreaming of a future together again. It is not to be, Andrey dies and again Natásha is alone and heartbroken.

“When she smiled doubt was no longer possible, it was Natásha and he loved her.”

Luckily Pierre returns in 1813. He has been through the wars in every sense (imprisoned and Hélène has died from an abortion). The moment he sees Natásha again he feels certain that she is the one and he wants to marry her as soon as possible. For Natásha too life gets it's meaning back again. They get married and live happily ever after.

Why?!

So why did Natásha allow herself to be seduced by that repulsive Anatole?! Already in the beginning Andrey warns Pierre about the Kurágins. Undoubtedly he has also mentioned his feelings to Natásha. When Pierre asks Natásha if she loved Anatole, she has no answer. Apparently Natásha, of whom Tolstoy says more than once that her intuition is infallible, was completely blinded by the attention she got from Anatole. She was after all still very young, and probably got tired from all that waiting (she had to wait for a very long time, not knowing even if he was still alive) for Andrey, whereas Anatole offered her excitement.

But there is also a prosaic explanation: if Pierre and Natásha, who liked each other from the start, had gotten married without any further obstacles, War and Peace would not be the wonderful, all-embracing and compelling novel it is now.

 

Photos from the BBC

War and Peace by Tolstoy, of course!

 

Love in War and Peace 1

 

“Heaven only knows where we are going, and heaven only knows what is happening to us – but it is very strange and pleasant, whatever it is.”

The Troika Ride

My absolute favourite scene in War and Peace (book 7, chapters 9-13) is the exhilarating troyka drive that the young Rostovs make at Christmas. This scene is described so well that you can actually hear the bells of the troika, and the irons of the sleigh swishing through the fresh snow. It's so full of life and it comes to life so well, perhaps only Tolstoy can achieve that.

A Kiss

In the next scene Nicholas Rostov seals his love for his (full!) cousin Sonya with a kiss. Sonya, who is dressed up as a Circassian, with black eyebrows and moustache, looks more attractive and sweeter than ever. Nicholas sees her in a new light and he can't get enough of her, he keeps looking back at her beaming face with those black eyebrows and that moustache, framed by a big fur collar. He is definitely convinced that Sonya is his future wife and happiness.

Mary

And yet it doesn't end up like that; Nicholas marries Mary. Excuse me?! A few weeks ago I went to sleep peacefully because Sonya and Nicholas were going to be happily married and now all of a sudden he's going to marry Mary? How?! Nicholas and Sonya belong together!

Prince Charming

Nicholas meets Mary for the first time on the estate that she has very recently inherited from her father. She needs to escape from the French, who are invading Russia, and rapidly approaching her estate. But her staff is unwilling to help their new mistress. She is at her wits' end when completely coincidentally Nicholas arrives. He rescues her and naturally becomes her Prince Charming.

There is however a small obstacle. It was apparently no problem for full cousins to get married in 19th century Russia, but siblings-in-law was a different story. And Nicholas' sister Natásha had been engaged to Mary's brother Andrew. She had broken off the engagement and tried to elope with Anatole, which was luckily prevented by our sweet Sonya. But now Andrew had been seriously injured in the war and Natasha was looking after him, and their love was blossoming again.

Andrew dies, and after several complications Nicholas and Mary get married. They settle down on Mary's estate, with his mother and Sonya! That sweet Sonya! She accepts her fate and becomes a favourite aunt for the future children, not unlike Tolstoy's own favourite aunt Toinette.

Mary or Sonya

The marriage works surprisingly well. Nicholas may have saved Mary, but she has saved him too. Thanks to her fortune the whole Rostov family has been saved. Sonya could not have done that. But still, the reader is left with the feeling that Nicholas would have been happier with Sonya. On more than one occasion Tolstoy tells us that Nicholas can easily imagine a happy future with Sonya, their relationship is entirely natural, whereas his feelings for Mary needed time to grow.

In a way it was easier for Mary to present herself as a suitable marriage candidate, thanks to her title and money. Sonya had no money of her own and was completely dependant on the Rostovs. On top of that Nicholas' mother was against their marriage and Sonya was torn between loyalty towards the family as a whole and her profound love for Nicholas. It is only when the traditional roles are reversed, when she is wearing trousers and Nicholas is wearing a dress, that she dares to fully give in to her passion. Unfortunately the war interferes and Nicholas meets Mary.

 

War and Peace by L.N.Tolstoy

Quote by Nicholas

Photo from the BBC, Sonya, Nicholas and Natasha