Book note: Tolstoy’s War and Peace

WAR AND PEACE by Leo Tolstoy (1865-1869) translated by Almayer and Louise Maude (1923) edited and with an introduction by Henry Gifford (1983)

War and Peace is the best novel I have ever read.  Each time I read it, it seems new to me, and I notice things it it that I missed before.

It is the story of two very different friends, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Pierre Bezukhov, and the woman they both love, Natasha Rostov.  It is also a war novel, a historical novel and a comedy of manners, full of subplots, great descriptive writing and interesting, believable characters.

Andrei is the ideal Russian nobleman and military officer.  He is dashing, handsome, and rich, and occupies a high social rank.  He is a respected commander and staff officer, well able to cope with enemies on the battlefield and intrigues at headquarters.  Everything he does, he does competently.  His manners are impeccable, although some find him arrogant. 

His friend  Pierre is the opposite.  He is fat and clumsy, naive and foolish.  He is the bastard son of a nobleman, a marginal person in society until he unexpectedly inherits great wealth from his father, and then is taken advantage of by all.

What binds these two unlikely friends together?  Both question whether life has meaning.  Both want something deeper than the conventional values of society.  Andrei’s answer is to play the social game by its meaningless rules as best he can; Pierre’s is to search for meaning, in his blundering way, in freemasonry and other schools of thought.

The two friends differ in their opinions, and have interesting arguments.  Pierre is a would-be humanitarian reformer.  Andrei is a cynical conservative.

Both lack emotional intelligence.  Pierre is easily exploited, especially by his new, gold-digging wife, Helene.  Andrei is unable to form close relationships.  He enlists in the military partly to avoid his wife, who loves him deeply but whom Andrei cannot love in return.

Neither had a loving father and mother to set an example.  Pierre’s father apparently disowned him, until the very end; Andrei’s father was a harsh and distant widower, who didn’t like women.

Andrei does have a spiritual awakening of sorts when he is wounded in the Battle of Austerlitz and near death.  He comes to realize the futility of the quest for military glory, but otherwise is not permanently changed.

He spends years in isolation after the death of his wife in childbirth.  His capacity for affection is awakened by an encounter with the sweet, charming 16-year-old Natasha Rostov.

The Rostovs are everything that the Bolkonskys are not.  Natasha’s father is an irresponsible spendthrift; her mother is a foolish society lady.  But they are a loving couple, and their children, including brothers Nicholas and Petya, are affectionate and joyful, and have good values.

Andrei and Natasha are each fulfillments of the other’s ideal fantasy.  Andrei is a handsome, dashing prince; Natasha is a lovely, pure young maiden.  When they dance at a ball, they are smitten with each other, and soon decide to marry.

But the elder Bolkonsky intervenes.  He tells Andrei that he will give his consent to the marriage only if he and Natasha separate for a year and still want to marry at the end.

The demand shows old Bolkonsky’s malice.  If he had asked them to have a year-long engagement, so as to get to know each other better, this would have been wise and helpful.  But separation is sabotage.

Andrei consents, which shows his love is flawed.  Nobody who truly loves someone will put their love to the test.

Natasha, whose passions have been awakened but left unfulfilled, is vulnerable to the seducer, Anatole Kuragin, who, unknown to her, is already married.  Pierre, an old friend of the Rostovs, prevents Anatole from making off with her, but her reputation  is ruined.  Andrei renounces her.

She is tormented by regret and guilt, and Pierre, trying to console her, realizes that he loves her—a realization he represses because he is already married. 

Everything is changed by Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.  Pierre desires to get a glimpse of war, wanders onto the battlefield and almost miraculously escapes being killed.  

He stays behind when the Russians evacuated Moscow and is taken prisoner by the French.  His suffering during the retreat, plus an encounter with a wise, religious peasant named Platon, enable him to forge a stronger character with a deeper understanding of what life is all about.

Andrei also comes to an understanding of what life is all about, after being mortally wounded.   He lives long enough to learn that Natasha still loves him and to appreciate her for what she is.

Meanwhile Pierre’s wife has conveniently died, and he proposes to Natasha.  They love each other with an affectionate love, not a passionate, romantic love.

§§§

That is the main plot.  There are a number of sub-plots.  One is the education and coming of age of Nicholas Rostov, Natasha’s younger brother.  We see him first as in immature adolescent and leave him as a responsible married man.

He enlists in the army and dreams of military glory, while spending his father’s money foolishly and hanging out with bad company.

His cousin Sonya, a poor relation living in the Rostov household, is in love with him.  He likes her a lot and encourages her without ever committing to marry her.

She turns down an offer of marriage from Nicholas’s supposed friend Dolokhov, who is bad news.   Dolokhov is a brave solider, but also is a bully, seducer and card sharp.  He is recovering from a wound suffered in a duel with Pierre, which he intentionally provoked and only lost due to chance.

Blaming Nicholas for his rejection by Sonya, he pressures the young man into a card game and makes him lose a small fortune, which his father has to pay.

Ashamed, he goes into the army, resolved to redeem himself by being a good soldier, which he does.  When his father dies, he learns that his was deeply in debt (the novel does not spell out how much this was due to raising money to pay Dolokhov) and he can only save the family by marrying money.

He proposes to Princess Mary Bolkonsky, Andrei’s sister, because she is rich.  This means that Sonya will live her life as a spinster.  

Sonya accepts this without complaint.  The other characters don’t give her much credit for her noble sacrifice.  Luckily for the Rostovs, Natasha’s husband Pierre also is rich.

In the Epilogue, we find Nicholas and Pierre as friends and neighboring landowners.  Nicholas represents an alternate path to Andrei’s and Pierre’s.  He simply accepts his role in society as given, without doubt and self-questioning, and does the best he can with it.  His neighbors respect him and so do his serfs.  “A real master,” they call him.

If you just pulled out the chapters in which Nicholas was mentioned and arranged them in sequence, you’d have a good novel in itself.

§§§

Likewise, if you just pulled out the chapters dealing with Russia’s war with Napoleon, you’d have a good war novel.  Tolstoy served in the Russian army and got his start as a writer by writing sketches about the Crimean War.  

He had a realistic understanding of war, military bureaucracy and army life.  He understood, for example, that authority in an army is based less on military rank than on closeness to headquarters.

He despised Napoleon, who is a character in the novel.  As depicted by Tolstoy, Napoleon is not a great man.  Rather he is like an actor playing the role of a great man.  

He has no special genius.  He thinks of war as a game, with rules.  For him, capturing the enemy’s capital is like taking the king in chess.  When he occupies Moscow and nobody surrenders, he doesn’t know what to do.

The Russian general Kutuzov wisely understands that victory in war consists not in occupying territory, but in destroying the enemy forces while preserving your own.  He gives battle reluctantly and preserves his army while the enemy self-destructs.

His strategy is like Mao Zedong’s:  When the enemy advances, we retreat.  When the enemy halts, we harass.  When the enemy is tired, we attack.  When the enemy retreats, we pursue.

But even so, as Tolstoy noted, Kutuzov could have lost.  The Russian victory was due less to Napoleon’s blunders or Kutuzov’s wisdom than to the Russian peasants who burned they hay rather than sell it to the French for fodder.

§§§

War and Peace is full of rich descriptions of characters, incidents and aspects of Russian society.  There is more to it than I can summarize.  Every chapter is interesting.

Afterthought [07/02/2022].   A well-read woman friend of mine had this to say about Tolstoy in an e-mail.

Perhaps the trouble for me with W&P is that I am not temperamentally attuned to Tolstoy.  He exasperates me in different sorts of niggling ways, such as his obvious despising of poor Princess Bolkonsky when she is afraid of the “necessary pains” or maybe it is “inevitable pains” of childbirth.  Men have a nerve.  Lev could not even get his wife a more comfortable sofa for her own accouchements, for Crissake.  And turning Natasha into a flat footed plump wet nurse—well.  Of course that was realistic, but. 

But boy could he create word pictures that stay in the mind!  The Princess’s poor little helpless upper lip even after her death…that mitigates his scorn of her, and for some reason the image of Sonya crossing the floor with her glass of water for her water color paints, but don’t ask me why that image seems so bright…of course there is mightier stuff going on that is beautifully and robustly drawn—without doubt.  But his stock wonderful peasant guy—give us a break, Count.  Too, too pat.  He is a great writer from whom I have to remain slightly aloof. [snip]

And Tolstoy’s late, you might say, sickness in the head from losing his testosterone? Fueled hatred of sex as revealed in The Kreutzer Sonata?  And this from the man who used to chase down his serfs?  Gimme a break.

What does all that have to do with the actual sturdy body of W&P—not a whole helluva on one level.  [snip]   But…

That’s a fair comment.  I don’t think Tolstoy was unsympathetic to women, but he saw no role for them excepts as wives and mothers or as self-sacrificing saints.  The only woman in War and Peace who has claims to intellectual culture or a role in life other than serving men is the vicious Helene.

At least he was able to see things from his upper-class women characters’ standpoint.  The same is not true of the Russian serfs.  They are always noble and sometimes unreasonable, but nothing is shown from their point of view and, except for Platon, they are pretty much interchangeable.

Women and serfs in War and Peace have a kind of instinctive, intuitive wisdom denied to educated, upper-class men, but that doesn’t mean they are the intellectual equals of men  

Tolstoy wrote an article shortly after publication of War and Peace acknowledging that, in that era, serfs were badly treated, fathers had a right to have their grown sons flogged, and husbands could lock up their wives.  He mentions a woman aristocrat who owned 600 serfs and had 139 of them tortured to death; she was sentenced to death, but this was later commuted to life imprisonment in a convent.

But he didn’t include these kinds of incidents in his novel because he didn’t think Russia in 1805-1812 was worse than other countries or other historical eras.

In short, unlike me, Tolstoy was neither a liberal nor a democrat.  I still think War and Peace is the best novel I ever read.

LINKS

What’s the best translation of War and Peace by Tolstoy? on We Love Translations.

What’s the best translation of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy? by Lucy on Tolstoy Therapy.

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3 Responses to “Book note: Tolstoy’s War and Peace”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    The times make the man.

    Like

  2. silverapplequeen Says:

    One of my favorite novels of all time.

    Like

  3. Book note: Tolstoy’s War and Peace — Phil Ebersole’s Blog | Vermont Folk Troth Says:

    […] Book note: Tolstoy’s War and Peace — Phil Ebersole’s Blog […]

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