The Troubled Love Between Natasha and Prince Andrei, Part I

War and Peace is a love story as well as a war story.  As a love story, it primarily concerns three main characters, Prince Andrei, Natasha, and Pierre, each of whom loves the other two, all in different ways, at different times.  Friendship, romantic love, and heartbreak all have their turn.

The topics and themes Tolstoy takes up in War and Peace are vastThe depths of Tolstoy’s interests are part of what makes the narrative so compelling.  At the center of it all is a celebration of life.  The vitality of life, and the vividness with which Tolstoy could imagine it and communicate it, is what animates the mind of the reader and draws the reader into the vital action of the book.  And love, in its many forms, is the energizer of life.  So naturally, Tolstoy shows us many scenes and episodes of love, and of love in many of its different forms.  No small measure of the artistry in the book is spent depicting the love the various character have, or may not have, for each other.

War and Peace is largely structured around the story of the affections the three main characters have for each other, one friendship and two romances.  The friendship between Pierre and Prince Andrei I have already written about.  (There is still more to say.)  Of the two romances, between Natasha and Prince Andrei and between Natasha and Pierre, that between Natasha and Prince Andrei occupies far more of the narrative and is depicted in far greater depth.  This is rather curious insofar as this romance is the source of more pain than joy, and is ultimately a failure.  Yet it is probably more true to the life that Tolstoy knew, and he could write about it with more authority and insight than the love between Natasha and Pierre, which is something of a fantasy, something Tolstoy may had hopes of.

The true nature of any love must reflect the characters of the people involved.  Whether love, especially romantic love, can succeed and endure depends upon the ability of the participants to hold their egos in check and to subordinate themselves, at least to some degree, to a shared and common identity.  The fate of our loves hinges upon this possibility, and the character of love depends upon how the people involved manage to do this.  If the egos involved are too overbearing, or too hurtful, or too selfish, the love will be troubled and probably doomed.  In love, all sorts of things can go wrong.  Some things that go wrong can be set right.  Incompatibilities in character, especially those stemming from ego, pride, and insecurities, may be fatal to love.

The question of Prince Andrei’s ability to form a lasting love is introduced almost from the first moment we meet him.  When we meet him, Prince Andrei is in a failing marriage.  He does not love his wife, even holds her in mild contempt.  Tolstoy never tells us how things developed into such a state.  Presumably Prince Andrei at one time loved his wife, or at least thought he did.  (Is there a difference?)  What is real love?  Could his feelings for his wife be merely fleeting?  All these questions are suggested but not answered as we first meet Prince Andrei.  Perhaps Prince Andrei’s nature causes him to fall in love, but prevents him from remaining in love, or prevents him from realizing success in love

In their first private conversation in the book, Prince Andrei warns Pierre not to marry.

“Never, never marry, my friend.  Here’s my advice to you:  don’t marry until you can tell yourself that you’ve done all you could, and until you’ve stopped loving the woman you’ve chosen until you see her clearly, otherwise you’ll be cruelly and irremediably mistaken.  Marry when you are old and good for nothing… Otherwise all that’s good and lofty in you will be lost.  It will all go on trifles….

“My wife,” Prince Andrei went on, “is a wonderful woman.  She’s one of those rare women with whom one can be at ease regarding one’s own honor; but my God, what wouldn’t I give now not to be married.  You are the first and only one I’m saying this to, because I love you…. [B]ind yourself to a woman–and like a prisoner in irons, you lose all freedom…. ”

(P&V, 28-29.)

At this point in the narrative Prince Andrei wants to make his mark on the world, and love and marriage is a hinderance to his ambition.  His ambition is his chief concern, and seems to have won out over whatever love he may have felt for his wife.

Although she is less captivating than Natasha, Prince Andrei’s wife, Liza, the “little princess”, is one of the book’s major female characters.  Even though she dies rather early on, she holds an important place, and a rather sad one, in the story.  She has had the misfortune to fall in love with and to marry Prince Andrei before the Prince is ready for any such commitment.  He may well have loved her and been sincere in the early stages of his marriage.  But the “little princess”, pretty and good natured, does not hold his interest.  This is hardly her fault.  She has done nothing wrong, and continues to love her husband.  Prince Andrei is not unfaithful to her, his dignity and self-control would never permit such a lapse.  Yet the result is much the same as if he had been.  Prince Andrei essentially abandons their marriage.  Not surprisingly, Liza is left bewildered.  She remains committed to a marriage her husband has abandoned, and she does not understand her situation.  Even though she seems to be naturally a happy woman, her situation makes her unhappy, especially when she is left without Prince Andrei at Bald Hills.  Poor woman.  Almost like casualties in war, she is a casualty in life.  Her death in childbirth is something of a confirmation of the death already inflicted upon her.

Prince Andrei never suffers the kind of guilt over the failure of his marriage, and even the death of his wife, that he deserves.  This absence of remorse reveals an egotism and self-centeredness to the character that complement his ridiculous ambition leading up to the Battle of Austerlitz.  Whereas Prince Andrei is unquestionably gifted and prepossessing in many ways, he is also rather pathological in ways that may not be obviously apparent to others, but will nonetheless be lethal to a lasting and happy love or marriage.  As he enters the Battle of Austerlitz, he is in important ways still a young fool with a long way to go before growing up.

Several years later, just before he falls in love with Natasha, he has grown.  He no longer thinks as he did when he advised Pierre to “never, never marry”.  He now seems lonely and almost old.  There are times in life when people are more apt or susceptible to love, and times when they are not.  When we first meet Prince Andrei, he is not in love, and not susceptible to love, although he may have been earlier.  Later, as his life has changed, he is again susceptible.  Just before falling in love with Natasha, just at the beginning of Book II, Part Three, spring is in its early stages.  Prince Andrei, having argued with Pierre the prior year and believing himself indifferent to the world, has implemented many of the improvements Pierre advocated to him, and is again taking an interest in the world, although he continues to shy away from it.  He follows politics and other events.  He orders and reads books.  Like the rest of the world, he is reawakening to life, even though he does not recognize it.

Here Tolstoy uses an unusual literary device to illuminate the inner life of Prince Andrei, an old oak tree.  As spring is beginning to emerge, Prince Andrei notices the old oak.  Unlike much of its surroundings, it still sleeps.  It is far larger and more imposing than anything else in its surroundings.

At the side of the road stood an oak. Probably ten times older than the birches of the woods, it was ten times as thick and twice as tall as any birch. It was an enormous oak, twice the span of a man’s arms in girth, with some limbs broken off long ago, and broken bark covered with old scars. With its huge, gnarled, ungainly, unsymmetrically spread arms and fingers, it stood, old, angry, scornful, and ugly, amidst the smiling birches. It alone did not want to submit to the charm of spring and did not want to see either the springtime or the sun. “Spring, and love, and happiness!” the oak seemed to say. “And how is it you’re not bored with the same stupid, senseless deception! Always the same, and always a deception! There is no spring, no sun, no happiness. Look, there sit those smothered, dead fir trees, always the same; look at me spreading my broken, flayed fingers wherever they grow—from my back, from my sides. As they’ve grown, so I stand, and I don’t believe in your hopes and deceptions.” Prince Andrei turned several times to look at this oak as he drove through the woods, as if he expected something from it. There were flowers and grass beneath the oak as well, but it stood among them in the same way, scowling, motionless, ugly, and stubborn.

“Yes, it’s right, a thousand times right, this oak,” thought Prince Andrei. “Let others, the young ones, succumb afresh to this deception, but we know life—our life is over!” A whole new series of thoughts in connection with the oak, hopeless but sadly pleasant, emerged in Prince Andrei’s soul. During this journey it was as if he again thought over his whole life and reached the same old comforting and hopeless conclusion, that there was no need for him to start anything, that he had to live out his life without doing evil, without anxiety, and without wishing for anything.

(P & V 419 – 420)

Prince Andrei may well be weary, but his life is not over, and he is wrong to think so.  Once he encounters Natasha, with all her spontaneous engagement and joy in life, he understands what he lacks, and he falls in love with her.  She is something of an answer to the burden life had become  for him.  He falls in love without deliberation or other consideration.  Like Natasha’s sudden and spontaneous reactions to her environment, Prince Andrei simply reacts to whatever forces motivate him unconsciously.  Sap rises in the trees and pushes the leaves out.  The trees have no say in the matter.  Life is essentially spontaneous, not planned nor deliberate.  Planning and deliberation may work out as one hopes, as in the case of Boris, but the heart will chart its own course.

Returning home, after having fallen in love, Prince Andrei again looks for the oak he had admired and felt such affinity with.  Both he and the oak have changed.  Looking right at it, he does not see the same tree.

“But where is it?” he thought again, looking at the left side of the road, and, not knowing it himself, not recognizing it, he admired the very oak he was looking for. The old oak, quite transformed, spreading out a canopy of juicy, dark greenery, basked, barely swaying, in the rays of the evening sun. Of the gnarled fingers, the scars, the old grief and mistrust—nothing could be seen. Juicy green leaves without branches broke through the stiff, hundred-year-old bark, and it was impossible to believe that this old fellow had produced them. “Yes, it’s the same oak,” thought Prince Andrei, and suddenly a causeless springtime feeling of joy and renewal came over him. All the best moments of his life suddenly recalled themselves to him at the same time. Austerlitz with the lofty sky, and the dead, reproachful face of his wife, and Pierre on the ferry, and a girl excited by the beauty of the night, and that night itself, and the moon—all of it suddenly recalled itself to him. “No, life isn’t over at the age of thirty-one,” Prince Andrei suddenly decided definitively, immutably. “It’s not enough that I know all that’s in me, everyone else must know it, too: Pierre, and that girl who wanted to fly into the sky, everyone must know me, so that my life is not only for myself; so that they don’t live like that girl, independently of my life, but so that it is reflected in everyone, and they all live together with me!”

(P & V 422)

Life is not yet over for Prince Andrei.  He sees the immediate way Natasha responds to the world, her spontaneous involvement in life, and he understands that this is what he has lost, and what he cannot continue to do without.  Our question is then whether he has grown enough since his former marriage to now be successful in love, and in love with Natasha.  Will his fundamental character allow it?  He may deeply long for love, but his nature, which lies too deeply within for his will to control, may not permit it.  And even if he were now ready for love, is Natasha the right woman?

Even at the beginning stages, there are warning signs from Prince Andrei.  When he recognizes the oak he had been looking for, his inner world is concerned largely with himself, and not taken over with thoughts of the one he loves.  “It’s not enough that I know all that’s in me, everyone else must know it too….”  Prince Andrei is a good man, but he can rarely break free from himself.  His deepest thoughts and aspirations are self-referential.  His ego becomes a kind of prison.  And it isolates him from the world, even parts of the world he genuinely loves.

Their love begins with a number of challenges.  Prince Andrei is nearly twice Natasha’s age.  She is just sixteen.  So their engagement begins with some sense of awkwardness.  Furthermore, both Prince Andrei’s father and sister are against the match.  Unless they were to change their inclinations towards Natasha, the marriage would be under a burden.  Marriage brings together two families as well as two people.  One family’s resistance would would make things difficult for all.  So their romance begins with significant barriers to success and happiness.  All who fall in love hope for happiness.  How many really find it?  What begins in elation all too often ends in heartbreak.

So far we have only considered Prince Andrei.  We must also consider Natasha.  Is she ready for love?  Is Prince Andrei right for her?  Initially, she is flattered, confused, and rather overwhelmed by Prince Andrei’s attentions.  It all excites her.  But is this love?  And as his attentions confused her, he then turns his attentions to politics, and is then persuaded to postpone their marriage for a year.  This confuses her even more, and is painful.  She deserves, even needs attention, in order to sort things out for herself, but she gets almost nothing besides polite acknowledgement.  Natasha is born to love, but Prince Andrei simply does not know how.  He simply does not behave like a human being, man or woman, in love.  Prince Andrei is a very complicated character.  Natasha is given little chance to understand him.  How can she love him?  She has the capacity but is denied the means.

The hallmark of Natasha is her natural spontaneity.  She is bursting with life, and this captivates all those susceptible to such charms.  When she becomes the object of Prince Andrei’s affections, however, she is not quite her usual self.  She is somewhat confused and overcome at first.  When it is clear that he is paying special attention towards her she is flattered, of course, but she is also somewhat fearful of him.  She imagines she is in love with him, but she seems mostly overwhelmed by the situation.  Instead of discussing things with Natasha, Prince Andrei disappears for three weeks as he goes to ask his father’s permission to be married.  He gets permission with the provision that the wedding must be delayed for a year.  He then returns to Natasha and proposes, which relieves her anxiety, but only shortly.  Almost as soon as they are engaged, Prince Andrei again leaves her to go abroad.

Natasha wants to be in love.  She wants to grow up and be a mature woman.  But she does not get what she wants.  At this point, she never gets the chance to fall in love.  The notion that she loves Prince Andrei is partly a delusion, something she wants with all her young heart, even believes in, but cannot realize.  So instead of the early stages of their love being a period of joy and of mutual discovery, it is a period of pain for them both, but especially her.  Their love never gets a foundation.  Rather, it is undermined and unhappy from the start.  Perhaps Prince Andrei initially seems the more culpable of the two for their troubles, since he could have broken with his father and insisted upon marrying.  Yet to begin a marriage on the basis of breaking with one’s family would be to burden it from the beginning.  Besides, Prince Andrei’s health was poor, and he went abroad largely for medical reasons.  In understanding that Prince Andrei loves her, before he had gone to ask his father’s permission to marry, Natasha, like Pierre when he was about to become engaged, looked upon this as inevitable.  Natasha asks herself “Why did he have to come to Petersburg precisely now, when we’re here?  Why did we have to meet at the ball?  It’s all fate.  It’s clearly fate, everything has been leading up to it.”  (P & V 473.)  Tolstoy is being rather ironic in this, and in the similar questions Pierre asked himself before his engagement to Anatole’s sister, Helene.  Fate is no substitute for love, and we are not privy to know our fate.  Sometimes the world stacks the deck against love, against the happiness one would like to find with another.  Tolstoy seems to construct this love to fail.

Separation in time and distance rarely comes to the aid of a challenged love.  Who can imagine a character more wiling to fall in love than Natasha, or with a larger capacity for love?  And just when she is on the brink of love, Prince Andrei disappears.  Poor Natasha.  Then Anatole sets his sights on her as an amusing conquest.  She is particularly vulnerable.

Natasha is the most spontaneous character in War and Peace.  So most of her actions and reactions are unplanned.  They just are.  Nonetheless, when she decides to secretly run off with Anatole, she surprises us.  She shocks us.

I suppose an essential ingredient in compelling fiction is surprise.  With character development, however, spontaneity and surprise are quite distinct.  Spontaneity follows an inner logic, and is therefore not usually surprising.  Natasha’s spontaneity is grounded in her heart’s passionate engagement with the world, an expression of her inner passions.  These reactions are unfettered by selfish considerations, or ideas she gets from high society.  Her spontaneity is pure.  Her reactions and actions seem appropriate and even inevitable.  So when she decides to run off with Anatole, this is not simply spontaneous.  Everyone else knows it is wrong.  We the readers understand from the outset that this will only result in pain and suffering for all concerned.  (Even Anatole must probably pay some unpleasant price.)  How could Natasha possibly be so blind?  Although not intellectual, she is far from stupid.  Her empathy and passion normally get right to the essence of things far more directly by intuition than by deduction.  What surprises us as readers is her blindness.  How could she possibly fall for such a worthless seducer and ruin her prospects with Prince Andrei?  How could she invite such misery for herself?

Few of us can suffer indefinitely without adverse effect.  Natasha’s madness with Anatole is a symptom of underlying pathology, brought on by her deeply unfulfilled longings for a love with Prince Andrei.  Her unfulfilled longing for love, considerably exacerbated by Prince Andrei’s absence, has sickened her, weakened her judgement, and made her susceptible to advances she would probably easily brushed off before.  She is not in her right mind, and not really in control of herself.  Natasha surprises us because she has lost control of herself.  She is in a situation where she cannot be herself, so her actions become uncharacteristic.  Nonetheless, her actions do follow a certain logic.

To everyone who has known Natasha, as well as for the readers, Anatole is far less desirable than Prince Andrew.  What could be more obvious?  Has Natasha lost her sense?  How could she fall for someone so obviously tawdry and base?

Anatole offers Natasha everything Prince Andrei withholds and denies.  While Prince Andrei disappears, Anatole does everything he can to be with Natasha.  Prince Andrei does all he can to uphold propriety, to please his family, and to behave honorably.  Anatole cares for none of this and is quite happy to cause a scandal.  (Indeed, scandals have their thrilling aspects.)  Anatole seems willing to do whatever he can to whisk Natasha away with him; whereas, Prince Andrei keeps her waiting, seemingly indefinitely.  Gratification could be instant with Anatole, forever uncertain with Prince Andrei.  Natasha’s frustrations and unhappiness with Prince Andrei make her a rather easy target for Anatole.  In the novel, it seems that hardly anyone except Tolstoy realizes this.  So Natasha’s behavior comes as a shock, even more than a surprise.  It is a kind of madness, but it is madness that plays out according to a certain reason.  If Anatole did not have in abundance exactly the traits that she would have so liked Prince Andrei to have, at least in some small measure, it is unlikely that she would have been tempted.  Her actions with Anatole are a sort of understandable madness that takes her over.  Everyone, both readers and all the characters in the book that matter, understand this.  She is not herself in this folly.  In this sense, activities in both war and peace are similar.

Collectively and in our individual lives, we do things that, subsequently, in the cold light of reason, seem ridiculous and absurd.  Yet in the moment, all are doing what it seems we must, what seems right, and even unquestionable.  Just in the moment Natasha imagines she is acing more freely than ever before, she is, in fact in the throes of unrealized bondage.  (Since the ancient Greeks, literature has given us the idea that our seemingly free acts are really in service of deeper and unknown ends.  Perhaps psychology, since the days of Freud, owes a debt to Tolstoy, and the Greeks, for the idea that our seemingly free acts are actually part of a deeper and unrealized design, and that our seemingly free compulsions are really the effects of a deeper bondage.).   It is noteworthy that Natasha, War and Peace’s most spontaneous and original character can and does loose her freedom, while seemingly making her own free choice.  If she can, and does, who cannot?  Freedom may be more tenuous than we usually imagine.  It may also be often illusory.  In the collapse of the romance between Natasha and Prince Andrei, Tolstoy adumbrates themes he will later make explicit in his discussion of the movements of whole armies.  We are, he seems to say, subject to similar illusions in both war and peace.

Prince Andrei seems to have no idea of the stress he has put upon Natasha through his absence and neglect.  To subject her willingly to such torment would have been cruel, and Prince Andrei is far from cruel.  Yet he, somewhat like his father, does not always realize when he is causing pain in those he loves, and seems rather incapable of looking at the world objectively, through a perspective removed from his own ego.  The last thing Prince Andrei would like is to hurt his love, Natasha.  Unfortunately, he also cannot help himself.

Once she is prevented from running away with Anatole, and she returns to her senses, Natasha’s suffering is plain for all to see.  Once he discovers what has happened, Prince Andrei suffers as well, but not as openly or as obviously.  As the ramifications of their break become clear to each, Natasha falls ill, sick at heart, and Prince Andrei returns to the army, more esteemed than ever, but self-alienated, and largely dead inside.  Both are devastated, in their own ways.  Each is changed by their relationship.  Both must somehow come to terms with themselves in ways they did not imagine previously.  Love is one of life’s great challenges.

 

Tolstoy and Rousseau

A fairly short work one might read in order to gain rapid insight into Tolstoy’s view of the word is Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality.  Somewhere in this blog I previously mentioned that Tolstoy was obviously influenced by Rousseau.  Over the last few weeks, I reread this Discourse and now better understand the depth of Rousseau’s influence over TolstoyMany, if not most, of Tolstoy’s fundamental attitudes about the world, as expressed in War and Peace, undoubtably have their origins in his reading of Rousseau.

Rousseau was one of the Enlightenment’s most original thinkers, and was widely influential among other important thinkers and writers, as disparate as Immanuel Kant and Leo Tolstoy.  Although Rousseau was a fundamentally romantic thinker, he appealed to a wide ranging audience.  Kant, for example, is one of history’s most logically exacting and abstruse philosophers.  His approach to his subject was primarily epistemological, and his treatment rigorous.  He was renowned in his native Koenigsberg, where he spent his entire life, for the regularity of his daily walks.  It was said that one could set one’s watch based upon the appearance of Kant on his walk.  Yet he would miss his walks when a new publication from Rousseau became available, and Kant became engrossed in it.  One may understand Rousseau’s influence upon Kant perhaps most directly in Kant’s reliance upon the “categorical imperative” in his moral philosophy.  The categorical imperative, according to Kant, is unique to human consciousness, and is the fundamental guide to our moral judgements.  The categorical imperative is the principle that only those actions are morally right which can be performed according to a mixim which one and all would will to become a universal law of behavior for mankind.  Although rather abstractly stated, this is a deeply democratic principle, with a feeling for universal human equality at its core.  It is pure Rousseau, dressed up to be philosophically respectable.  It’s the golden rule and all that underlies it made fundamental.

As a young man, Tolstoy was so devoted to Rousseau that he wore a medallion around his neck with Rousseau’s portrait on it.  Tolstoy wrote much later that reading Rousseau’s Confessions and Emile had an “immense influence” over him.  (See, for example, Henri Troyat’s Tolstoy, p.56)  (I recommend Discourse on the Origin of Inequality rather than his later works insofar as the Discourse is a shorter statement of the basic insights that ground the thinking in all of Rousseau, and insofar as this shorter work shows us how Tolstoy’s view of society reflects Rousseau’s original intuitions.)  Tolstoy would simply not have developed as he had without the influence of Rousseau.  Understanding Tolstoy without reference to Rousseau may be nearly impossible.

According to Rousseau, almost all of society’s influence on individual persons is pernicious.  Society corrupts and perverts our original good nature, and alienates us from our true selves.  Reason more often leads us astray than towards our best interests.  And our most basic emotions, especially empathy for others, are healthier and more likely to lead to happiness than feelings and subsequent thoughts and schemes stemming from envious or invidious comparison.  (Does any of this seem familiar?)  Rousseau does not simply posit this, of course.  He makes argument after argument for these conclusions, mostly from the basis of a pre-Hegelian analysis of the logically necessary development needed to take mankind from a primitive state of nature to our current state of society. I’ll not delve much further into all Tolstoy adopted from Rousseau.  I’ll not much summarize Rousseau’s thought; interested readers should turn to Rousseau.  This is not a study of Rousseau’s influence upon Tolstoy, which could run to a considerable length.  I would rather simply establish that Rousseau was a profound influence upon Tolstoy, and suggest a few ways Rousseau may be utilized to better comprehend Tolstoy.  In at least one subsequent post, I intend to revisit Rousseau to better understand Tolstoy’s Prince Andrei.

George recently wrote about the importance of location in Tolstoy.  I think he is quite right about this.  One way to think about it may be in reference to our less civilized, more authentic selves.  In these terms, it may not be the places as much as the mental cast of mind which the various settings bring out in the characters.  Thus, Rostovs in the country are much more likely to be happy than anyone in a Petersburg salon.  It is far more likely that our original and spontaneous feelings for each other to well up inside us and between us while in the country than in more sophisticated circumstances.   According to Rousseau, the attitudes and skills engendered in us as civilization advances corrupts our original nature and sets us all against each other, thereby depriving people, especially people of high society, the satisfactions and happiness afforded us in much more primitive circumstances.  Tolstoy simply absorbed Rousseau, and seems to be the novelist to bring Rousseau’s ideas to life in literature.  The Rostovs, free and at a fair amount of leisure while in the country, like primitive, pre-civilized man, could indulge and enjoy their own basic good natures.  And someone like Boris, who is lost in his attempts to achieve worldly success, will never find true happiness anywhere.

In addition to the similar views both held about the word and society, Rousseau and Tolstoy also had rather similar characteristics as thinkers, and as men.

As thinkers, both were deeply interested in philosophical issues, but neither really brought a philosophical approach to the matters they were so passionate about.  Instead of arriving at their views through reason and deduction, they seem to have found their beliefs more by intuition.  Indeed, both had an active distrust of reason.  Both seemed to think that the force of of their heart would bring them to the truth far more reliably than mere reason.  So both were far more susceptible to romantic zeal, and were rather too impressed with the unique importance of their personal perspective on things than was intellectually sound.  Perhaps these flaws appear in their respective theories of history.  Although Rousseau’s is probably the stronger, both are idiosyncratic beyond a mere fault, and, while interesting, neither commands a wide following.

Both men were largely self-educated.  It is probable that this is partly what accounts for the self-certainty each had in his views, and in other aspects of their personality.  Both could be megalomaniacal in their dealings with others.  Both usually fancied that they lived according to a higher moral sensibility than nearly the rest of humanity.  (And therefore each would frequently be tormented by feelings of shame and moral failure when they allowed themselves to consider their sins.)  Both were essentially loners, strangely at odds with the world.  Yet the delusions of grandeur that each held propelled them to accomplishments far beyond those of nearly all more ordinary men.

Marriage, Freedom, and Happiness

Since the Renaissance, two of the most consistent subjects of fiction are marriage and death.  (What’s the difference?  Shame on you for asking!  However, Prince Andrei also initially holds such a pessimistic perspective.)  Why is marriage such a recurrent theme in literature?  Because marriage, and its basis in love, determines so very much in life.  Our loves, whatever and whomever for, are usually the most vital connection we will discover in life.  Love forms us, shapes our identity.  Sometimes, when betrayed, it may destroy us, or at least cause great damage.  Love is as fundamental as fire in our world.  Other creatures can live without it, but it is essential to us.  Why death?  Must we not all somehow face the question of what is life’s purpose in the face of death?  Our view of death shapes our view of life.  Naturally, Tolstoy treats both marriage and death in War and Peace.  Let us first begin thinking about marriage, and put off death for a later post.

When we first meet Prince Andrei, he is married, but not happily.  How can such a man be happy?  When he meets with Pierre privately, he says, in a passage more briefly referenced earlier by George, “Never, never marry, my friend.  Here’s my advice to you: don’t marry until you can tell yourself that you’ve done all you could, and until you’ve stopped loving the woman you’ve chosen, until you see her clearly, otherwise you’ll be cruelly and irredeemably mistaken.  Marry when you’re old and good for nothing… Otherwise all that’s good and lofty in you will be lost. It will all go on trifles. Yes, yes, yes! Don’t look at me with such astonishment. If you expect something from yourself in the future, then at every step you’ll feel that it’s all over for you, it’s all closed, except the drawing room, where you’ll stand on the same level as a court flunkey and an idiot…”

A bit later in the same conversation Prince Andrei goes on to say “You don’t understand why I’m saying this.… Yet it’s a whole life’s story. You talk of Bonaparte and his career,” he said, though Pierre had not talked a Bonaparte.  “You talk of Bonaparte; but Bonaparte, when he was working, went step by step towards his goal, he was free, he had nothing except his goal—and he reached it.  But bind yourself to a woman—and, like a prisoner in irons, you lose all freedom.  And whatever hope and strength you have in you, it all only burdens and torment you with remorse.”  (P&V 28-29)

Several years later, both Prince Andrei and Pierre are quite different.  After his injury and epiphany, at the Battle of Austerlitz, after the death of his wife and the birth of his son, Prince Andrei has lost his illusions and Napoleonic ambition.  When he and Pierre next meet, at the house Prince Andrei is preparing for himself, Prince Andrei is free.  Yet his freedom has not brought him happiness.  He has lost the spirit that filled him as he lay wounded and looked up at the sky at Austerlitz.  He now seems, to use the words that end my last paragraph, burdened and tormented with remorse.  Pierre argues with him, trying to get Prince Andrei to see the world in terms similar to those that have helped Pierre since he left Moscow in anguish over his own marriage and his duel, and then underwent his conversion to Freemasonry.  Prince Andrei seems to win the disputes, yet Pierre wins the overall argument.  Pierre’s spirit of altruism trumps Prince Andrei’s empty self interest, and Prince Andrei know this as their argument concludes.  “The ferry had long been moored, and only the waves of the current lapped with a faint sound against the ferry’s bottom.  It seemed to Prince Andrei that this splash of waves made a refrain to Pierre’s words, saying: ‘It’s true, believe it.’”   (P&V 389.)  Prince Andrei adopts Pierre’s compassionate suggestions in managing his estates far more effectively then Pierre managed to with his own estates.  Even though Pierre’s visit moves Prince Andrei to make important changes, his inner life remains gloomy and troubled.  He regrets the past, feels guilty about his wife’s death, and has little to live for.  In the early stages of spring, he passes an old gnarled oak that has not leafed out.  Prince Andrei feel like the oak, cold, wise, and gloomy, not being misled by the spring.  However, he then meets and falls in love with Natasha.  This has a more profound effect on him than anything else.  Freedom was insufficient.  His activities around his estates and in more political activities were not enough.  Love bring him back to life.  When he next sees the oak it has leafed out magnificently and is transfigured.  Prince Andrei feels the tree again reflects his inner life.

In the first half of War and Peace, the happiest settings are almost always with the Rostovs.  In this family, love and the common commitments of life are great.  Freedom is largely irrelevant to their concerns.  After spending some time with the Rostovs, one naturally wonders how can there possibly be happiness without love.  Happiness, and therefore meaning in life, cannot be discovered in the abstract, isolated from it particular realization.

Unlike the Rostovs, many characters in the book live their lives primarily out of selfishness.  These characters are fundamentally misguided.  Insofar as love is necessary for happiness, how can selfishness lead to a worthwhile or happy life.  Boris, for example, may find ways of advancement and may marry into riches.  So what?

Pierre, and after him Prince Andrei, work on compassionate reforms on their estates.  Prince Andrei works on improvements within the government.  This is all good, of course, and laudable, but it is not love, not the powerful source of happiness.  Living for acclaim, as Prince Andrei realizes on the field at the Battle of Austerlitz, is an exercise in empty vanity.  Even living to do good works, as Pierre attempts with his activities in Freemasonry and his efforts at reform on his estates, and as Prince Andrei attempts in his political work, only serve as diversions, not as sources of fulfillment.  As a further consider Speransky: he is an effective administrator, very powerful, and, it seems, is doing good largely, if not completely, for the proper purposes.  Yet in a social setting, his laughter repels Prince Andrei.  It is hollow.  There is no joy in this man.  There is, however, an abundance of joy in Natasha, and this seems to be what Prince Andrei falls in love with.

One must admire Prince Andrei’s sensitivity.  He understands things quickly and intuitively.  In overhearing her enthusiasm about the spring night, he gets Natasha right away.  He sees the life in her that he has been missing.  He wants it.  Therefore, he wants her.  (Is this really love, or something else?)

Prince Andrei’s feelings for Natasha bring him back to life.  Now all his preoccupations with his estate and with matters of state seem beside the point.  Now, more than anything else, he wants to marry Natasha.  When Prince Andrei and Pierre first discussed marriage and romance, Prince Andrei warned Pierre to avoid such entanglements.  Now he wants nothing else.  His views have changed completely.

[Now]… Prince Andrei seemed and was quite a different, new man. Where was his anguish, his contempt for life, his disillusionment?  Pierre was the only man before before whom he would venture to speak himself out; but then he spoke everything that was in his heart. First he lightly and boldly made plans far into the future, saying how he could not sacrifice his happiness to his fathers whim, how he would make his father agreed to this marriage and love her, or else he would do without his consent; then he was astonished, as at something strange, alien, independent of him, at the feeling that possessed him.

“I wouldn’t have believed it if someone had told me I could love so much,” said Prince Andrei.  “It’s quite a different feeling from what I knew before.  The whole world is divided for me into two parts: one is she, and there is all happiness, hope, light; the other is where she is not, and there everything is dejection and darkness…”

“Darkness and gloom,” Pierre repeated, “yes, yes I understand that.”

“I can’t help loving the light, it’s not my fault.  And I’m very happy.  Do you understand me?  I know you’re glad for me.”

“Yes, yes,” Pierre agreed, looking at his friend with tender and sad eyes.  The brighter Prince Andrei’s fate seemed to him the gloomier seemed his own.”  (P&V 475.)

The lives of Prince Andrei and Pierre are usually out of sync.  Earlier, when Pierre was reanimated with Freemasonry and attempting to do good in the world, Prince Andrei was cold and gloomy.  Now Pierre has become disillusioned with his former enthusiasms, with Freemasonry, its promises, and its mostly empty brotherhood.  He has fallen back into his old ways, but is troubled in ways he was not when we first met him.  He sees in his friend Prince Andrei the possibility of real happiness, while seeing no such prospect for himself.  Thus his mood turns gloomier as Prince Andrei’s becomes better than we have yet seen.

Again, Tolstoy seems to make the point that freedom is not some necessary beginning for happiness.  Pierre is here almost completely free.  He is rich, only nominally married, and can do almost anything he would like.  Yet his life now becomes a series of empty diversions.  Freedom is irrelevant.

Obviously, love is no guarantee of happiness.  Like much of life, it comes with real risks.  Despite its early thrills, the love between Prince Andrei and Natasha becomes a source of deep pain for both.  Just as love can open possibilities for joy, so can it set the stage for suffering.  Indeed, as long as we are imperfect, how can there be love without pain?  So much can go wrong.

Perhaps those who loose the most are people who experience few of the joys or heartbreaks of life.  And there are quite a few such characters in War and Peace.  How can anyone feel just the good and not the bad?  One cannot be a complete person without suffering.  Something is wrong or defective with people who escape suffering.  They are missing indispensable elements of life.  We see no elements of spiritual discomfort in Berg, the Kuragins, in Boris, and others.  Who would want to participate for long in their lives?  When it is time for one to be unhappy, it is wrong to try and avoid it.  It may be unavoidable, anyway.   Pierre cannot avoid his torments through carousing, and in alcohol, nor through other diversions, though he may dull it and even draw it out.  Rather, like Pierre, we must try to learn from our unhappiness, grow through it.  Real and enduring happiness is only available to those who have paid such dues.  Life, in its richness, requires a somewhat extraordinary openness to its vicissitudes.  Not everyone will risk the cost.

Love is not happiness.  Love is beyond happiness.  It is what animates happiness, makes it real, makes it unique and our own.  Love may also be what animates our sufferings.  It is what lights an otherwise dark world.

War and Peace presents us with a wide variety of people.  Most are concerned with themselves first and foremost.  Most view others as means to their own ends, and generally show contempt for those they are not currently trying to influence for their own selfish purposes.   Despite their positions in the world, these characters strike us as Speransky did Prince Andrei.  Even if they are not bad people, there is something false about them, something dissatisfying.  Only those characters who love others spontaneously remain interesting and continue to engage us.  These are Tolstoy’s most gifted characters, his largest and most interesting personalities.  Only love opens for them the great potential richness of life.

Initial Contrast Between Prince Andrei and Pierre

Books could and probably have been written on the contrast between Prince Andrei and Pierre.  They are the two major male characters of War and Peace, and they are central to most of the book’s action.  They are two of the foundations supporting the whole story.  Tolstoy means us to compare them.

Pierre is easily the most socially-challenged participant at Anna Pavlovna Scherer’s soiree.  He is fat, a bit awkward, somewhat out-of-place, and far too honest in expressing his opinions.  Yet, aside from his wife, Pierre has the distinction of being the only one there whom Prince Andrei really likes.  And Prince Andrei is not being perverse or sardonic in this; the two share a real bond.  They both admire Napoleon, but Pierre freely expresses his feelings while Prince Andrei is more socially circumspect and keeps such feelings to himself.  Pierre cannot hide his thoughts and feelings while Prince Andrei is more enigmatic.

It is mildly ironic that Prince Andrei, who is socially adept, seems to hold almost everyone in contempt, or otherwise finds them irritating, while Pierre, who is socially inept and who initially irritates nearly everyone, instinctively likes everyone.  Andrei is stern and judgmental.  At the same time, people are interested in him, even drawn to him.  When Nikolai Rostov first meets Prince Andrei, “he thought spitefully of what a pleasure it would be to see this small, weak, and proud man’s fear in the face of his pistol, then he was surprised to feel that, of all the people he knew, there was no one he so wished to have for a friend as this hateful little adjutant.”  (P&V 243.)  Prince Andre has high status, therefore people respect him but may be on their guard around him because of his intelligence and general disdain.  Pierre is instinctively drawn to people and often takes an interest in them, almost like a puppy.  It is somewhat curious that two such different people should be such good friends.

As his corpulence might suggest, Pierre has a weakness for sensual pleasures.  We see this after his meeting with Prince Andrei when he joins Anatole Kuragin and his degenerate cohorts.  We see this even more vividly in his early attraction to Helene Kuragin.  When Pierre comes into unusually close contact with her at another of Anna Pavlovna’s soirees… “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.”  (P&V 206)  This is not perverse, or even lustful.  Rather it indicates Pierre’s natural sensitivity, perhaps even vulnerability, to sensual attractions.  And this vulnerability leads him astray and gets him into trouble.

Prince Andrei seems to have had his vulnerabilities to sensual allures as well.  But when we first meet him, these attractions no longer hold the same charm or sway.  (We must infer his former weakness for beauty since Tolstoy does not take us into this earlier phase of his life.)  He is, in this respect, more mature than Pierre.  His wife, quite pretty, good-natured, but somewhat simple, now bores him.  After Andrei and Pierre depart the soiree and meet up again at Prince Andrei’s, Andrei much prefers Pierre’s company to his wife’s.  Indeed, he is now unhappy in his marriage.  It seems as if Prince Andrei’s earlier vulnerability to sensuality has led to some, but certainly not all, of his initial discontent and unhappiness with life.  Pierre will even more dramatically trace a similar trajectory.  Their vulnerabilities to sensuality disrupt, even derail, their early paths to more meaningful lives.  Even more than with Prince Andrei, Pierre’s marriage is a mistake, even a disaster.  So on the one hand, like with many other young men, these two characters are initially led astray by their natural inclinations towards sensuality.  On the other hand, the unhappy marriage of each is perhaps what sets them both on their search for a more meaningful existence.

Pierre initially has little, if any, self control or discipline.  Having sworn at Prince Andrei’s, “on his honor”, whatever that means, that he would not go out carousing with Anatole Kuragin and company, he no sooner pulls out of the driveway than he changes his mind.  (Mildly humorous.)  More significantly, he lacks the self mastery to resist Vassily Kuragin’s manipulations, with respect to his daughter, Helene, and otherwise.  Once Kuragin had decided that Pierre would marry his daughter and had begun his campaign to accomplish his objective, the rest of high society, sensing Kuragin’s objective, cannot resist playing their parts to engineer Pierre’s marriage.  Pierre foolishly concludes that this marriage is somehow fated and inevitable.  This is a weakness in Pierre that he falsely ascribes to powers beyond his control.  It will cost him dearly.  Deep down, he knows the marriage will be a sham, yet he capitulates with little resistance.  Through weakness and temptation, he subordinates his true inclinations.  This is a foolish mistake, and immediately leads to trouble.  We see this unhappiness directly with Pierre, with his duel, and subsequent depression, and indirectly with Prince Andrei, with his general dissatisfaction with life, before he goes off to war.

By the time we meet him, Prince Andrei has overcome, or can at least easily control, his sensual temptations.  Unlike Pierre, Andrei leads an orderly life, and is far from dissolute.  Initially, Prince Andrei is considerably more mature than his friend.

Prince Andrei is part of a small family and feels strong ties to both his father and sister.  He has strong similarities to his father.  Both are stern, serious, intelligent, industrious, honest, and judgmental.  However, young Prince Bolkonsky is not to be laughed at, whereas old Prince Bokonsky often is.  (His snorting state of disconcerted excitement at the arrival of the Kuragins and the prospect of his daughter’s marriage is humorous.  For example, after the servants had taken it upon themselves to clear the road of snow in preparation for the arrival of the Kuragins, the old Prince angrily orders that the cleared snow be thrown back on the road.)  As George observed, there is fertile ground for comedy in the Bolkonsky character, but Tolstoy chooses not to treat Andrei comedically.  The old Prince is not funny, however, when he seems to behave cruelly towards his daughter.  I don’t think he is intentionally cruel.  Rather, he is sometimes dysfunctional in dealing with others, even those he loves.  Is this why they live in near isolation at Bald Hills?  Prince Andrei is far more adept in dealing with others, but finally not much warmer than his father.  Outside his immediate family, does Prince Andrei have any real friend besides Pierre? I wonder whether both Princes, despite all their energies, accomplishments, and undertakings, might be rather lonely.

Pierre has no real family.  Pierre never really knew his father well.  Is his mother ever even mentioned?  He is essentially an orphan.  (Tolstoy’s mother died when he was two, and young Leo was then raised by his father’s mother, and two aunts.)  Yet unlike the Bolkonsys, he is on quite good terms with the world, even if he is less well-equipped to deal with it.  He is not contemptuous or judgmental towards others.  Yet he is not accepted by most others in society until after he unexpectedly inherits his father’s fortune and title.

Although Pierre is naturally well-disposed towards people, he is quite unworldly.  He seems unaware and indifferent to social sensitivities at Anna Pavlovna’s soiree.  Somewhat later, and more importantly, his unworldly naiveté shows in his obliviousness and ineptitude towards his own interests as his father lies dying.  The reader hardly knows whether to admire him for being out of touch with such sordid machinations and the contemptible maneuvers that preoccupy nearly everyone else there, or to feel he is just a damned fool and needs to come down to earth and see things as they are.  He was lucky that Anna Mikhailovna was there to protect his interests, albeit for her own purposes.  It’s somewhat ironic that such an unworldly man would inherit such an immense fortune.

Pierre’s unworldly nature makes him more pliable to others.  Prince Vassily Kuragin has little trouble getting Pierre to marry his daughter.  When Vassily goes to the Bolkonsy’s to get his son Anatole engaged to Princess Marya, despite an initial kerfuffle over the prospective engagement, Marya turns him down flatly and finally.  Pierre is far more naive and pliable than a Bolkonsy.  If Pierre is too open to things, the Bolkonskys may have the opposite flaw.  They shut too much of the world out, and remain isolated.  After his marriage collapses, after his duel, when he is leaving Moscow, Pierre meets the Freemason Bazdeev.  Again, he is naively won over.  This scene may be one of the briefest conversions from atheism to Christianity in all of literature, and one with the least fanfare.  (Humorous?)  Despite his misfortunes, Pierre remains weak and pliable.  Contrast Pierre’s easy conversion with Prince Andrei’s spiritual epiphany when he is wounded at the Battle of Austerlitz.  Andrei’s is not so much a conversion as a semi-delirious awakening.  Andrei is transported from one reality into a seemingly deeper reality.  Pierre’s “conversion” hardly compares to Andrei’s experience.  Despite Pierre’s passionate interest in important questions, it is unclear what, if anything, really grounds Pierre in any reality whatsoever.  Nonetheless, Pierre is desperately and sincerely searching.

Early on, Pierre is, in some measure, a comic character.  We laugh a little at him.  And although this humor brings us closer to him, we don’t really take him seriously.  He is too much a fool.  Yet this all begins to change when his marriage collapses and he challenges Dolokhov.  What was earlier somewhat funny now becomes a source of concern, even worry.  As happens with most of us, life calls on Pierre to account for his shortcomings.  To account, Pierre must somehow transform himself.  Can he?

There is a pathetic dimension in Prince Andrei.  Although initially more hidden than either his sister’s or father’s pain, Prince Andrei is an anguished character.  (There is a pathetic aspect to all the Bolkonsys.)  His arrogance may be well founded, but it isolates him from most others.  He admits early on that he is unhappy.  Moreover, he understands the absurdity of his life, and believes that he is worthy of and even destined for something much higher.

For a while it seems that joining the military is good for Prince Andrei.  Here he is at least more engaged with life, and not just a disdainful observer.  His inner sense of superiority, however, prompt in him ridiculous fantasies of becoming the next Napoleon.  It is ironic, and at the very least inconsistent, that although disdainful of most others in the world, what Prince Andrei now most wants is the adulation of others.

Just after the Allied Council of War leading to the battle of Austerlitz, Tolstoy takes the reader into Prince Andrei’s mind.  Andrei is dreaming of glory, and of becoming a great man, like his secret hero, Napoleon.  He thinks to himself “… if I want this, want glory, want to be known to people, want to be loved by them, it’s not my fault that I want it, that it’s the only thing I want, the only thing I live for. Yes, the only thing! I’ll never tell it to anyone, but my God! what am I to If I love nothing except glory, except people’s love? Death, wounds, loss of family, nothing frightens me. And however near and dear many people are to me—my father, my sister, my wife—the dearest people to me—but, however terrible and unnatural it seems, I’d give them all now for a moment of glory, of triumph over people, for love from people I don’t know and we’ll never know, for the love of these people….”  (P&V 264-265)  No wonder Prince Andrei has lost interest with his former life, with society, his wife, even his immediate family.  He has dreams of worldly success that are overwhelming, but that almost certainly will not be fulfilled and will therefore lead to disappointment and possibly despair.  Andrei’s ambition brings him back into participation with the world and thereby to some sense of purpose and meaning.  At the same time, such inflated worldly ambition is unrealistic, and therefore, probably cannot lead to any lasting good.

Prince Andrei’s wild ambitions are not meaningless.  They prompt him to act heroically.  Prince Andrei picks up a fallen Russian standard, in the face of a general route, summons a charge, and thereby inspires others in an attempt to reestablish the broken Russian line, and fight off the French attack.  It appears his boldness in battle is effective.  Others join him.  We don’t know how successful his valorous efforts turn out to be because he shortly becomes a casualty, and Tolstoy’s coverage of this action stops there.  Nonetheless, readers must realize that on the field, Prince Andrei’s delusional aspirations for glory may well have saved General Kutuzov and many others from being captured or killed.

Prince Andrei’s heroism is, unfortunately, fleeting.  In joining the army, Prince Andrei renews his engagement with the world, and this is a step in the right direction.  However, his delusional aspirations reveal the ultimate emptiness of these new interests, at least for him.  They are reflections of vanity.  Prince Andrei’s ultimate objective from his military pursuits is adulation.  Napoleon is his ideal, his model.  Once wounded, he suddenly sees all the pettiness in his ambitions, the pointlessness of such narrow vanity in the face of the vast and mysterious reality he senses.  Even the sight of his former hero, Napoleon, is now all but inconsequential to Prince Andrei.  Whereas previously, Prince Andrei viewed most other people as largely inconsequential and absurd, while idolizing Napoleon, now it is Napoleon who is inconsequential and absurd.

Is Prince Andrei rather delirious from his injury?  Yes.  Does his injury effect his epiphany?  Certainly.  Since Andrei’s epiphany may be partially delirium, shouldn’t we disregard his strange thoughts?  Certainly not.   Insights often come when we are taken out of the customary or ordinary patterns of life.  Once Prince Andrei realizes that his life may be ending, it is natural that he might wonder about his significance in the world.  In the face of death, what meaning has there been to his existence?  He begins to understand his question, and it’s answer, as he deliriously looks into the sky.  In all eras, near death experiences often awaken people to new ways of living.  Prince Andrei’s life can never be the same after his experience at Austerlitz.

Incidentally, it is perhaps worthwhile now to point out the contrast Tolstoy draws between how Prince Andrei views Napoleon and how Nikolai Rostov views the Russian sovereign after the Battle of Austerlitz.  For quite some time, it seems, Prince Andrei had admired Napoleon, and considered him the supreme model for his own life.  Prior to the battle, Andrei wanted to become the next Napoleon, and Rostov to at least be favorably noticed by the Czar in performing some wonderful act.  Through military and patriotic fervor, Nikolai is completely enthralled in the majestic magnificence of his sovereign.  After the battle, both Andrei and Nikolai see their idols.  Alexander seems upset and indecisive.  Rostov, while courageous in battle, cannot now summon the courage to approach and assist the defeated Alexander, even though he still holds Alexander in awe.  Reality is far from what either Nikolai or Andrei had dreamed.  Napoleon, again victorious in battle, and glorying in his victory as he rides across the battlefield, now seems absurd to Prince Andrei.  The reader hardly need guess which perspective Tolstoy is in greater sympathy with, even though he portrays Napoleon rather gallantly here, and is clearly sympathetic to all the Rostovs.

Once Andrei is wounded and has his epiphany at the battle of Austerlitz, which Tolstoy describes brilliantly, he looses his absurdity.  He becomes even more real to us.  Once Pierre foolishly engages in a duel with Dolokhov, he is less a comic fool.  He also becomes even more real to us.  As readers, their engaging characters along with their previous shortcomings somehow drew us toward both young men.  Once their suffering is revealed, we become even closer to both, and their lives become more vivid to us.  Both are now damaged, and will try to recover in different ways.  In this, both are largely, but not entirely, delivered from their initial absurdity.

A bit later in the book, several years after their meeting just after Anna Pavlovna’s soiree, Pierre and Prince Andrei meet again, this time at the house Prince Andrei is making for himself.  Both have changed.  After a few awkward preliminaries, they again start to argue with each other.  They do not argue in anger, but in friendship, about important philosophical differences. Both men are eager to express themselves and hear what the other thinks.  Their argument is not like anything we have seen in so-called polite society, where postures are assumed and positions stated, but differences are not honestly addressed.  Andrei and Pierre’s argument reflects the struggle each is having coming to terms with his life.  Here we start to see the basis of their friendship.  Both are honest, passionate, and true towards the other.

As Pierre and Andre argue, Andrei claiming that one must live purely for oneself, Pierre that one must live in order to benefit others, Pierre asks “‘But how can you live for yourself alone?… What about your son, your sister, your father?’  ‘But they’re the same as myself, they’re not others’ said Prince Andrei”  (P&V 382)  Prince Andrei is right in several ways.  I think the old Prince, and even his sister, are in no small measure reflections of Tolstoy’s conception of the complete Prince Andrei.  In his father, we see Andrei’s discipline, rationality, impatience, and arrogance.  In his sister, we see Prince Andrei’s spiritual sensitivities, which are just as deep in him as his father’s proclivities.  Although these sensitivities are initially largely hidden, we see them at the Battle of Austerlitz, when once he is wounded he suddenly becomes spiritually aware.  Prince Andrei’s father and sister are almost opposites of each other in many ways.  Domineering versus meek; prideful versus humble; intellectual versus spiritual.  Yet Prince Andrei embodies them both.

Pierre imagines he has gone from living for himself to living for others, and Andrei imagines he has gone from living for the adulation of others to living strictly for himself.  Both transitions seem sincere, but neither seems like it could be the final truth for either man.  The search for both will continue.

Beginnings

I am usually interested in how authors begin their works and why they begin as they do.  Tolstoy begins War and Peace unusually, especially for a work written in the 1860’s.  Instead of setting the scene from which the action will then follow, or describing the characters that will occupy central positions, we, the readers, are more or less plopped down in a scene of little consequence, with a couple of characters of questionable interest, Anna Pavlovna Scherer, Prince Vassily Kuragin, and a few other members and visitors to Russian high society.  We know nothing about the characters.  Indeed, and almost outrageously, most of the characters turn out to be minor.  The conversation, although quite pertinent to broad outlines of the book, is stilted, pretentious, provincial, and conducted in French. The society Tolstoy introduces here is privileged, but is also far from the most elite of the country.  These characters are wealthy but culturally alienated from much of their surrounding world. Why begin in this marginal way?  What is Tolstoy up to?

War and Peace opens at a critical time in Russian history, the time leading up to Napoleon’s epic invasion and retreat.  All the characters know something big is immanent, and that nations are set to collide, but that is not where the action begins.  Instead the readers are set into high society, and its somewhat stilted banter.  Perhaps the best way for a reader to understand what Tolstoy is doing here is to start by examining our own reactions to the first few pages.  Tolstoy is dispensing with an introduction that in the course of things would be gratuitous.  More to the point, he is immediately engaging the reader emotionally.  A painting is not preceded by an introduction.  Similarly, the opening of War and Peace just opens a world for the reader’s imagination to slip into.  But this is Tolstoy’s world, and this beginning offers us a few clues about this world’s sensibilities.

Even as characters discuss events and political perspectives from 200 years ago, it is hard to remain strictly neutral in one’s reactions to their dialogue.  Most of the societal characters are self-aggrandizing wind bags and posers, at least to some extent.  (Unlike those in similar situations today.)  It all seems somewhat artificial, even a bit phony.  (Again, unlike today.)  In short, even though the reader is mildly interested in what is going on, he or she is developing a certain suspicious attitude towards the society of the Russian aristocracy.  Few readers are probably neutral towards most of the characters which Tolstoy introduces.  And most of these characters are at least slightly absurd.  Why would Tolstoy initially foster such an attitude in his readers against the members of his own class?  (Perhaps we should return to this particular question later.)

Although the action does not begin with war or the scenes that lead to war, either politically or militarily, these matters are clearly on everyone’s mind, and Tolstoy introduces his great subject this way.  Although the political situation in the world is unstable, and change seems inevitable, everyone is at the same time pursuing their own relatively petty interests in society.  This is like a little statement of a motif in a symphony that a composer will return to many times as he develops it.  And perhaps just as importantly for thematic purposes, Tolstoy introduces war and national conflict first from the perspective of historically insignificant characters instead of through the political and military elite of the states that will collide in conflict.  So Tolstoy begins by introducing his readers to his great subject, war, peace, and history, through the real agents of transformation, the individual people, or atoms, of history.  With Tolstoy, history moves from the bottom up instead of from the top down.  It would therefore be misleading to start with Napoleon, or the Tsar, or some other such character.

So in the first few pages, Tolstoy actually accomplishes much, despite seeming to be preoccupied with trivialities.  He introduces his large concerns of war and peace, and implicitly historical development itself; he suggests an attitude towards high society, and those who seek its status; and he introduces us to a number of characters, including a few that will bring us deeper into Tolstoy’s world.  At first, it seems like a slow, even cumbersome introduction, but it is amazingly economical, especially for such a long book.  And as the reader progresses into the book, setting seamlessly transforms into action.

Modern Departures

Tolstoy’s approach to his beginning now seems modern, and is widely accepted.  That is, others now do it and it does not seem unusual.  Consider, for example Robert Altman’s film Nashville.  I loved this film when it first came out.  That was several years before I read Tolstoy.  I saw it again recently and feel that it holds up.  Its technique is pure Tolstoy.  Or consider TV’s Seinfeld.  As the show itself admitted, even boasted, it is about nothing.  But neither Nashville nor Seinfeld is really about nothing.  They are both about everything while claiming to be about nothing.  That’s how Tolstoy begins War and Peace.  

(Incidentally, Anna Karenina begins in an analogous way.  This great exploration of family happiness and personal meaning is structured around Anna’s adultery.  But the book begins with the somewhat minor affair carried on by her brother and the turmoil it introduces into his household.)

Initial Post

Welcome. I am Charles, the host of this forum on War and Peace, and the creator and general administrator of this whole site.

With War and Peace, we begin a formidable book, “a loose and baggy monster”, to borrow the well-know epithet from Henry James. In some ways, perhaps it would have been wiser to begin with a more modest work. This monster, however, will hopefully give me the time and experience needed to help improve everyone’s experience, should I attempt another such undertaking. Besides, I very much wanted to reread War and Peace, and this way seemed a promising way to do so.

I first read War and Peace in the summer of 1979. I was twenty one, and it made a deep impression on me. I was interested in nearly everything the book touched upon. For months afterwards, I looked at things as if I were under some sort of Tolstoyan spell. As I have grown older, I have sometimes wondered whether I would again find War and Peace so compelling. Is it more a young person’s book than one that would have similar but more mature appeal to an older and somewhat more jaded reader? If I were to reread the book, would I now find structural and artistic faults instead of new meaning? While these considerations worried me somewhat, at the same time I thought that it is probably foolish to imagine that I had outgrown the charms and insights of one of history’s greatest writers. So I have been looking forward to rereading War and Peace for years now.

Some months ago, as I was tossing and turning in bed before sunrise, I turned on the radio, for a distraction, and heard an interview that got my attention.  I heard Andrew D. Kaufman discuss his book Give War and Peace a Chance.  Here is a link, so you can hear it yourself.  The part on Tolstoy only takes the first 15 minutes or so.  (Skip the rest.)  Andrew Kaufman understands Tolstoy, and provided me with added motivation to reread the book.  From Kaufman’s interview, I sensed that Tolstoy’s art can be renewed, but not outgrown. I want to reconnect with the aspects of Tolstoy’s art the Kaufman discusses. It’s a bit like missing an old and favorite piece of music that we then get the chance to hear again. I ordered Kaufman’s book, which sold for a few dollars on Amazon, and I ordered the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace. I hope to read Kaufman’s book as we make our way through War and Peace.

After reading War and Peace, those many years ago, I went on to read much more Tolstoy. Finally, I read Anna Kerenina, Tolstoy’s other epic masterpiece, about a year later, in 1980 or 81. I have not reread either since. Anna is clearly the more mature work. It is better structured, and has fewer excesses than the earlier work. Tolstoy had grown as an artist, and his interests had become more focused. Yet War and Peace is more passionate, with all the strengths and weaknesses of a younger mind. War and Peace is Tolstoy’s breakthrough work. Can one understand the later Tolstoy without understanding War and Peace? I think not. Many writers, such as Vladamir Nabokov, in his Lectures on Russian Literature, in their praise of Anna, almost seem to dismiss War and Peace. I understand their appreciation for Anna. However, I suspect that in their admiration for Anna’s artistic merits, they loose sight of War and Peace’s spiritual and somewhat different artistic strengths. Sure, the earlier work has its defects. The later work also lacks some of the life-affirming vitality of the earlier. So let us not be too quick to judge which is better. Instead, for the time being, let us just open ourselves to the experience Tolstoy offers us with War and Peace.