Saturday, June 5, 2010

Creaking Bodices and Animal Feelings

As I mentioned in the recap earlier this week, Week 3's reading brought us our first glimpses of passion and sexual feeling in the book. I know, finally! I was wondering how many hundreds of pages of 19th-century Russian literature I had to turn to get to the parts that the book flips opens to. Can we get a creaking bodice? And on cue, we get the scene of Helene's deployment of her shoulders and bosom to cast a spell on Pierre as he fumbles with a snuffbox. (What is up with all the snuffboxes everywhere?)
He got up, wishing to go around, but the aunt handed him the snuffbox over Helene, behind her back. Helene leaned forward so as to make room and, smiling, glanced around. As always at soirees, she was wearing a gown in the fashion of the time, quite open in front and back. Her bust, which had always looked like marble to Pierre, was now such a short distance from him that he could involuntarily make out with his nearsighted eyes the living loveliness of her shoulders and neck, and so close to his lips that he had only to lean forward a little to touch her. He sensed the warmth of her body, the smell of her perfume, and the creaking of her corset as she breathed. He saw not her marble beauty, which made one with her gown, he saw and sensed all the loveliness of her body, which was merely covered by clothes. And once he had seen it, he could not see otherwise, as we cannot return to a once-exposed deception.
(W&P at 206.) Pierre apparently took Beyonce's advice: he liked it so he put a ring on it. (No, you cannot escape "All the Single Ladies", even here!)

At the Bald Hills estate of Prince Andrei's grumpy math-enthusiast father, bachelor Anatole's arrival sends the ladies of the house into a tizzy. Pious Marya dreams her "chiefest, strongest and most secret dream ... of earthly love" with Anatole, but reprimands herself for thinking "these devil's thoughts" and "evil imaginings ...." (Id. at 221.) Her friend Mlle Bourienne has her own fantasies, having been brought to "a high level of excitement" by the arrival of the eligible Anatole, and, unwitting (or wittingly), eliciting a similar reaction in him: "[H]e was beginning to experience for the pretty and provocative Bourienne that passionate, animal feeling which came over him with extraordinary quickness and urged him towards the most coarse and bold actions." (Id. at 227.) He takes such "coarse and bold action" by, first, playing footsie with Mlle Bourienne under the pianoforte. This is merely some foreplay for some hot, high-risk action in the winter garden:
[Marya] was walking straight ahead through the winter garden without seeing or hearing anything, when suddenly the familiar whispering of Mlle Bourienne roused her. She looked up and saw Anatole two steps away from her. Anatole, with a frightful expression on his handsome face, turned to look at Princess Marya, and for the first second did not let go of the waist of Mlle Bourienne, who did not see her.
(Id. at 231.)

We're only about a quarter of the way through the book, so we'll have to see how these relationships develop, but it's safe to say, with the none-too-subtle hints that Tolstoy has dropped about Pierre's marital decision, that Pierre was not thinking so much with his head when he decided to marry Helene. Of course, there's also the meddling and scheming of Prince Vassily and Anna Pavlovna in railroading Pierre into the decision and making it pretty much a fait accompli by the time he snaps out of his aroused stupor to figure out what's happening. But Pierre does not resist because he's driven by the same animal feeling that drives Anatole to shockingly play footsie under the pianoforte and get a little action in the winter garden. Pious, sacrificing Marya's decision as to Anatole's offer is made easier after the scene in the winter garden. She gives up her secret dream of earthly pleasure. The simplistic take is, of course, that acting on lust for these characters will turn out to be a bad thing, and that the more pious, who abjure, will be rewarded, or be shown to be correct, etc. We'll see if that stays true throughout.

This week's reading was mostly back to war scenes (and wet splashes of cannonballs wiping people out), so I was able to put away my hands-free reading stand.


  1. Does your translation say pianoforte? Mine says clavichord. Not quite the same instrument though both are predecessors of the modern piano.

  2. I didn't think Pierre was driven mostly by animal passion in the marriage. He was caught up in a generalized helplessness that plagued him since he inherited a vast fortune and felt that he was moving along through rote actions guided by social obligations and the wheedling of everyone around him. This includes the machinations of Vassily and the railroading to which you refer. Remember, he couldn't even say "I love you," because he didn't. He never proposed because Vassily just made it happen. A bad beginning.

  3. Tom: I agree, Pierre is not driven by love. You are correct that he is driven along by Vassily and Pavlovna's scheming -- but, the key factor is his physical attraction to Helene's body. Just after the creaking bodice quoted above is this:

    "'So you never noticed that I am a a woman? Yes, I am a woman who could belong to anyone, even you' said her gaze. And at that moment Pierre felt that Helene not only could, but must be his wife, that it could not be otherwise.... How it would be and when, he did not know; he did not even know whether it would be good (he even felt it was not good for some reason), but he knew that it would be."

    (W&P at 206.) And, later that night, as he struggles with his feelings about the marriage he is being thrust towards, the knowledge that he is being railroaded is mitigated by his lust for Helene:

    "And again he saw her not as some daughter of Prince Vassily, but saw her whole body, merely covered by a gray dress.... And again he said to himself that it was impossible, that there would be something vile, unnatural, as it seemed to him, and dishonest in this marriage.... [A]nd terror came over him at the thought that he might already have bound himself in some way to go through with something which was obviously not good and which he ought not to do. But while he expressed this realization to himself, on the other side of his soul her image floated up in all its feminine beauty."

    (Id. at 207-8.) As he feels himself "drawn more and more into [the] frightening abyss" of the arranged marriage, Pierre finds he lacks "resolve" to do anything about the situation:

    "Pierre was one of those people who are strong only when they feel themselves perfectly pure. And since the day when he had been possessed by that feeling of desire which he had experienced over the snuffbox at Anna Pavlovna's, an unconscious feeling of guilt on account of that attraction had paralyzed his resolve."

    (W&P at 209.) So we may be mostly in agreement. Vassily wanted the marriage to happen. He deployed Helene, who, seemingly knowing what she was doing, cast a spell of physical attraction over Pierre. This, in effect, stunned Pierre, leaving him (even more) helpless and at the mercy of Vassily and Pavlovna to work their will on him. Pierre's inability or unwillingness to object or escape the situation arises out of his fixation on Helen's body and beauty. He knows it's bad, but he also wants it to be.