Thursday, March 17, 2011

Notes on Pages 1-417

Anticipating a busy summer of reading, I've been trekking steadily ahead. I've made it to the first benchmark on the climb—to page 418, where we're supposed to have read for our first meeting in June.

The book is really wonderful, though challenging and exhausting as well. Overall, though, it's everything I hoped and imagined it would be.

Since I'm hoping to be finished with the book by the beginning of the summer, I wanted to preserve some of my reactions along the way. I've written out some thoughts on these first 417 pages. You won't want to read them until you've made it this far yourself (through Part Two of Volume Two), so stop here if you aren't there yet.


Each of the novel’s three main male characters, Pierre Bezukhov, Andrei Bolkonsky, and Nikolai Rostov, has undergone an arc of change in the first 418 pages.

Pierre begins as a naïve, seemingly foolish outsider. He is earnest, passionate, curious, but often used as a pawn by others—by Anna Pavlovna Scherer at the party that opens the novel, by Anna Mikhailovna as she maneuvers Pierre into his position as heir to his father’s fortune, by Prince Vassily as he angles his daughter into marriage with Pierre, and by the Masons as they initiate him into their secrets. His judgment can be terrible, as when he gets involved with the shenanigans of Dolokhov and Anatole, or when he marries Helene, or when he gets involved in the messy duel with Dolokhov. At the same time, Tolstoy encourages us to sympathize with Pierre, perhaps because of his befuddlement, his muddlement, which in the end are only symptoms of his genuineness. He honestly cares about his ideas about war, about peace, about religion, about his marriage and his honor, unlike manipulators like Vassily or Anna Pavlovna, who are sure of themselves and adroit in their use of others to get what they want, yet are ultimately closed off from growth and change. Even Pierre’s mistakes, as ridiculous as they can make him seem, propel him in interesting new directions. For example, Tolstoy clearly satirizes the Masonic order that Pierre joins, but at the same time it does play an important role in Pierre’s development—and even brings about a change in Andrei’s life, too, as I’ll discuss later.

This openness to the complexities of life seems to be a hallmark of Tolstoy’s art, an awareness that things can be both ridiculous and meaningful, ambiguous in their meaning and subject to change over time. Another good example of this complexity might be Princess Marya’s rejection of marriage to Anatole. In some ways, it’s the best choice: Anatole is a scoundrel, and he and his father have devised this marriage scheme merely as a political and economic scheme to connect themselves to the Bolkonsky wealth. On the other hand, there’s something tragic about her choice to bind herself forever to her condescending, authoritarian father, renouncing the family life she desired and that Anatole, despite his massive flaws, may have been able to give her. But then again, she does seem eventually to experience that family life with her nephew, Andrei’s son, in the wake of the little princess’s death.

Andrei begins as a haughty, superior military officer. His haughtiness seems justified in some instances, as he stands aloof from the frivolous society people of Anna Pavlovna’s party, or from the post-battle falsehoods of people like Zherkov. Andrei may have something in common with Hemingway’s heroes, who strive for authenticity and honor and abhor puffery and lies. He seeks out personal danger to himself in battle, and he also seeks to understand the world as fully as he can by observing the more rarified reaches of power, meeting with Bilibin and the Austrian emperor. Upon being injured in battle, however, he has a sort of epiphany as, near death, he stares at the empty blue sky above him. A personal encounter with Napoleon drives home for him the futility of war and the foolishness of even the most glorious military leaders. Believed dead by his family, he returns to his ancestral estates just in time to witness the death of his wife in childbirth, and to feel the accusation in her face: “Ah, what have you done to me?” (328). Having cruelly written her off as a silly fool before he left for war, he accepts her accusation as true. He withdraws from his former pursuit of glory and refuses to participate in future military campaigns, except as an assistant to his aged father, who has been brought out of retirement to serve as a leader. He has retreated from the public world and sworn off his pursuit of glory, deciding to live a private life, “for myself alone” (384), as he puts it (though he includes his son, his sister, and his father as part of that “self”). According to his sister, however, “He needs activity, and this regular, quiet life is ruining him” (393). Having lost his former self-assurance and primary motivation, he lives a life that seems not to fulfill his deepest needs.

Rostov seems to be a younger, prelapsarian Andrei. He is part of a wonderful family that delights in life—in dancing and laughter and togetherness—and is open to others (they welcome Pierre in to their party warmly and welcome Denisov into their household as well) but also knows how to handle difficult situations. Nikolai’s father handles Nikolai’s gambling crisis just about perfectly, it seems, impressing upon his son the seriousness of his mistake without alienating him or causing him to doubt his family’s love. Sonya and Natasha both reject marriage proposals that aren’t right for them—unlike Pierre, who allows Vassily to speak for him and maneuver him into a marriage that he knows deep down is wrong for him. Rostov, then, has a solid family foundation that allows him to explore the world and make mistakes. He also has the steadfast love of Sonya, who also allows him freedom to dally and live a wild youth.

And yet, for all the so-called freedom of his life as a young blade in Moscow, it is within the strictures of regimental and familial life that Rostov feels most comfortable:

When he had reported to the regimental commander, had obtained an assignment to his former squadron, had been on duty and gone foraging, had entered into all the little concerns of the regiment, and had felt himself deprived of freedom and bound within one narrow, unchanging frame, Rostov experienced the same peace, the same support, and the same awareness that here he was at home, where he belonged, as he felt under the parental roof. There was not all that disorder of the free world, in which he found no place for himself and made wrong choices; there was no Sonya, with whom he had or did not have to talk things over. There was no possibility of going or not going here or there; there were not those twenty-four hours in a day which could be spent in so many different ways…. Here in the regiment everything was clear and simple…. Having entered once more into these definite conditions of regimental life, Rostov experienced a joy and peace similar to what a weary man feels when he lies down to rest. (395)

This passage reminds me of an essay I wrote in graduate school for Naomi Lebowitz’s modernism class, in which I explored the idea that “freedom necessarily involves some submission or surrender, either to a human community or to a powerful God.” To Nietzsche’s warning, in Ecce Homo, that true freedom consists not in negatively “shouting about the things [one is] not,” but rather in “Yes-saying without reservation,” I connected D. H. Lawrence’s assertion, in Studies in Classic American Literature, that “It is never freedom till you find something you really positively want to be.” Rostov finds in the regiment this sense of belonging and purpose, giving his life stability and direction.

Yet there are serious cracks in that regimental foundation. Rostov falsifies his military experience after the fact to make it conform to his heroic notions. And his visit to the military hospital, with all of its hideous suffering and forgotten soldiers, causes him to have misgivings about the war. When he goes from that experience to the highest levels of the war, observing the truce between his sovereign and Napoleon, and seeing the social climber Boris Drubetskoy in his element, he begins to doubt the war’s somber, unquestionable purpose and even his own enraptured allegiance to Alexander. In a bar later on, “he remembered that self-satisfied Bonaparte with his white little hand, who was now an emperor, whom the emperor Alexander liked and respected. Why, then, those torn-off arms and legs, those dead people?” (416) he wonders. His dawning realization here of the futility of war, the colossal waste of it, its purpose only to give glory to leaders who can’t even sit their horses properly, puts him near the same state of consciousness that Andrei attained after his near-fatal injury. Yet Rostov resists this new consciousness, for his faith in war and its glorious leaders is so central to the foundation of his worldview that, he feels, to abandon it would be to plunge into chaos. He argues with fellow soldiers at the bar who express bitterness at the truce with Napoleon. “If it pleases the sovereign emperor to recognize Bonaparte as emperor and conclude an alliance with him—it means it has to be so,” Rostov insists, arguing more with himself than anyone else. “And if we start judging and reasoning about everything, then there’ll be nothing sacred left. Next we’ll be saying there’s no God, no anything” (417). Of course, this is exactly the sort of talk that disillusioned characters like Pierre and Andrei have been trading back and forth, though now each seems to be groping his way toward a new belief in God.

To use another phrase I picked up from Naomi Lebowitz (this time in a class on William and Henry James), Nikolai Rostov is a “once-born” character, still struggling to hold on to the original beliefs of his childhood despite mounting evidence that they are inadequate. Meanwhile, Andrei is becoming a “twice-born” character; having had his original belief system shattered, he now begins to grope toward some new foundation on which to build the rest of his life. After Pierre explains his Masonic religious vision to Andrei—that “We must live, we must love, we must believe … that we do not live only today on this scrap of earth, but have lived and will live eternally there, in the all” (389)—Andrei is reminded of the vision he had of the blue sky after his injury at Austerlitz, and “something long asleep, something that was best in him, suddenly awakened joyful and young in his soul” (389). Thus, this “meeting with Pierre marked an epoch for Prince Andrei, from which began what, while outwardly the same, was in his inner world a new life” (389). Pierre, the illegitimate son of one of Catherine the Great’s former lovers, seems to have grown up with little in the way of a foundation, unlike Andrei (with his strong patriarchal father) or Rostov (with his warm, generous parents). Pierre is an awkward searcher who makes many mistakes but in his openness has potential for learning and growth and even the opportunity to lead others out of their own swamps of desolation.


  1. Great comments on the main characters. I loved Frank's comment on Pierre's naivete at Anna Pavlovna's party. I missed that insight - hopefully because it was so early on and I was still acquainting myself with the characters.

    I think Andrei is a very intriguing character and exemplifies why Hemingway admires Tolstoy so much. Tolstoy sees life as a journey towards some greater Truth. This accommodates the American mindset, especially the transcendentalists. Certainly, Andrei, as all the other characters, finds himself, on a journey and, in this first section, a significant action has occurred for Andrei: death. I can't help thinking we're somewhere between Hemingway's short stories "Nick Sat Against the Wall" and "A Way You'll Never Be". Andrei's naiveté about war and life are now exposed. After his daughter dies, Tolstoy writes “Prince Andrei felt something snapped in his soul, that he was to blame for something he could neither set right nor forget" (238). I’m amazed at Andrei’s resilience, though. Following the battle, he comments: "All I say is that what convinces one of the necessity of a future life is not arguments, but when one goes through life hand in hand with a person, and suddenly that person disappears there into nowhere, and you yourself stop before that abyss and look into it. And I did look …" (389). Yet, while he becomes reclusive and limits himself, as Frank mentioned, this seems to free him as Andrei recognizes a new life in his own inner world. He doesn’t give into despair. In homage to junior English, I heard from someone that War and Peace is like Catch-22: we circle around an idea and eventually gain further insight and knowledge to the core Truth for Tolstoy (yeah, yeah, go ahead and make fun of me for referencing Catch-22). I’m excited to see the future decisions and actions of Andrei after he faces the “abyss”.

  2. In response to Frank’s postings about Pierre and Rostov, I think it’s important to keep in mind Tolstoy’s love for dualism. Regarding Pierre’s marriage to Helen, I think Tolstoy tries to expose the bifurcation of life. Much like the idea that freedom requires limitation, should Pierre listen to society and marry Helen or should be an individual and promote his own thoughts? Does he actually have a choice in this matter? Tolstoy’s favorite questions are “What for?” and “Why?” It’s possible that he’s applying these questions to Pierre and Helen. Does Pierre’s decision really matter? Will it affect others? Does he even control his own fate or are his decisions, like so many within our daily lives, dwarfed by the actions of those in power. As Andrei acknowledges, “It's [generals] who decide the fates of nations” (252). Then again, Tolstoy was disrespectful to those in power because they were self-aggrandizing men who directed actions for self-seeking, vain desires, not the betterment of society. Thus, maybe this is the problem Tolstoy has with Pierre’s decision: his action doesn’t better society; nor does it better him, nor Helen.

    Regarding Rostov, I think Frank offers a phenomenal read of this character, as well. Rostov is very free, or so he appears. Tolstoy wrote: “Man would not be free if he knew no truth at all, and he would not be free … if the full truth … were revealed to him once for all.” Recognizing that Rostov is a “once-born” character for now, I think he has changes coming, but Tolstoy can’t fully change him or expose him to this change at this time. If Tolstoy did, Rostov would be like those first humans in The Matrix who reject the fabricated story given to them. Tolstoy may also be limiting the truth he exposes to us as readers. Rostov’s recounting of his war story (242) to his buddies serves as proof of this idea. Similar to Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story”, Rostov embellishes, purges, and qualifies his story because he recognizes that they would not believe him or would expect him of falsifying his story if he told them the full truth.

  3. One overall question I have, and maybe it’s not appropriate for this reading group or not a topic that others want to discuss, has a Bakhtinian slant to it. What is Tolstoy doing with language? What is he trying to do with the form of the novel? Are these main characters going to have the opportunity to engage in dialogue with each other? So often, we put words and language out there so that people will respond. Our words and language die if there is no response. If this is true, will this “call and response” technique of language give these characters new insight? Or does Tolstoy choose not to give them that opportunity because the need for a response would belittle the truth Tolstoy offers?