Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Family and Freedom

In Part One of the Epilogue, Tolstoy gradually shifts his attention from the political and historical to the domestic. Andrei having died (after being reborn at least twice), the two remaining male seekers—Pierre and Nikolai—find fulfilling lives within the context of families that they create with their wives and children.

The general opinion was that Pierre was under his wife's heel, and in fact it was so. From the very first day of their marriage, Natasha had announced her demands. Pierre was very surprised by his wife's view, which was completely new to him, that every minute of his life belonged to her and the family; Pierre was surprised by his wife's demands, but was flattered by them and submitted to them. (1156)

Natasha reciprocates with her own submission: "At home Natasha put herself on the footing of her husband's slave" (1156).

These characters thus seem to exemplify the idea that I explored in that graduate school essay (mentioned in this earlier post), the idea that “freedom necessarily involves some submission or surrender, either to a human community or to a powerful God"; or, as D. H. Lawrence puts it, that “It is never freedom till you find something you really positively want to be.”

Given that Tolstoy eventually comes to reject as illusory the very notion of individual freedom, these characters' submission or surrender to their family lives seems to be part of a profound statement by Tolstoy about human life: Since one is never really free, true freedom consists in choosing that to which one will be bound.

Of all the lives that his characters have chosen to bind themselves to (lives of military or political service, lives of vice and dissipation, lives of societal gossip and scheming), Tolstoy strives to show us in the epilogue that family life can be the most fulfilling of all.

This familial devotion becomes a type of filial piety, exemplified in the adults' forbearance of Countess Rostov in her rather annoying dotage:

Everyone in the house understood the old woman's condition, though no one ever spoke of it, and everyone made every possible effort to satisfy her needs.... they said that she had already finished her business in life, that all of her was not in that which could be seen in her now, that we would all be the same, and that it was a joy to submit to her, to restrain oneself for the sake of this being, once so dear, once as full of life as we, and now so pathetic. Memento mori.... (1163)

The submission to family life, as Tolstoy depicts it here, creates relationships that lend meaning to life (Nikolai says he always feels as if he's "lost and can't do anything" (1152) whenever he's away from Marya or fighting with her), that provide structure for the rearing of children and the care of the old.

And thus, I think, it makes sense that the final sentence of the novel is this: "[I]n the present case, it is ... necessary to renounce a nonexistent freedom and recognize a dependence we do not feel" (1215). Though we may be tempted to believe that happiness is to be found in shaking off all duties and claims on us that seem to take away our autonomy, in fact we are never autonomous. The best we can do is find something deep and meaningful to bind ourselves to. In the intertwined stories of Natasha, Pierre, Nikolai, and Marya, Tolstoy suggests how family may be the best avenue for doing so.

No comments:

Post a Comment