Synopsis of “War and Peace”: Book 1, Part 3

For the early chapters of Part 3, we’re back in Russia. Afterwards, we’re back in the Austrian campaign again. Part 3 climaxes in the depiction of the Battle of Austerlitz.

First, we see Pierre. Since inheriting the title and the fortune, he now becomes – to his amazement – the darling of society, the same society that in the past had barely tolerated him. Prince Vasily naturally takes Pierre under his wing, and Pierre, lacking any sort of will or confidence, passively submits. But Vasily has further plans: he wants to marry Pierre to his daughter, Hélène.

Once again, we’re at a soirée at Anna Scherer’s, but this time, Pierre is an honoured guest. Anna and Vasily have obviously plotted to bring Pierre and Hélène together. Pierre is aware of this, but seems unable to do anything about it. He is aware as well of what an awful bunch the Kuragins are. But at that party, with Hélène, wearing a very low-cut dress and employing all her skills to attract him, he finds himself helpless. At one point, Pierre has to lean forward to examine a snuff-box, which Hélène holds before her spectacular cleavage. And Pierre is overcome with lust. It is irresistible. (It is quite incredible, incidentally, how convincingly Tolstoy could depict a character’s physical attractions: the depiction of Hélène here is brimming with sexuality.)

He doesn’t want to marry her, but he seems to be on a trajectory that he has no power to stop. Among other things, he remembers rumours that Hélène and her own brother had been in love with each other, and that Anatole had to be sent away from home on that account. These were just rumours, though.

Then, there is dinner at the Kuragins, where, once again, Pierre and Helene are thrown together. Everyone seems to be expecting something from Pierre, and the other guests leave early. Prince Vasily tells some idiotic anecdote about some Sergei Kuzmich, and, funny or not, everyone laughs at it. The characterisation, as always, is superb. Tolstoy is always interested not merely in what the characters do, or how they do it, but also why they do it. We are told, for instance, that Vasily’s wife – who barely features in the narrative – had once been a great beauty, and regards her daughter with jealousy. And when Vasily speaks to Hélène. Tolstoy has to tell us not merely his tone of voice, but why he speaks in that tone:

“Well, my little girl?” he said at once, addressing his daughter in the careless tone of consistent tenderness which comes natural to parents who have petted their children from babyhood, but which Prince Vasily had only acquired through imitating other parents.

Pierre doesn’t know how it happened, but he feels it had to happen, that there’s nothing he can do about it. Finally, fed up with Pierre’s inactivity, Prince Vasily pretends that the proposal has already been made, and, with real tears in his eyes, kisses Pierre on both cheeks, and greets his son-in-law to be. It is both comic, and painful to read.

Now, we go to Bald Hills. Vasily, having succeeded with Hélène, now wants to marry off Anatole. As soon as she hears of Vasily and Anatole coming to Bald Hills, Lise lets slip an innocent remark about suitors; and immediately, the old prince is beset with all sorts of thoughts, none of them agreeable to him. In the first place, he dislikes the Kuragins: they’re just the sort of people who have driven him into his self-imposed exile from society. He also dislikes the obvious inference that he and his daughter have been the subject of tittle-tattle. And he is facing for the first time the possibility that his daughter – whom, we are told, he loves more than himself – may have to leave him. This last thought he realises is selfish, and so he dresses it up to himself in a different way: will marriage really make her happy? And he recognises how unhappy Lise is, despite having married the finest of men.

Maria, too, is thrown into mental turmoil by the news. She had never been in society before. She longs for love – for a husband who would love her. She has no idea of the sort of person Anatole is.

Prince Bolkonsky flies into a rage when he realises that his servants have cleared the snow off the path for the sake of the guests. The servants should be doing this for their masters, not for the Kuragins! Who the hell are these Kuragins anyway? And he orders them to shovel the snow back on..

In preparation, Lise and Mademoiselle Bourienne – Maria’s companion – dress themselves in their most glamorous clothes, and enjoin Maria to do the same. But Maria, who sees herself as plain (even though we are told that she has beautiful eyes) realises that no matter how she dressed, she would continue to look plain. So, hurting inside, she tells them after a while not to bother. The situation is humiliating. However, Lise has already done up Maria’s hair.

Anatole comes expecting to be amused by this eccentric old man he has heard so much about. There’s the ugly heiress, of course – but when he sees the pretty Mademoiselle Bourienne, he thinks that things may not be so bad after all.

Mademoiselle Bourienne is enchanted by this handsome man. Lise is happy simply to see someone from her own set, and speaks to him in the light, trivial manner that is commonly employed in society events, but is so very out of place here. Maria, not really knowing how to behave, keeps quiet.

The old prince enters, and sees immediately that Anatole is more attracted by Mademoiselle Bourienne than by Maria. And Anatole’s intelligence becomes quite apparent when he can’t even remember which regiment he has been posted to. Then, unable to hold in his irritation any longer, he reduces his daughter to tears by publicly upbraiding her for having done up her hair in honour of his guests. Why should she, a Bolkonsky, do herself up for such worthless people as the Kuragins?

Prince Vasily, knowing that he can’t with any credibility present his son to the old prince as intelligent, tells him that he has “a good heart”. This is nonsense, of course. Prince Bolkonsky later acquaints his daughter with the proposal of marriage that has been received, and tells her that she has complete freedom in the matter. This also is nonsense: Maria cannot do anything that she thinks might hurt her father. Then, in irritation with his daughter for not having seen the obvious, he lets slip to her that it is Mademoiselle Bourienne Anatole is really interested in. At this point, he realises how much he has hurt his daughter, and tries to soften towards her. But soon, Maria sees for herself the truth of her father’s observation: Anatole and Mademoiselle Bourienne are in each other’s arms in the garden. This Anatole is a fast worker.

Kind-hearted as always, and utterly blind to the truth of the situation, she forgives Mademoiselle Bourienne, and actually comforts her. Still not realising what sort of person this Anatole is, she even imagines trying to arrange a match between him and Mademoiselle Bourienne. And she refuses him, with some dignity. Her father is delighted by his daughter’s actions, and while appearing to upbraid her, squeezes her hand so strongly that it hurts.

Before we return to the Austrian campaign, we have a brief chapter dealing with the Rostovs. The Countess Rostov has to be prepared to receive the news of Nikolai’s wound, even though the wound is quite slight. And Nikolai has been promoted in the bargain. Sonya still dotes on him, and is quite shocked to hear Natasha say that she can’t quite remember how her sweetheart, Boris, looks.

Now, back to the battlefront.


We continue to see the Austrian campaign through the parallel perspectives of Andrei and of Nikolai. As soon as we return to the scenes of battle, these two meet for the one and only time during in the entire novel.

Nikolai, now promoted, has gone to see Boris, who has letters and money for him from home. Boris, as expected, has settled in nicely to his new role, and, as ever, is on the look-out for self-advancement. Nikolai acts as he thinks a dashing young hussar ought to act, but it’s really no more than putting on airs. Boris is faintly embarrassed, but is too polished to let Nikolai perceive his embarrassment. Not that Nikolai would have noticed anyway.

Nikolai starts recounting the story about the cavalry charge at Schon-Graben, and, almost without meaning to, starts embroidering in order to make it more interesting. At this point, Andrei comes in, and detecting immediately a boastful young man spinning stories, takes an instant dislike to Nikolai. Nikolai senses Andrei’s air of superiority, and resents it – especially as he is aware that he had not been telling the truth about the charge. When they speak, Nikolai is rude to Andrei, implying that Andrei was one of those who earn medals without ever seeing action. (This is untrue in Andrei’s case: we know he had volunteered for dangerous missions, and had been involved in battle.) Andrei replies with his usual self-possession, and advises Nikolai – “as an older man to a younger” – to forget about the whole incident, especially as there is a more important conflict yet to come. Nikolai is flustered by the whole incident, but finds to his surprise that he would like to have this polished and self-possessed man as his friend.

The Tsar reviews the troops, and Nikolai finds himself hero-worshipping the Tsar like some star-struck teenager. To Nikolai, the Tsar is a sort of god. We get a very different perspective later of the Tsar..

Boris goes to visit Andrei in the hope of some advancement to his career. Andrei has taken Boris under his wing: presumably, Boris has impressed Andrei with his abilities, for Andrei is no fool, and is not easily taken in. Nothing comes of this particular visit – everyone is too busy with the imminent battle – but Boris immediately picks up on the fact that it is not the hierarchy within the military that matters so much as the social hierarchy, and whom one knows and mixes with. Such things are important for someone like Boris to know. Boris also sees Andrei refusing to step aside for or to bow to the Minister of Foreign Affairs: the fact that he is a Bolkonsky means far more than anyone’s official court status.

Amongst the top military brass, everyone seems confident of defeating Napoleon, except Kutuzov, who would prefer not to give battle. But he is outnumbered. He tries to appeal to the Tsar to overrule the others, but the Tsar makes clear to him that he wants nothing to do with military decisions. Kutuzov tells Andrei frankly that he thinks they are going to be defeated, but there is nothing he can do about it.

On the night before the battle, the top military brass gathers to discuss strategy and tactics. It is pointless: it is far too late to re-deploy the troops. Kutuzov knows this, and as others talk seriously about the next day’s battle, Kutuzov dozes off.

The night before the battle, both Nikolai and Andrei dream of glory. Nikolai almost falls asleep on his horse, and Tolstoy follows the nebulous and confused impressions of his mind during his drowsy state – confusing the word “sabre-tache” with his sister’s name, Natasha. (It is noticeable that whenever he thinks back on home life, it is always Natasha and his mother he thinks of – not Sonya.) Nikolai then volunteers to run a quick mission for Prince Bagration to ascertain the position of the nearest French troops; as he gallops back, he is fired at, and this time, he finds the experience exhilarating. Disappointed that his squadron has been held back in reserve, he requests to serve Bagration: his request is granted.

Andrei, too, thinks of glory. He is more self-aware than Nikolai, and wonders why glory means so much to him. He knows that much though he loves his father, his sister, and his wife (significantly, Andrei includes his wife in this) he would exchange them all for just one moment of glory. Why, he cannot tell.

Then, the battle starts. The Russians are taken by surprise: the French are far closer than had been expected, and, finding themselves under fire, the Russians flee in disorder. Kutuzov tries to get them to hold their lines, but without success. Now, Andrei sees his chance for glory. Picking up the heavy standard, he charges towards the French. This helps turn the tide: many follow him. The adrenalin flowing through him, Andrei is exhilarated. Then, all goes quiet. Andrei is lying on his back, badly wounded. All he can see is the wide expanse of sky above him, and he wonders why he had never seen this before. There is, all of a sudden, a stillness, a tranquillity, that, to Andrei, seemed to make all the hurly-burly of human activity appear irrelevant.

Nikolai is entrusted by Bagration to take a message to Kutuzov; and, if he cannot find him, to deliver the message to the Tsar. Nikolai sets off excitedly, hoping to meet the Tsar first. Through Nikolai’s eyes, we see the disordered images of battle – a battle that the Russian-Austrian alliance is clearly losing. Finally, Nikolai sees his idol, the Tsar, in despair. Nikolai chickens out: he feels he cannot approach the Tsar at such a time. But then, he sees someone else approach the Tsar and comfort him. Despite his courage under fire, Nikolai’s nerve had failed.

We are given a horrific scene of Russian and Austrian troops fleeing in disorder, blaming each other for the defeat. The men crush each other in the process, and are torn to bits by enemy fire. The defeat is complete.

And the victorious Napoleon, triumphant amidst the mass-slaughter and happy at the outcome, walks amongst the wounded and the slain. This is what victory tastes of. He sees Andrei lying with the standard, and comments what a fine death that was. But Andrei is not dead. In his delirium, all he can sense is something that the vast sky represents – something that makes even Napoleon seem small and insignificant. Andrei is taken from the field, but is deemed unlikely to survive. He is left with the locals.

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


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Indira on April 18, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    Thank you SO MUCH for these wonderful, detailed recaps. We’re reading War and Peace in school, and this has been very helpful.


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