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.



Most of the fine things said about Tolstoy are true. However, Tolstoy does have his weaknesses, and the scope of War and Peace gives him room to display them.

There is his Russian populism, accompanied by assertions about every Russian:

.. this slender, graceful countess, brought up in silk and velvet, so foreign to her, who was able to understand everything that was in Anisya, and in Anisya’s father, and in her aunt, and in her mother, and in every Russian.

(Volume II, Part Four, VII). Or

that clear, unostentatious, and meek voice in which only clergy reading in Slavonic read and which affects the Russian heart so irresistibly.

(Volume III, Part One, XVIII). Perhaps, but I suspect that when Tolstoy’s heart was so affected he made a quick recovery; he doesn’t give the clergy in general much time. (And how does Natasha understand this prayer from the synod if it is in Slavonic; and if it is in Russian, then how does the priest manage the voice?) One hears about the dumb but vital nationalism of the muzhiks, who did not bring hay to the French in Moscow. Yet the muzhiks of Bogaruchovo seemed to need some hussars to make them think right.

There is his military nationalism, which for example presents the Prussians and Austrians as quick to surrender. Neither, particularly Prussia, had a hinterland the size of Russia’s. Felix Markham writes in his life of Napoleon that it was the Austrian resistance at Wagram that first caused Napoleon to doubt that battle was always the answer. There is at least a hint of Russian distinctiveness in the scorched earth policy and brutal partisan warfare; both were prefigured in the Peninsular War. Nowhere does he mention the massive subsidies Britain gave to Russia, and without which Russia could not have brought nearly so large an army into the field. That doesn’t make for interesting fiction, I agree.  Yet the reader who remembers history finds the picture of Russia against the world incomplete.

There is his view of women. Tolstoy is very good on girls (Natasha, Sonya), and good to very good on some mothers, notably the senior countess Rostov and her daughter-in-law Princess Marya. I don’t find Natasha as mother much of a presence. We hear that she is devoted to Pierre and her children; we hear that she breast-feeds her babies. But there isn’t much there, and he insists that there shouldn’t be. He is not good, in War and Peace, on fast women. One gets no sense of what, looks apart, attracts anyone to Elena Bezukhov. We can stipulate that men are easily pleased, and will represent as witty and clever any sufficiently attractive woman. Yet Tolstoy doesn’t make us feel that. In fact, he does not show us her stupidity, just leaves us to take Pierre’s word for it. And he shows women who aspire to think much in the way that Fielding shows them: they are a bit ludicrous, they are sterile.

Well, Randall Jarrell quotes somebody’s definition of a masterpiece as “a great work of art that has something wrong with it.” There is enough wrong with War and Peace. If I read it again, I will probably skip the tedious stretches of historical reflection. I will roll my eyes at many of the Kutuzov passages. But I suspect that whole dozens of pages will seem as remarkable as when I first read them years ago.

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.

The Marriage Market

Boris Drubetskoy is having a hard time nerving himself to take Julia Karagina for a wife:

But in Julie’s presence, looking at her red face and chin, almost always dubbed with powder, at her moist eyes, and the expression of her face, which showed a permanent readiness to change at once from melancholy to the unnatural rapture of married, happiness, Boris was unable to utter the decisive words–despite the fact that he had long considered himself the owner of the Penza and Nizhni Novgorod estates and had allocated the use of the income from them.

In Chapter VII of the first part of Tom Jones, fielding writes of Captain Blifil that

In his opinion of the female sex, he exceeded the moroseness of Aristotle himself: he looked on a woman as on an animal of domestic use, of somewhat higher consideration than a cat, since her offices were of rather more importance; but the difference between these two was, in his estimation, so small, that, in his marriage contracted with Mr Allworthy’s lands and tenements, it would have been pretty equal which of them he had taken into the bargain.


Bald Hills, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Otradnoe

The next time I read through War and Peace, I shall have to look more closely at locations. Having just read through Volume II, Parts Two through Four, the contrasts are striking.

The household and estate of Bald Hills fears and respects Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky. The only resident who has the standing to judge him is his daughter, and filial piety and religion prevent her from doing so. Moscow respects what it supposes Prince Nikolai stands for, and flatters him. Yet he does not show to advantage there; he shows signs of senility, which may be aggravated by the demands of society.

In fact, Moscow is only so good for the Bolkonskys. Prince Andrei has the happiness of falling in love with Natasha Rostov. A bit later, Princess Marya has twin distresses: seeing her father at a disadvantage; and discovering that her friend Julie Karagina is just not that interesting.

Pierre is slightly ridiculous in St. Petersburg. He fits into Moscow. This I think is because his want of discipline matches the Moscow temperament. He is another aging, retired gentleman-in-waiting, one of the many in Moscow. St. Petersburg must have plenty of those too, yet somehow they don’t set the tone there. It is also possible that we are to understand that Moscow has better, more homely qualities than St. Petersburg, and appreciates a good heart above clever conversation. It is in St. Petersburg that Dolokhov commences an affair with Elena Bezukhov. In Moscow he falls in love with the more wholesome Sonya.

Otradnoe is a paradise–the original meaning of the word is “hunting park”, isn’t it?–if something of a fool’s paradise. The happiness of the hunt and of the mummers’ visit is beautifully depicted and convincing. At the same time, there are the pressures of money and time. The Rostovs don’t have the money they should, and can’t figure out how to get it from the estate. The parents’ best notion of financial rescue is to marry off Nikolai to Julie Karagina; this is hard on Nikolai and on Sonya. Time weighs on Natasha both as simple boredom, and time spent with her family when (as an aging woman of sixteen) she might be married to Prince Andrei.


Volume II, Part One

Volume II, Part One is framed by Nikolai and Sonya’s love. It is there in Chapter I, when Nikolai and Natasha discuss it, and again in Chapter XVI when he pays forty-three thousand rubles to Dolokhov, who has skinned him at cards out of spite at Sonia’s refusal of his offer of marriage. A remarkable length of time elapses in  these few chapters: Chapter I occurs at the beginning of 1806; the duel takes place in March; and Chapter XI on take place in the Christmas season.

I am struck by the examples of the women who are in it, or how they are imagined by the men around them.

There is Sonya, a beautiful girl of sixteen, whom Nikolai will not renounce. On the other hand he sees himself as too busy for love. (And what does it mean to say that he is “going there?”) Dolokhov apparently sees her as the exemplar of

that heavenly purity and faithfulness that I seek in a woman. If I had ever found such a woman, I would have given my life for her … And believe me, if I still value my life, it’s only because I still hope to meet the heavenly being who will resurrect, purify, and elevate me.

That the faithfulness applies to Nikolai Rostov does not improve Dolokhov’s temper. And there is nothing to indicate that Dolokhov has previously gone looking for such a woman where he might be in danger of finding her. Her moral character and her devotion of Nikolai are not put into doubt. We do not see her from the inside though: she has almost fewer lines to speak than Elena Bezhukov.

There is Elena Bezhukov. Is she Dolokhov’s mistress as the town gossip says, and a depraved woman as Pierre decides? Probably, given her form in the book. Yet she is one of the characters we see not at all from the inside.

There is the Princess Lise Bolkonsky. Chapters VII through IX take her from a silly, self-absorbed woman to a mother suffering in childbirth, and kill her. She ends as victim, really as an archetype, with the face that says

I love you all, I did no harm to anyone, why am I suffering?


Ah, what is that you have done to me and why?

The old prince, who received the news of his son’s presumed death with anger but no tears, bursts into sobs over the death of his daughter-in-law. Prince Andrei feels that

something snapped in his soul, that he was to blame for something he could neither set aright nor forget. He was unable to weep.

Natasha, the book’s darling, begins as just Nikolai’s little sister, in between little girl and young woman. Later in the year, she shows the sense to find Dolokhov bad company, and to see that he is in love with Sonya. By the second-last chapter, Denisov will have made a proposal of marriage to her. Yet she remains a girl, falling on back on her mother to manage the refusal of Denisov.

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.

Prince Andrei’s Friendships

On another look, I am not wrong in seeing Prince Andrei as preferring
friendships in which he can patronize the friend. In Volume I, Part
One, VI

Prince Andrei looked at [Pierre] with kindly eyes. But in his
friendly, gentle gaze, a consciousness of his own superiority still showed.

We have just read, after a consideration of Pierre’s views, that

In the best, the friendliest and simplest relations, flattery or
praise is necessary, just as grease is necessary to keep wheels

In Volume One, Part Three, IX, when Prince Andrei is helping Boris to find a position on the staff,

Prince Andrei always became especially animated when he had to guide a young man [in this case Boris] and help him towards worldly success. Under the pretext of this help for another, which out of pride he would never accept for himself, he found himself close to the milieu which conferred success and which attracted him.

(He would never accept help, yet somehow Prince Andrei is one of Kutuzov’s adjutants, and his father is one of Kutuzov’s comrades from the wars of Catherine the Great. In fact, Kutuzov may be his uncle; his wife’s remarks in  Volume I, Part One, VI suggest this but are not clear.)

His liking for Captain Tushin is of the same sort. Both are captains
(and one has to read far into the novel to learn Prince Andrei’s
rank); yet in that “more essential subordination” which Boris has just
perceived, Prince Andrei outranks generals, let alone artillery

In Volume I, Part Two, III, we find that the officers with whom Prince Andrei serves fall into two groups: the smaller group looks up to him, and “with these people Prince Andrei was simple and pleasant”; the larger group dislikes him, but respects and even fears him. This may be part of what it is to be a Bolkonsky, since that seems to be the case with his father. Kuragins may hold them cheap, but not the rest of the world. It does not make for equal friendships.

Prince Andrei’s superiority to his contemporaries may be necessary to the book. He is the exemplar of intelligence and energy, which will be seen as deficient compared to wisdom. For those of us who take an interest in things of the mind, the renunciation of worldly goods gets a nod of approval, and may or may not make us question our lives. But Prince Andrei, in Volume IV, will be questioning the value of intelligence, erudition, wit, qualities that we at least respect and perhaps pique ourselves on.

Tolstoy and Pascal

In Volume I, Part One, VI, Pierre and Prince Andrei are talking:

“Well, what makes you go to war?” asked Pierre.
“What makes me? I don’t know, I have to. Besides, I’m going . . .” He paused, “I’m going because this life I lead here, this life–is not for me!”

In Part II of The Pensees, “The Misery of Man Without God”, Pascal writes

One would not buy commissions in the army at such a price, if it were not found intolerable to remain in the city.

Which leads to the consideration that the revolution in Pierre’s character after his captivity perhaps comes from his discovering perforce “how to remain quietly in a room”, the inability to do which Pascal regards as the source of all human misfortunes.

Volume I, Part Two: Kutuzov, Bagration, Prince Andrei

Kutuzov is the wise man of War and Peace, one beyond considerations of cleverness and reasoning. Obviously he has the intelligence to articulate his skepticism of the Austrian staff’s plans, and to extricate his army when the campaign turns against the allies. But that is not really what he is there for. We see some of this in his inspection in Chapter II, in his encounter with Dolokhov:

“I ask only one thing Your Excellency,” he said in his firm, sonorous, unhurried voice. “I ask to be given a chance to wipe out my guilt and prove my devotion to the sovereign and to Russia.”

Kutzov turned away. The same smile of the eyes flashed over his face as when he had turned away from Captain Timokhin. He turned away and winced, as if wishing to express thereby that all that Dolokhov had said to him and all that he could say had long, long been known to him, that it all bored him, and that it was all by no means what was needed.

(But is that fair? Kutuzov’s previous remark calls for a reply such as Dolokhov made.)

Prince Bagration plays somewhat the same role at Schöngraben as Kutuzov will play later:

Prince Andrei listened carefully to Prince Bagration’s exchanges with the commanders and to the orders he gave, and noticed, to his surprise, that no orders were given, and that Prince Bagration only tried to pretend that all that was done by necessity, chance, or the will of a particular commander, that it was all done, if not on his orders, then in accord with his intentions. Owing to the tact shown by Prince Bagration, Prince Andrei noticed that, in spite of the chance character of events, and their independence of the commander’s will, his presence accomplished a very great deal. Commanders who rode up to Prince Bagration with troubled faces became calm, soldiers and officers greeted him merrily and became more animated in his presence, and obviously showed off their courage before him.

Yet in the next chapter, XVIII, Bagration will give positive orders that have an effect on the battle: to call down two battalions of chasseurs, and to have the troops now in the front line make room for them. We hear in the first sentence of Chapter XIX that this secures the retreat of the right flank.

Prince Andrei is still at the stage of intelligence, not wisdom. Kutuzov values his efficiency as a staff officer, and of his peers, some like, some fear, and all respect him. He “was one of the rare officers on the staff who placed his main interest in the general course of military operations”; the merits of this attitude will be called into question later in the book. Just before the fighting at Schöngraben begins, he is working out plans for the battle, “only in general terms.”

He suffers from vanity. At the moment he hears of Mack’s defeat, “he vividly pictured to himself what awaited the army, and the role he was to play in it.” In Chapter IX, on the way from Krems to Brünn, on waking “He would recall once more all the details of the victory, his calm manliness during the battle, and reassured, would doze off ….” Approaching the palace at Brünn,

He vividly pictured again all the details of the battle, not vaguely now, but in the well-defined concise account which, in his imagination, he was giving to the emperor Franz.

War and Peace repeatedly calls into question the possibility of a well-defined concise account of a battle, or of picturing all its details. The interview with the emperor goes off as such interviews apparently do at the court, with the ritual of a certain number of questions asked and answered.

We also learn in Chapter XIII that what Prince Andrei feared most in the world is “what is known as ridicule“, that is to say ridiculousness. In Chapter XI, “he (it had to be admitted) had almost been jealous over his wife” in regard to the foolish Ippolit Kuragin. Given his professed trust in his wife’s fidelity (Part One, Chapter VI), that sounds like vanity also. His feeling of humiliation in seeing the state of the retreating Russian forces is one that would not occur to a Kutuzov or Bagration.

We do see a different side of Prince Andrei, a gift for sympathy and friendship.  In Part One we saw it with Pierre. Here we see it with the quick liking he takes for Captain Tushin. Is it significant that both men are in some ways his inferiors, Pierre initially in social standing, always in will power, Tushin in social standing and perhaps rank? On the other hand, he is friends with Bilibin, his peer in social and official standing. Bilibin’s straining for epigram makes his company a little tedious to this reader; it does not seem to create in Prince Andrei the impatience that ordinary social chatter does.