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

In this part, we see the three principal young men of the novel – Pierre, Andrei & Nikolai – all undergoing crises of some sort. First, we see Pierre. He is in mental turmoil. His life is falling apart, and he keeps asking himself questions about the nature and purpose of his life – questions he can neither answer, nor prevent himself from asking. As so often, Tolstoy finds exactly the right image: it is as if the screw holding Pierre’s life together has worn smooth and lost its thread, and though it turns, it cannot catch on to anything. And it can go neither in nor out, and nor can it stop turning.

It is in this state that, on a journey to Petersburg, Pierre meets Osip Alexeyevich Bazdeyev, a leading freemason. Pierre is mentally in a vulnerable state, and he has no answer to what Bazdeyev says to him. Pierre’s life is, indeed, in a mess; he is, indeed, searching for something better. Bazdeyev is obviously a sincere man, and a good speaker; and Pierre, as we know, is easily led. He is also easily impressed. Bazdeyevs wisdom seems to him a revelation. He accepts Bazdeyevs invitation, and becomes a freemason.

Fired by his newly found enthusiasm, he seeks to carry out reforms on his estates, to better the lives of his serfs. But he is no good at these administrative matters, and he does not realize that his attempts actually leave the peasants even worse than before. Pierre is too naïve and too trusting, and, frankly, too incompetent in these matters to be effective.

However, his determination to lead a new life does give him the strength to reject the attempts of his father-in-law to reconcile him to his wife. More than anything else, Pierre hates saying anything disagreeable to anyone; but quite unexpectedly, he finds the strength to ask Vasily Kuragin to leave.

We see another of Anna Pavlovnas soirées – the same vacuous talk, the same affectations, the same stupidity putting on airs and passing itself off as sophistication. Pierre is regarded as a sort of insanely jealous half-wit, and Hélène as an unfortunate woman who bears her cross with dignity and fortitude.

A newcomer to this world is Boris, who, through careful application of flattery to the right people (whom he has trained himself to recognize), has risen in life. The ability he has always had to make himself liked has paid dividends. Not only is he at Anna Pavlovnas soirée, but he is the star attraction there. And he has turned his back on his old acquaintances such as the Rostovs who are no longer in a position to further his career. And Hélène, that unfortunate woman who bears her cross with such dignity, chooses him as her new lover. Boris does not appear unwilling.

Now, we travel once again to the very different world of Bald Hills. Andrei has removed himself from the outside world, and is building for himself a house in the nearby estate of Bogucharovo, which his father has settled on him. The marble his father had ordered to be a memorial for his son is now instead a memorial for Lise. And the statue of the memorial appears to Andrei’s imagination to have his wife’s face; and it appears also to have that same reproachful look – “Why have you all done this to me?” Andrei is still haunted by that sense of guilt.

Prince Bolkonsky has weakened considerably during the days when he had thought his son dead; and physically, he is not what he was. Nonetheless, he has taken responsibility for military recruitment in his area, and Andrei helps him. Andrei is the only person who can control his father’s extreme behaviour: old Prince Bolkonskys uncompromising strictness is often indistinguishable from cruelty.

We see Andrei and Maria tending to Andrei’s son, young Nikolai, who is ill; and, for one terrible moment, Andrei thinks he is dead. Andrei also receives a letter from his diplomat friend, Bilibin, relating all the goings-on in the military and diplomatic spheres; and Andrei is disconcerted to find that he can still take an interest in such matters.

Then, his old friend Pierre visits. Despite his hermit-like existence, Andrei is happy to see Pierre, and these two deeply wounded men talk. Pierre is fired up by his newly found idealism, and speaks of them enthusiastically. But Andrei responds with a sort of world-weary pessimism. Hospitals for peasants? What is the point of patching them up so that they can get back again to their back-breaking, soul-destroying labour? When Pierre expresses relief at not having killed Dolohov, Andrei asks if it is a crime to kill a vicious dog. Andrei knows how much the Dolohovs of the world are worth – though, presumably, he has no idea what this same Dolohov means to his aged mother and hunchbacked sister. Pierre insists that one must live for others; but to Andrei, living for ones own self – and for one’s family, which is a sort of extension of ones own self – is enough. But even as he says this, he knows how deeply unhappy he is.

The two men go to Bald Hills together and cross the river in a ferry. The sun is setting. Pierre is hesitant about talking about freemasonry, because he thinks Andrei would scoff at it. And Pierre is also intimidated by what he reckons to be Andrei’s superior intellect. But eventually, Pierre blurts it out. And he gives expression to the idealist thoughts that are welling up inside him. To his surprise, Andrei does not scoff. Everything Pierre says seems to bring home to him his own unhappiness, and the absence of Lise, whom, despite everything, he had loved. And Andrei remembers also the vast expanse of sky he had seen while wounded on the field at Austerlitz, and how it seemed to him to point to a greater truth beyond what we may perceive. Andrei is too proud to join the masons as Pierre has done (after all, how can others have found the answers that have so eluded him?) but Pierre’s idealism strikes a chord.

They go to Bald Hills, where Maria, against her father’s instructions (this is the one point where she disobeys him) is receiving pilgrim travellers – God’s people, as she calls them. These pilgrims are ignorant and superstitious, and their uneducated naïvety is a sort of distortion of Pierre’s own idealism. Maria is apprehensive that Pierre and her brother will merely find these pilgrims comical. Andrei, out of consideration for his sister, restrains his mockery, but even so manages to offend the pilgrims with an innocuous remark. Pierre speaks unthinkingly at first, but on seeing the offence he is causing, addresses these God’s people with respect and courtesy. Maria is grateful to him.

The Bolkonskys all like Pierre – even the old prince enjoys talking to him. Pierre maintains to the old prince that a day will come when there will be no war, and the old man laughs at such naïvety. But he enjoys talking to him all the same, and asks him to return.

Now, we move to Nikolai, who is back with the army again. Here, he finds respite from all the complications of civilian life (and this includes the ongoing uncertainty concerning his relationship with Sonya). Here, everything is in its place, everything is simple, orders are to be obeyed, and there is no complexity. And that is the way Nikolai likes it.

He still has the generous Rostov nature: he looks after an indigent Polish family out of his own money without telling anyone, and bursts into fury when this is discovered, and it is suggested that he has an interest in the young daughter.

Denisov gets himself into trouble. His men have not been supplied with food, and when an unguarded wagon with provisions for the infantry passes, Denisov commandeers it, and distributes the provisions amongst his hungry men. He is called to account for this, and, faced with a petty official, Denisov loses his temper and gives him a good thrashing. There is no avoiding it: Denisov tries to make light of it, but he will be facing a court martial. So, when he receives a mild wound which he would normally have ignored, he enrols himself into military hospital.

Nikolai visits Denisov at the military hospital, but, before he finds the officers ward, he sees the state of the ordinary soldiers in this place. It is a hell-hole, rife with disease, filth and infection. The overworked doctors and orderlies are too harassed to see to things, and even the dead don’t always get removed from the living. The stench overwhelms Nikolai. The picture Tolstoy paints is horrifying.

Nikolai finds Denisov in the relative comfort of the officers’ ward. Tushin is there also: he has lost an arm, but somehow, remains cheerful and uncomplaining. Denisov still pretends that he doesn’t care about the impending court-martial, but, left alone with Nikolai, gives him a petition to present to the Tsar on his behalf.

Peace has now broken out between the Russians and the French. Napoleon and Tsar Alexander are about to sign a treaty at Tilsit. Needless to say, Boris is there in an official position, hobnobbing with those in power. Nikolai doesn’t like seeing so many in French uniform – people he is used to fighting.

Boris is not happy to see Nikolai: he is moving in different spheres now. He changes his expression as quickly as he can, but Nikolai had caught his initial look, and feels affronted. Boris can do nothing to help Denisov.

After much effort, Nikolai finds a high-ranking general whom he knows, and tells him about Denisov. The general takes the petition to the Tsar, but the Tsar refuses to help, saying loudly and ostentatiously for all to hear that he cannot stand in the way of the law, which is mightier than he.

The two emperors exchange medals and sign the treaty. Napoleon wants to award the Legion d’Honneur to a brave Russian soldier and one is selected virtually at random.

Nikolai leaves in a confused frame of mind. Why is this soldier honoured when Denisov is facing a court-martial? Why all the effort in the past to fight the French when they are now the best of friends? How can Napoleon, whom Nikolai and all the others had regarded as a criminal, be suddenly regarded as a great emperor? What was the point of all the bravery and sacrifice, of all the deaths, of all the suffering and the missing limbs he had seen at the hospital, if all they had been fighting for is suddenly stood on its head? Thoughts start to crowd his mind, a mind which cannot deal with complexity; and these thoughts threaten to tear down everything he had, till then, accepted unconditionally, everything upon which his very being depends. Nikolai, much disturbed, goes into an inn and has two bottles of wine; and he hears some others in the inn saying exactly the same things that were so disturbing him, and rounds on them with an unwonted fierceness. It is not their job to question, he asserts (both to them and to himself). As soldiers, their job is to obey commands, no matter what.

Nikolai’s mind is not designed for serious thought. Blind, unthinking acceptance is the only way he has out of those thoughts that threaten his very being.

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

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13 responses to this post.

  1. As so often, Tolstoy finds exactly the right image: it is as if the screw holding Pierre’s life together has worn smooth and lost its thread, and though it turns, it cannot catch on to anything.

    Just read that part. It is a wonderful simile.

    Reply

    • Hello Lichanos, and welcome to the blog.

      I really do find quite astonishing Tolstoy’s ability to present even the most complex states of mind with such utter clarity. There are clearly great depths in this novel, but there are no *hidden* depths: everything is expressed with a crystalline clarity, and with an almost disconcerting directness. And yet, somehow, Tolstoy also communicates a sense of the mystery that seems to be at the centre of our lives. Despite many years of reading and re-reading, I really can’t figure out how he did it: certain things seem to be beyond analysis.

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

  2. There are clearly great depths in this novel, but there are no *hidden* depths: everything is expressed with a crystalline clarity, and with an almost disconcerting directness.

    Yes, yes! A very strange book in this way. I was trying to express this in my recent posts here:

    http://iamyouasheisme.wordpress.com/2010/10/25/warrior-class/

    http://iamyouasheisme.wordpress.com/2010/10/17/mind-body-problem/

    Reply

  3. Hello Himadri – at last, I’ve found a moment to drop by and say what a wonderful resource these War and Peace synopses are! Thank you for posting them. I’m really enjoying reading them; they’re such a great chance to relive the pleasure of the different sections of the novel, and to pause to focus and reflect during the journey. What an amazing work W & P is! As I read, I’m increasingly in awe of Tolstoy’s abilities and gifts as a writer. I was so struck too by that image of the worn screw holding together Pierre’s life; one of those many, many moments in the novel where we feel that deep chime of experience – that perfect nugget of expression and truth.

    You hit the nail right on the head when you describe the clarity and directness of Tolstoy’s prose. There is a hugeness contained in that clarity – a directness that taps into what we already, deep down, know – but, as yet perhaps have never found the words to express. Tolstoy manages to express those things with such directness, it all suddenly crystallises before our eyes – and is almost tangible in our hands!

    I love the moments too, when time seems to slow right down in the novel and moments deepen and stretch and their significance expands to the huge. That moment with Pierre and Andrei on the ferry is such a moment – linking with that other earlier moment on the battlefield when Andrei experiences the vast expanse of the sky – the mystery of life; the spiritual and numinous. Another such moment for me – (again of slow, deepening significance; beautiful and moving) – was when Andrei and his sister stand enclosed by the curtains around his baby son’s bed, flooded with joy and relief at the child’s recovery from illness. The closeness and vastness of that moment – both its particular meaning to the characters and its universal meaning to us – was held inside that space within the curtain…and is almost like a metaphor for Tolstoy’s writing itself. A metaphor for that hugeness contained within the solid, human reality of the moment.

    I’ve had a bit of an enforced pause in my journey through War and Peace over the past couple of weeks or so, due to a succession of ‘orrible winter bugs going around the family – so I’m now looking forward to following further all those characters I’ve grown so close to… I’ve missed their company. They are so real for the reader. To read this book is definitely to live it!

    All the best for now,

    Melanie

    Reply

    • Hello Melanie, so glad you “dropped in”, as you put it!

      Some time ago, a friend of mine, knowing how much I loved Tolstoy, showed me a passage from “Palace Walk” by Naguib Mahfouz, in which a wounded man kies on the ground staring at the vastness of the sky above. The Tolstoy passage is so well-known, I can only imagine this is a “tribute” rather than plagiarism. I suppose, though, it must be intimidating to write a serious novel with the shadow of Tolstoy peering over one’s shoulder.

      And yes, as you say, there is Tolstiy a “hugeness contained within the solid, human reality of the moment”. He could depict a mother and teenage daughter having a heart-to-heart conversation at bedtime – talking about apparently trivial matters – but we never think that these are merely unimportant thoughts of unimportant characters. In the famous ball scene, he enters into Natasha’s mind: I have never, of course, been a teenage girl myself, but I am utterly convinced that this is *exactly* how a teenage girl would think and perceive things when at her first big dance. And yet again, there’s not the slightest hint that what he is dealing with is trivial. Throughout, one gets a sense of the “hugeness contained within the solid, human reality of the moment”.

      Returning to this novel is like meeting up with people I’ve known all my life. It is wonderful.

      Bugs are particularly prevalent these days, so do take care, and do please keep dropping in. And, if you have any time at all to spare (a big “if”, I know) – I do drop in on your blog from time to time as well. Amd if that ain’t a subtle hint, I don’t know what is! 🙂

      All the best for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

      • Thanks, Himadri 🙂 I love spending time here on your blog – I just hope you’re not deafened by the noise of my poor rusted brain cogs turning, as I gather my distracted mind away from the daily juggle, and try to focus on putting my bookish thoughts into some some sort of coherent order! (What happened to those days when I could write several posts in one day on the Books Board? It takes me forever to write just a paragraph now (quite scary!) I definitely need to keep those cogs better oiled!) It’s always such a pleasure to “see” you over on my blog, Himadri. I so appreciate all your thoughtful comments. I’ve got loads of plans for my blog; so many posts simmering in my mind…. When my brain can catch up with my intention, I’m hoping there’ll be no stopping me! Watch that space!

        What a sparkling scene that episode at the ball is! In my years as a teenage girl, I never attended such a grand event (I don’t suppose my first disco at the local boys’ secondary modern quite qualifies as a match for that experience!) …but, yes, Natasha’s reaction, her excitement at her entry into the adult world, does ring true…

        And yes, as you say, throughout that scene there is that sense of wider poignancy beyond the particular moment and the excitement of fine dresses and dancing. It is a scene of foreshadowing and transcience… a bright, brief flame of youth and apparent freedom before who knows what may open up in life for Natasha… and, of course, it is a fateful moment of lives entwining and new thresholds crossed.

        I find the philosophical aspects of the novel fascinating. The spiritual aspects also. Tolstoy gets right to the heart of our concerns and universal experiences; the echoes that resonate deepest with us all. As you say, so many questions are opened up – but all those unanswerables somehow seem more reachable and illuminated when drawn together with such a clear sense of human universality. At the same time, the scope of this novel is so huge, it has all kinds of divergences beyond each reader’s own experience and inspires so many strands of thought to try to follow! But, always, the aspect of the universal hook on which we can hang sympathy and empathy is there at the novel’s heart. There’s always that central core (well, so far anyway…I’ve got so much more of the novel yet to come!)

        All the best for now,

        Melanie

  4. I am particularly struck by Tolstoy’s consistently tender and sympathetic rendering of the psychology of lovelorn young people.

    Reply

    • Yes – somehow it isn’t what one would expect from him. I suppose it is a major aspect of the novelist’s art to understand how the world looks like from different perspectives – even perspectives very different from one’s own. And Tolstoy, perhaps above all other novelists, gives the impression that there is no character whose mind he is not capable of entering. And seeing the world from another’s perspective is a long way, perhaps, towards sympathising with those characters.

      The characters Tolstoy obviously hates are Napoleon, and, amongst the fictional characters, the Kuragins.

      Reply

      • The characters Tolstoy obviously hates are Napoleon, and, amongst the fictional characters, the Kuragins.

        Hmm…well I’m only on page 540 now, and I last read it 35 years ago, so I don’t have it at my fingertips, but I’m not sure I’d say he “hates” Napoleon, as a character. Sure, there’s that 100 page essay/diatribe against the great man theory of history that I’m going to get to again, but that’s philosophy.

        I was struck by his portrayal of Napoleon in the Austerlitz passages. He is cold, brilliant, a fighting machine. Human? Yes, but only in the limited sense that he allows himself to be so, as a warrior. Still, T was a warrior, and I sense that he respects that, even though Napoleon may stand for everything he hates.

        No easy way out for this novelist!

      • Hello Lichanos, I dn’t want to anticipate what is to come, but perhaps it might be a good idea to discuss Tolstoy’s view of Napoleon after the Borodino chapters, because it certainly seems to me that Tolstoy’s view of Napoleon changed over the course of writing this book. In the Austrian campaign, Napoleon is presented as – as you say – “cold, brilliant, a fighting machine”: there is more than an element of admiration. But I don’t know if this admiration remains intact through the rest of the work. However, let us not anticipate.

        It is interesting what you say about Tolstoy being himself a warrior, and admiring military values. I think this is undeniably true: the Bolkonskys are, after all, a military family, and, on the whole, Tolstoy rather admires the Bolkonsky values. Tolstoy admires and respects also the unassuming heroism of, say, Denisov or of Tushin, the enthusiasm of Nikolai, and even the daredevil courage of Dolohov. But by the time we get to the invasion of Russia, the admiration and respect for military heroism, while still very much present, are not, perhaps, entirely unmixed: that most military of figures, Andrei Bolkonsky, is made to deliver one of the most stinging attacks on military values. But once again, let us not anticipate. Tolstoy spent some 5 years writing this novel, and one’s views do change over 5 years, even if subtly!

        Another point you raise that I find of interest is that of philosophy. I think most commentators are agreed that the chapters expounding philosophical ideas are out of place here, but frankly, I am in two minds about this. Firstly, Tolstoy actually never referred to this work as a novel, as such: he did not categorise the work at all, and set out to construct a structure large enough to allow for direct philosophical enquiry. And secondly, the subjects that fascinated Tolstoy from a philosophical oint of view – what determines the movements and actions of people en masse? what determines the currents of history? – are not really too far removed from the subjects he examined in the fictional parts of the novel. In depicting the Rostovs, Bolkonskys, etc., Tolstoy was fascinated by the idea of why it is people behave as they do and not otherwise – what it is that makes people what they are and not otherwise. In his philosophical musings, I think the same question is posed again, but this time on the level of masses of people, of entire nations, rather than on that of individuals.

        I suppose any major novel leaves one with more questions than answers, but I would be fascinated to know what you make of this novel as you read on.

        All the best,
        Himadri

  5. Tolstoy actually never referred to this work as a novel…

    Interesting! It certainly doesn’t read like a regular novel. It seems to have no plot – gives the sense of a you are there documentary, despite all the novelistic devices and the point of view…

    I agree with you – the philosophical essay is not out of place. It impressed me deeply as a teenager. Watching films of WWII on TV, I always asked myself, why do men obey and face death? Why doesn’t everyone refuse to follow orders? Sometimes, in chaotic times, it happens.

    I look forward to reading again T’s philosophical views on this.

    Reply

  6. Napoleon is presented as – as you say – “cold, brilliant, a fighting machine”: there is more than an element of admiration. But I don’t know if this admiration remains intact through the rest of the work…

    Well, I read on, and it’s now 1812, and the invasion has begun, although the Russians don’t quite realize it yet. Napoleon is presented as a pudgy megalomaniac, bewitched by his own military skills and success, but damned by his inability to imagine that things could ever different from what he thinks they are.

    I’d say that Tolstoy’s admiration has not remained intact. We still have Borodino, Moscow in flames, and the retreat to get through!

    BTW, have you read Segur’s account? I believe Tolstoy relied on it a great deal, and it’s a gripping read:

    http://iamyouasheisme.wordpress.com/2010/07/20/1812/

    Reply

    • I’m rather badly read in history, I’m afraid. I tend to read history books primarily to give me the background required for understanding better certain works of literature – e.g. I think it would be difficult to take in Paradise Lost without some understanding of the English Revolution & the English Civil War, or to take in Wordsworth’s Prelude without having at least some idea of the French Revolution. But for some reason, I haven’t yet got round to reading up on Napoleon’s Russian campaign. I have long been had this book in mind. I’ll put Segur’s book on my to-be-read list as well. (The problem, as ever, is how to mak etime to get through the ever-expanding to-be-read list: the last two days, I have been stuck in the office with yet another work-related panic…)

      “A pudgy megalomaniac, bewitched by his own military skills and success, but damned by his inability to imagine that things could ever different from what he thinks they are” seems about as good a summary as I can imagine of Tolstoy’s view of Napoleon. I can’t honestly see much admiration filtering through that, but it’s something to look out for, perhaps, in my next reading.

      Reply

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