Thursday, June 28, 2007

Some thoughts of the ending of War and Peace

Today is the anniversary of both the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and the Assignation of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, so it is a good day to remember World War I. In his memoir Surprised By Joy, C. S. Lewis describes some pretty disturbing goings on in the boarding school he attended as a teenager. After the description, however, he writes one of the most chilling paragraphs he ever wrote:
Peace to them all. A worse fate awaited them than the most vindictive fag among us could have wished. Ypres and the Somme ate up most of them. They were happy while their good days lasted.
Which brings me back to War and Peace, which I finished finally a few weeks ago. I heard a professor say that the amazing thing about Tolstoy was that he ended his great epic with Natasha rejoicing over her sick child's dirty diaper. I think the Count seems to be implying that the health of small child is more meaningful and important than the vain pretensions of Emperors and famous men. On this point, I probably agree with him. War and Peace ends with a long philosophical essay about history and war. But before that it's narrative ends with a sort of image of family happiness, in the families of Marie and Nikolai, and Natasha and Pierre. But even in the midst of this family happiness, we know that tragedy again lurks in the background. Tolstoy never mentions the Decembrist uprising, which to be sure is not so tragic as World War I, but Pierre's participation in his secret society in St. Petersburg, which sounds an awful lot like the Northern Society, makes one wonder: what fate awaits Pierre and Natasha's family happiness? Exile, Siberia, or the gallows?

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