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 vast. The 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…. ”
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.