Ought Not This Person be Destroyed?
For Harold Bloom literary criticism must be primarily literary, which he describes as personal and passionate. Under this reading a critic’s feelings about a fictional character might reveal more about the critic than it does about the character. If this is the case then I am a horrible human being because the first time I read War and Peace I celebrated, gleefully, the death of Helene Bezukhov. Maybe some of you did too.
Glee, unfortunately, can be an almost automatic reaction to the demise of such a despicable character. Helene is dishonest, self-obsessed, deceitful, phony, mean-spirited, and, to boot, a serial-adulterer with zero redeemable features. Further, she wronged loveable Pierre who is probably our favorite character in the novel. Some debased region of the human heart lusts for the ruination of such a person.
Mine did, at least initially. As I re-read and re-read the novel, however, and as my philosophical toolkit grew, I came more and more to pity rather than to loathe poor Helene. A Year of War and Peace has been big on forgiveness and understanding. One doesn’t really need philosophy to see that forgiveness and understanding are the more appropriate responses to characters like Helene. One need only look at their own experience. Next time a Helen enters your life reach back to your childhood and recall all the wrongs your parents had to correct in your behavior. These wrongs were not the result of any inherent evilness on your part. Rather, they were the result of an ignorance of right action. Remember that people like Helene, just like you, are sometimes more ignorant than wicked and therefore more in need of help than hurt.
Ought not then this robber and this adulterer to be destroyed? By no means say so, but speak rather this way: This man who has been mistaken and deceived about the most important things, and blinded, not in the faculty of vision which distinguishes white and black, but in the faculty which distinguishes good and bad, should we not destroy him? If you speak thus, you will see how inhuman this is which you say, and that it is just as if you would say, “Ought we not to destroy this blind and deaf man?”
Epictetus, The Discourses