This my third post (of six) discussing Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. It's taken me a bit longer than anticipated to get this post prepared, but with the holidays behind me I hope that the future posts in this series will follow at shorter intervals. The first post discussing this project and second post discussing Volume 1 can be found here:
Project: War and Peace - Post 1
Project: War and Peace - Post 2
As I stated in Post 2, I'm going to write about each volume based on what I find interesting, eschewing a set structure. After finishing Volume 2, and comparing it to Volume 1, I think this approach is validated.
In Volume 2, war, while present, retreats from the center of the action. After the Russian defeat at Austerlitz, so vividly described near the end of Volume 1, Tolstoy does not present the action at the Battle of Friedland, in which the French decisively defeated the Russian army in early summer 1807 and ended the War of the Fourth Coalition. We see the peace made between Napoleon and Alexander at Tilsit, which made Russia and France allies. We hear about skirmishes with the Prussians. There is talk about the far-off campaigns of the French army in Spain. We sense the resentment of Napoleon's Continental System, especially as the years pass after Tilsit. We are told of reforms in the Russian military, and of preparations to raise additional troops to supplement the standing army. We are witness to the quiet pleasure of military life during peacetime.
Tolstoy's approach seems appropriate. The years between 1807 and 1812 were ones of relative peace for Russia. The period between the crushing defeats to the French at Austerlitz and Friedland and the all-consuming French invasion of 1812. It was a time for Russia to learn from the earlier campaigns versus the French and prepare for the next onslaught. Further, in Volume 1 the battles of Schongrabern and Austerlitz are described in great detail and with great intensity. As readers, we can benefit from the relative detachment of Volume 2 from the details of battle, lest we become weary before the more important battles to come in 1812 (and certainly to be covered in great detail in later volumes).
Interestingly, in the absence of a large battle between armies, mid-way into Volume 2, Tolstoy describes an equally intense and intricate hunt where hundreds of dogs and dozens of riders carry out the customary activity of the Russian aristocracy. One can hardly miss the parallels between the organized violence of war and the almost stylized pursuit and killing of wolves and foxes during the hunt.
If Volume 2 isn't about war then it must be about peace. This is true in that the plot focuses not on the battles, generals, and leaders that dominated the era but on the array of characters that Tolstoy introduced in Volume 1. However, as Tolstoy narrows his gaze to develop his characters, we realize that his main characters are living an unsettled peace. Four characters comprise the center of Volume 2: Count Pierre Bezukhov, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, Nikolai Rostov, and his sister Natasha. It is through these characters that Tolstoy explores his central and complimentary themes of hope and disappointment. Readers of this blog will know that I consider these attitudes to be intrinsic to man and rarely in literature have they been so compellingly presented.
Pierre (apparently Tolstoy's alter ego) begins Volume 2 trying to come to terms with his wealth and social position. He hopes his marriage to the beautiful and elegant Helene Kuragin (a match much to her father's, Prince Vassily, delight) will bring him happiness, but it is a failure from the start. Helene is cold and unfaithful. The disappointment leads Pierre into a foolish duel to defend his honor over rumors of his wife's infidelity and to flee Moscow. He reflects on the absurdity of life, of the insignificance of existence. To find some meaning he enthusiastically embraces Free-Masonry, hoping that by cultivating his spirituality he will gain a peace of mind. He sets out to visit his vast estates and decides to become a reformer, freeing his serfs and enacting policies to improve living and working conditions. However, he lacks the energy and focus to follow through on his goals. He leaves his estates believing he has done good when in fact his reforms have been used to benefit his superintendents and his subjects are no better off than before.
Over time Pierre becomes disillusioned with Free-Masonry. He wants to be a man of action and the passivity of the order grates on him. Seeing no changes around him and sensing no great changes within himself he soon slips from the ascetic tenets of the Masons and reengages in his former life of drinking and carousing. He reconciles with his wife at the urging of his associates, but the marriage is a sham. He is briefly invigorated at meeting Natasha Rostov, absorbing the vitality that she exudes. However, he never acts on his desires and her interest in other men is yet another disappointment. By the end of Volume 2 Pierre is no closer to finding the purpose and meaning that he is desperately seeking from his life.
Andrei returns to Russia after recuperating from the wounds suffered at Austerlitz. He is eager to take up his domestic duties, putting behind his desires to accomplish great things. He arrives at his father's estate just in time for the birth of his son and the heartbreaking death of his wife in childbirth. This sequence is one of the most effective and affecting in the novel so far. After his wife's death Andrei retreats from society to manage his estates, a defeated man, sure that the best of his life is over.
However, after a visit from his friend Pierre and upon witnessing a young and jubilant Natasha Rostov at her family's country estate, he awakens to the reality that he still has much to contribute and that his life isn't over at age 31. He reinvests his energy in society and joins the government, becoming an important aide to the Interior Minister Speransky and instrumental in drafting needed military reforms. His star in St. Petersburg reignited, he soon becomes enamored with Natasha Rostov, the woman whose energy acted as the catalyst beginning his recovery. He proposes marriage but the match is not supported by his influential father. Nevertheless, he pursues the engagement, but must agree to go abroad for a year to gain the tacit support of his family. The time away proves fateful. His absence allows other men to lavish attention upon Natasha, including the unscrupulous Anatole Kuragin. When Andrei finally returns to Russia he learns of Natasha's planned elopement with Anatole and her suicide attempt after that plan failed. Realizing that his hopes for a happy marriage will not be found with Natasha, he abandons all thoughts of continuing the relationship.
Despite his disappointments, which also include his mentor Speransky being dismissed from his post, we sense that unlike his friend Pierre, Andrei is sure of himself and confident in his future.
From Austerlitz on, Nikolai Rostov is faced with challenges. He must decide how he feels about his cousin Sonya; must manage the tricky politics of life at the front during war and peace; must help his friend Denisov and petition for him to the tsar; must pay back massive gambling debts; and must come back from military life to take over management of his family's faltering affairs. Through these challenges we see Nikolai grow from a young idealistic officer to a man of responsibility. It seems that all his happy times have an unpleasant end. An enjoyable leave in Moscow ends with lost friendships and lost money. His time in the front before Friedland is marred by the injury and court-marshal of his friend Denisov, and the summary dismissal of his petition to the tsar. He must leave a happy time with the army during peace to take over the laborious management of his family's finances. And after he realizes his love for Sonya - perhaps the only genuine romantic love so far presented in the novel - and decides to marry her, he must suffer the disapproval of his mother for such a poor match.
Volume 2 ends without further indication of where Nikolai's (and Sonya's) life will evolve. However the diminishing fortunes of his family and the humiliating actions of his sister Natasha (see below) would seem to pose more challenges. Volume 2 saw the evolution of Nikolai from a young idealist to a centered, realistic young man. Might further challenges transform realism into pessimism?
Natasha is a source of invigoration. She exudes life and vitality. All the men in her life react powerfully to her presence. Nikolai, his friend Dolokhov, Prince Andrei, Pierre, and Anatole Kuragin are only a few that are enchanted by her. She soars on this vitality, ignoring or unaffected by the myriad issues within the Rostov family. Her appearance in society captivates many of the St. Petersburg and Moscow elite. However, while she can act as a muse, we see the dark side of that nature. Her carefree and spirited attitude eventually succumbs to capriciousness and she shames herself and her family, and dooms her relationship with Andrei by embracing an ill-founded and youthful passion for Anatole. By the end of Volume 2 the passion for life that so many found captivating has overcome her ability to reason and even led her to attempt suicide over the loss of Anatole. Natasha has become the hope of young life and the danger of unbridled passion.
The themes of hope and disappointment are experience by numerous other characters, Vera Rostov's compromised marriage to Berg and Boris Drubetskoy's compromised engagement to Julie Karagin are prime examples. Russia may be largely at peace, but Tolstoy's characters, like the nation itself, have not found it to be a successful peace.
Thoughts on Subsequent Volumes
We have arrived at 1812, which means that the novel must soon turn to the cataclysmic French invasion. Surely we will find that the fortunes of Tolstoy's characters will be deeply entwined with the details of that campaign. I will not predict how the various characters will continue to evolve, but I do think it is safe to say, that like the Russian experience in 1812-13, there will be complicated defeats and messy victories.
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