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.