Shamelessly exploitative title, I know. Yet I couldn’t resist the Sherlockian/Scarlett O’Hara pun since after reading War and Peace by the venerable Tolstoy, I found myself thinking paradoxically of “little ole” Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Both are hefty novels dealing with the devastating effects of a war and both treat tenderly yet critically the time and place and culture their authors evoke: Tolstoy of Russia, Mitchell of the antebellum South. And both compel a strangely enduring fascination even (or most especially) over those who have little to no knowledge of these particular regions.
Why? Ah! There’s the element of mystery. And like Sherlock, we must follow what leads we have.
The word tempestuous comes readily to mind as one point of similarity, not least because of characters like Scarlett O’Hara, Melanie Hamilton, Ashley Wilkes, and Rhett Butler in GWW and Natasha Rostova, Andrei Bolkonsky, and Pierre Buzukhov in W&P whose compelling personalities exert their own unique power.
Then there are the war-torn times in which they live, themselves tempestuous. Here, looming over ambitions and loves, sorrows and passions, is the juggernaut of history that rolls over man and beast alike leaving devastation and loss in its wake. Napoleon marches through Russia; Moscow is looted and burned. Sherman marches through the South; Atlanta is burned to the ground.
The scale of suffering is immense, relentless, and implacable. Death, famine, sickness, cruelty, vice, and various brutalities indiscriminately litter the landscape with their victims. And through it all, the inescapable question: Why? What is this unseeing force of history that yet deals such fury and hate, destruction and death by the hands of petty men and women grappling over thrones and kingdoms?
It’s a question that Mitchell spends little time on but Tolstoy grapples with continually and is one of the many reasons Mitchell’s work lives on mostly through Hollywood’s prowess and Tolstoy’s 1200+ pages of prose continue to draw us into their alluring web. Bathed in drama, pathos, and sentiment, we emerge from both novels with a mixture of regret for what was lost and a premonition of things to come. But whereas Mitchell leaves us with Scarlett’s “Tomorrow is another day” ringing in our ears, uttered with her inimitable mixture of hope and defiance, Tolstoy gives us over to the inexorable tide of history that waits for no individual to make his mark but rather marks out its own course sweeping individuals along in its wake.
God’s providential purposes are hinted at in both novels through characters like Melanie Hamilton and Marya Bolkonskaya. Yet God remains merely a pleasing refuge for the saint-like, distant for the most part from the relentless movements of history.
Unlike Mitchell, Tolstoy grapples with historical cause and effect throughout the novel, veering from the plot to contemplate the seemingly random events that set into motion the ensuing devastation of war. Pivotal events in history become for him the accrued totality of millions of disparate & random moments whose accumulated energy are brought to a climax that like a flood sweeps individuals in its wake, including those like Napoleon or the Czar or their various agents whom historians would like to portray as having been at the helm of these disasters.
Tolstoy’s view is, to say the least, demoralizing. There is a helplessness, a lack of agency, a seeming fatalism that envelops the reader as life after life is erased and the serenity of a people, a city, a way of life is fractured and nothing remains but the cycle of history itself as well as whatever judgment the philosopher or historian may inscribe in the wake of its debris.
But, after all, there’s Scarlett. A victim who is yet a victor, her indefatigable desires her greatest strength and her greatest weakness, and in the end determined to overcome her mistakes. Maybe that’s her appeal to us who are inclined to feel the sweep of history leaving us in its dust: that she remains indomitable, her face marked with the losses that calamity brings, but turning towards the future with all the resolve she can muster.
Yet if you are a Christian of the like of Tolstoy’s compatriot Dostoevsky, you would say that the only saving grace of history is its offer of a future redemption, born of faith in a holy, merciful God who stepped into our time and space and history, whose eyes indeed oversee history, whose incarnate hands and feet bear the marks of suffering & death borne for those He came to save, borne only to spare us the waiting judgment of our own unholy histories.