Synopsis of “War and Peace”: Book 1, Part 1

 The first part of “War & Peace” is effectively in three sections:

(i) The soirée at Anna Pavlovna’s in Petersburg, followed by the scene in Andrei’s house with Andrei, Lise & Pierre, and finishing with Pierre starting off on his night of wild dissipation.

(ii) In Moscow, with the name-day party of Countess Rostov & her daughter Natasha, juxtaposed with an account of the death of Pierre’s father.

(iii) In Bald Hills, as Andrei leaves his pregnant wife with his family before going off to war.

Let us consider (i) first.

The soirée is presented with the sort of social satire we may expect from Jane Austen. This is high society: everyone here – except Pierre – knows the social code. They may discuss politics or warfare or anything else – as long as the conversation does not get too deep. Anna Pavlovna, the hostess, walks around ensuring that the talk remains superficial: anything more could lead to unpleasantness, after all.

It is all false and insincere. Pierre, who tries to engage in debate, is rounded upon, and Andrei has to rescue him. Andrei knows the rules of the game: he is socially polished. But he clearly dislikes society, and looks upon the others with unconcealed disdain. And as for Pierre, even though he does not know how to behave in this milieu, we are left in no doubt that he is more intelligent than all those others who feel perfectly at home in these surroundings.

Andrei’s wife, Lise, on the other hand, is in her element. She is charming, pretty, good-natured: but it is easy to see why Andrei – who should be the happiest of men – is so dissatisfied. For all her qualities, his wife is only at home in this society which he despises – this society of insincerity, frivolity, and emptiness. He feels that he is wasting his life away – that he is capable of much more.

Only two conversations at the party are sincerely meant: in the first, Prince Vasily Kuragin tries to arrange a marriage between his worthless son Anatole and Andrei’s sister Maria; and in the second, Anna Mihalovna Dubretskoy persuades Prince Vasily to put a word in for her son Boris.

Anna, we already see, spends all her time trying to obtain favours for her son: that is the only way her son may progress in life. To this end, Anna puts up with all sorts of slights and humiliations, pretending she hasn’t noticed. We shall see her and her son again later, in Moscow.

Pierre is the only person Andrei is happy to see at the soirée. Afterwards, we have an extraordinary scene between them, and with Lise. Andrei, for the first time, tells of his unhappiness, and shocks Pierre in the process. Lise then enters. She may not be her husband’s intellectual equal, but she knows why he is going to war: it is to get away from her; and she does not understand why. It is a marvellous scene of drama, with all three characters reacting to each other.

Despite the warmth of feeling Andrei has for Pierre, it is not unmixed with an awareness of superiority. Andrei makes Pierre promise not to spend the rest of the evening with his dissipated friends – the Anatoles of this world whom Andrei despises. What right does Andrei have to extract such a promise?

Pierre, despite being a pleasant, likeable man, has little self-control. Despite the promise, he goes. And here, we have one of the most striking entrances of any character: Dolohov takes on a bet that he could sit on a second storey window ledge, both legs hanging out, and drink a bottle of brandy without removing it from his lips. Yes – they’re a dissipated bunch: but what an entrance!


In the second section we’re in Moscow now, and we meet the Rostovs – charming, genial, warm-hearted. Countess Rostov’s old schoolfriend is Anna, whom we have met before. She takes an interest in the very ill Prince Bezukhov (Pierre’s father), and takes her son to visit him. Her only reason for going – and this she won’t admit even to herself – is the hope that the old man might leave something to her son.

Her son, Boris, has grown up in this humiliating position of hanger-on. He has learnt how to make himself liked. It is noticeable that when he and Nikolai come into the room where the Rostovs are receiving guests, it is Nikolai who is flustered: Boris knows exactly what to say and how to behave. But Boris does find his position humiliating. He knows why his mother is taking him to the Bezukhovs, and he finds it insulting.

When Boris meets with Pierre, it is he who takes control of the scene. He takes Pierre by surprise by declaring that he has not come in expectation of money. And it is Pierre, not Boris, who becomes flustered.

We meet the Rostovs as well. Old Count Rostov is geniality itself. He likes company, conversation, and lavish dinners. He has no head for practical matters: he has been wasting the family fortune, and is described as walking around with a guilty look. When his wife asks him for money (to pay for Boris’ uniform), he immediately asks his steward to bring him some. The steward is about to say something, but sees the expression on the count’s face, and brings the money. It is money they can’t afford to throw away. The money spent on the lavish name-day dinner is probably beyond their means also.

The Countess has fixed her mind on a good marriage (i.e. to an heiress) for Nikolai. She notes the obstacle: there is an understanding between Nikolai & Sonya, an orphaned cousin they have adopted. It is a childhood attachment, but Sonya holds on to it, and Nikolai is too bound by a sense of honour to protest, even to himself. Nikolai is young, handsome, and impetuous. At dinner, he is placed next to heiress Julia Karagin for obvious reasons, and Nikolai, as any young man would, enjoys flirting with her. But every now and then, the cloying, highly-strung Sonya runs off in tears. Nikolai has to follow, and swear yet again eternal love to her.

Nikolai claims that he is going to war out of a sense of patriotism; and so he is. But, albeit unconsciously, he also wants escape from the situation at home. In this sense, he is not unlike Andrei. And, of course, both Nikolai and Andrei hope to distinguish themselves.

We meet Natasha, aged 13, who can charm everyone, young and old. Even the older Boris seems to be under her spell. There is spontaneity to her, like when she asks Boris to kiss her, or when she stands up in the middle of dinner to ask what’s for pudding. She charms everyone effortlessly.

At the Bezukhovs, Pierre, who barely knew his father (Pierre was illegitimate and had spent most of his life in foreign schools), is at a loose end. He wanders around the great house, barely knowing what to do with himself.

Prince Vasily is there, scheming away as usual. He is not happy to see Anna Mihalovna, and is quite rude to her; but she is used to swallowing insults, and behaves as though nothing has happened.

During dinner, Pierre is called away. His father is dying. Here, we have one of the most extraordinary scenes. His father has been turned over in bed by the servants, but lacks the strength to drag his arm after him. Pierre watches in horror as his father – who had once been as strong as he – now lacks even the most basic power of movement. And the old dying man sees the expression of horror on his son’s face and smiles at him enigmatically. This image of physical decay casts its shadow long into the novel.

There’s another surprise in store for us. Vasily, having witnessed the old man’s death, is unexpectedly moved:

“Ah, my friend,” said he, taking Pierre by he elbow, and there was a sincerity in his voice which Pierre had never heard before. “We sin and we deceive, and for what? I am getting on for sixty, dear boy … I, too … Everything ends in death, everything! Death is awful…” and he burst into tears.

And this to Pierre, whom he had been trying to cheat out of his inheritance!

This is typical of Tolstoy. Vasily is a shallow man, and being shallow, he had never before considered the question of his own mortality. Now, on witnessing death, the thought of his own impermanence strikes him for the very first time, and it is too much for him. This is a wonderful insight. Tolstoy can find even the depths in a shallow person!

So Pierre, now Count Bezukhov, inherits the fortune. And Anna Mihalovna gets a bit of her own back by telling – in secret, of course – how badly Prince Vasily had behaved. As we later find out from Julia’s letter to Princess Maria, Prince Vasily’s behaviour soon becomes a subject for gossip.


Now the last section of the first part.

The opening of Chapter 22 gives us a wonderful thumbnail sketch of old Prince Bolkonsky, one of the most remarkable characters in the entire novel. He is everything Count Rostov isn’t. He dislikes society; is keenly intellectual, and has a wide range of interests; he looks after and oversees projects on his estate (Count Rostov leaves it all to his stewards); and he is a dominating character, inspiring both respect and fear.

He does not want his daughter growing up as empty-headed as all those “silly girls” in society: his daughter is better than that. He teaches her geometry and algebra, neither of which she can understand. (He is possibly not the best of teachers, either!) He is impatient with those of a lesser intellect than himself. We now can understand where Andrei get his hatred of the superficialities of fashionable society.

There is an exchange of letters between Maria and Julia Karagin. Julia writes in a gushing, insincere style – not because she herself is necessarily insincere, but because that is how people in society express themselves. How Maria longs to be able to take some part in this society! But her reply is expressed in more down-to-earth terms. She disagrees with Julia on Pierre: he has been a friend of the family since childhood, and she, like everyone who knows Pierre, talks about his genuine good nature.

Juila had sent a book on “mysticism” which, we are told, is all the rage in fashionable Moscow. I think we can guess the sort of unmitigated rubbish this book is. As far as old Prince Bolkonsky is concerned, this sort of nonsense is typical of frivolous, empty-headed society. Maria is less censorious, but she has her doubts about the book as well. All in all, we may see the seeds of Bolkonsky pride in Maria – although, no doubt, she would have been mortified by any suggestion of pride on her part. She does, after all, adhere to the religion her father scoffs at.

As soon as Andrei and Lise arrive, Lise starts talking almost non-stop to Maria. It’s not hard to guess Lise & Andrei have barely spoken to each other during the long journey to Bald Hills. And she speaks on her favourite topic – society, and all the people who populate it. Andrei prefers to be in silence rather than talk or even hear about such people, but Lise has nothing else to talk about.

The old prince, to Lise’s surprise, talks to her about society; and she responds immediately. Then, having ascertained her level of intellect, the old prince starts talking abruptly about other things, and virtually ignores her. It is very, very cruel; but we must remember that old Prince Bolkonsky does not intend to be cruel. Having enjoyed absolute power on his estate, he has forgotten – or has never learnt – to be tolerant.

At dinner, the old prince has invited the architect, even though various local bigwigs would never be allowed anywhere near the Bolkonsky dinner table. This is to prove that the old prince values the architect’s intelligence above the aristocratic pedigree of others. But there is something ironic about Prince Bolkonsky – the every image of aristocratic privilege – insisting upon such egalitarianism. The architect himself is quite embarrassed to be there.

Andrei, quite clearly, has been under the shadow of his father: it accounts for so much about him. Yet, on two occasions, he criticises his father to Maria. This is to prove that although he loves and honours his father, he is, nonetheless, independent of his father’s influence. But who is Andrei trying to prove this to? To his sister, certainly, who has seen him under his father’s dominance; but also, I think, to himself. But certainly not to Lise: he does not need to prove anything to Lise, and wouldn’t dream of criticising his father to her.

Maria persuades Andrei to wear an icon. Andrei shares his father’s dislike for this sort of thing, but agrees for her sake. Andrei also guesses – correctly – that Lise has been complaining to Maria about his behaviour. Maria, significantly, knows exactly why her brother should be so unhappy with Lise. But she pleads Lise’s case, and asks for more understanding on his part. For the moment, it falls on deaf ears.

The first part ends with Andrei’s leaving. The old prince takes Andrei by surprise by saying that the marriage was a “bad business” – but “there’s no getting unmarried again”. The old man is sharp and intelligent; and he knows his son.

Andrei asks for a doctor to be sent from Moscow for the birth; the old Prince doesn’t like this, but agrees to it. Andrei has only asked for this for his wife’s sake: she is understandably terrified. And he asks for his son – if the child is a boy – to grow up in Bald Hills, a true Bolkonsky. Andrei may well be crushed by family expectations, but his pride in being a Bolkonsky can never leave him.

At the moment he has to leave, we have another remarkable moment. The old prince cannot contain his emotion. It is overpowering – Andrei notices his lower lip quivering – but he does not want to appear sentimental. And in order not to appear sentimental, he tells his son that if he does not behave like a son of Nikolai Bolkonsky, he would be ashamed. There was no need to say this, as Andrei himself reminds him. Andrei would never behave dishonourably, and his father knows it. The old man finally holds open the door, and shouts at him to go.

Lise, on saying her farewell to her husband, shrieks, and falls swooning. She has tragedy written all over her. And so does Andrei.

[All excerpts quoted are taken from the translation by Rosemary Edmonds, published by Penguin Classics]

5 responses to this post.

  1. Thank you, so much. I remember these synopses from the original BBC Big Read Group Read. They’ll be so helpful as the Dovegreyreader Group Read makes it way through the magnum opus ….


  2. Thanks from me too – I can tell these will come in handy when at last I tackle it. Perhaps next year? We’ve got the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation at the library, so I may try that one.


  3. Thanks! I read the first part over a year ago, and needed a refresher course to pick up where I left off.


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