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.