Synopsis of “War and Peace”: Book 2, Part 1

The fourth part of War and Peace divides itself into three sections. In the first, we see Nikolai’s homecoming, and the quick and dramatic breakdown of Pierre’s marriage. In the second, we are taken to Bald Hills. And finally, we return to the Rostovs.

Nikolai returns home, and brings Denisov with him. He has grown a moustache now. The family is ecstatic, and reading this passage, one cannot but be infected with their joy. Natasha, particularly, is irrepressible. Amongst other things, she tells Nikolai that Sonya has released Nikolai from his vow to her. This has the desired effect (or at least, the effect desired by Sonya). Nikolai has been reminded of the vow he had made as a child, and now, he feels it dishonourable to forget about it. Sonya has kept her distance from Nikolai on his return, and once again, we notice that Nikolai – though determined to honour his promise to Sonya – has not made any noticeable effort to reduce that distance.

The Russian public has, eventually, come to terms with the disastrous defeat at Austerlitz. It was the fault of the Austrians, apparently. And Kutuzov was no good either. The Tsar – trusting as he is – did not always put his trust in the right people. But oh! the Russian soldiers and officers all behaved heroically – every one of them!

Count Rostov has been charged by his club to arrange a dinner in honour of Prince Bagration – now regarded as a hero. Count Rostov has been charged with this partly because he is so good at arranging lavish dinners; and also because he could be depended upon to advance money from his own pocket for something like this.

At the dinner, Pierre is immersed in his thoughts. His marriage, predictably, is deeply unhappy. Hélène knows how to behave in society, but she is coarse, vulgar, nasty, and very, very stupid. Pierre has received an anonymous letter warning him that his wife was having an affair with his old friend, Dolohov.

At the dinner, Dolohov sits opposite Pierre with Denisov and Nikolai. Nikolai loves acting as he thinks a young soldier ought to act, and he looks down a bit on people like Pierre, who had stayed at home when his country needed him. Furthermore, Pierre had been too absorbed in his thoughts to acknowledge Nikolai’s greeting.

Dolohov, ever the bully, taunts Pierre from across the table. Nikolai is quite out of sympathy with Pierre at this point, especially as Pierre does not even raise his glass when the toast to the Tsar is proposed. What’s the matter with that man? At this point, Nikolai feels very much at home in Dolohov’s company, and, not realising whom it is aimed at, joins in with Dolohov’s taunting of deceived husbands. Finally, Pierre loses control, and in a moment of madness, challenges Dolohov to a duel. Nikolai and Denisov agree to act as Dolohov’s seconds.

Pierre knows before the duel that this is utterly stupid. But when he is given a chance to apologise, he refuses. After all, what does it matter? Pierre has never held a gun before, and carries it as if afraid that it might go off in his face. Not knowing what he is doing, he pulls the trigger. Purely by fluke, Dolohov is wounded. And when Dolohov takes aim, Pierre doesn’t even have the inclination to cover himself: he presents his bulky chest to be fired at. But Dolohov is too badly hurt to be able to aim properly, and misses. And Pierre walks away with incoherent thoughts. What folly! What madness!

And Nikolai, taking the wounded Dolohov home, finds that this swaggering bully is devoted to his mother, and to his hunchbacked sister.

Pierre does not know what to do next. The thought of his wife merely arouses revulsion in him. On top of everything else, she is depraved. She allows her own brother, Anatole, to kiss her bare shoulders: it seems that the rumours of incest may well have been right. And she shows her contempt of her husband quite openly. And now, this.

Hélène enters, and, having waited for the valet to leave, starts haranguing Pierre. What did he mean by the duel? How dare he compromise her reputation in society? And with Dolohov – who is twice the man that Pierre is! Suddenly, Pierre senses something rising within himself that even he finds frightening: he is frightened by what he might do to her. With almost superhuman strength, he lifts up over his head a large and heavy marble slab, and smashes it to the ground. And he shouts to her to go. Hélène had never imagined her mild husband could act like this, but she sees the murderous look in his face, and is terrified. She doesn’t need to be told twice: she leaves. The marriage has come to an end.

***

Now, we have three chapters set in Bald Hills that are quite extraordinary in their emotional intensity. There is no news of Andrei. Kutuzov has written to Prince Bolkonsky telling him that he saw Andrei fall. The old Prince tries to keep to his usual routine, but it is no good. His son is dead, he knows: there is no point harbouring false hopes. He cannot bear to look his daughter in the eyes and tell her: instead., he turns away with a sob. It is terrible to see a man such as this weep. Maria wants to share her grief with her father, but he averts his face: he does not know how to live with such sorrow. He asks Maria to tell Lise of her husband’s death, adding that he will go to see her as well. But Maria cannot bring herself to tell Lise; and neither can the old man, who comes into her room, but walks out again quickly without saying a word. Eventually, father and daughter decide to tell nothing to Lise, given her condition.

As for the old prince, his strength starts to weaken.

Lise pregnancy has not been a happy time. She is frightened of her father-in-law; she also feels a personal antipathy towards him, but doesn’t recognize it, as fear is the stronger emotion. When the time comes for the childbirth, she is in a dreadful state. The doctor from Moscow is late. On hearing a coach draw up, Maria runs down to greet the doctor: instead, she hears an unexpected voice. It is Andrei. On hearing what is happening, Andrei runs to his wife’s room: she is in unbearable agony, and barely registers his presence. Andrei is told by the midwife to go to the next room. The doctor arrives, but soon, Andrei hears a scream that he cannot believe has come from Lise. And he hears the crying of a baby. Andrei goes into his wife’s room, and she is lying with her face exactly where it had been before. She is dead. And her face seems to be saying to Andrei: “I love you all, and have done no-one any harm; and what have you done to me?”

Old Prince Bolkonsky, who knows all that has happened, closes his arms around his son’s neck like a vice, and without saying a word, bursts into sobs like a child.

At her funeral, the dead face seems to say exactly the same thing to Andrei as it had done before: “Why have you all done this to me?” It says exactly the same thing to Prince Bolkonsky as well, and he turns away angrily.

***

We now return to the Rostovs, and the emotional temperature drops somewhat.

Nikolai’s part in the duel has been hushed up, and far from being reduced to the ranks, he has been promoted yet again.

Time passes. We are now late in the year 1806. Dolohov takes a fancy to the graceful Sonya. Everyone considers this a good match for a dowerless poor relation. But she refuses, and everyone knows why. Interestingly, Tolstoy depicts this whole episode from Nikolai’s viewpoint; and Nikolai, although still swearing undying love to Sonya, wouldn’t have been too unhappy to have seen Sonya accept Dolohov’s hand.

Denisov is, meanwhile, charmed by the Rostovs, and particularly by the bewitching Natasha. At a ball given specially for young people, Denisov surprises everyone by taking the floor, and dancing a particularly spectacular mazurka.

Dolohov has planned a revenge for Nikolai. He knows it is because of Nikolai that he has been refused; and it isn’t hard to entice someone as naïve as Nikolai into a card game, and fleece him for a vast amount.

Nikolai does not know how to break the devastating news to his father. He thinks – though not seriously – that suicide is the only option. On coming home, he sees the family together, and thinks how wonderful everything would be if only he didn’t have this hanging over his head. He joins his sister in the song she is singing, and almost forgets for a while the terrible truth about his situation. After all, one can do all sorts of terrible things and still enjoy life, can’t one? Well, no. When his father arrives, Nikolai tells his father what has happened as if it were a small matter. And all the while, he feels how vile he is. His father does not get angry, as Nikolai had expected. And suddenly, Nikolai is so deeply ashamed of himself that this brave hussar and war hero breaks down in tears.

Meanwhile, we get a bit of comedy as well. Denisov, carried away by his impetuousness, proposes to Natasha. Natasha’s immediate response is to run to her mother, who finds the whole affair more annoying than anything else. She is particularly annoyed that anyone could think her small daughter an adult. She imperiously tells Denisov that Natasha is far too young, and Denisov, apologising, leaves – although there was no reason for him to have done so: no-one had taken his proposal at all seriously.

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

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