Synopsis of “War and Peace”: Book 2, Part 5

In the first five quite brilliant chapters of this part, we catch up on some of the other characters before we return to the Rostovs. First, we see Pierre, who is sinking deeper into depression. Life suddenly fills him with “unexpected loathing”. Freemasonry, which he had thought would give his life new meaning, has not done so, and even without wishing it, he finds himself sinking back into his old dissipations. He finds himself becoming the very kind of person he had so disliked. He tries to tell himself that he is not really like that, because he has deeper thoughts and higher aspirations; but then he wonders – what if others, too, have such thoughts and aspirations, but nonetheless continue to live such a meaningless existence, just as he is doing? The same old questions continue to torment Pierre, and he tries not to think about them.

“Nothing is without consequence, and nothing is important: it’s all the same in the end. The thing to do is to save myself from it all as best I can,” thought Pierre. “Not to see it, that terrible it.”

No other author faced “that terrible it” as directly as Tolstoy.

The Bolkonskys, like Pierre, have moved into Moscow. The old prince, who seems to be in the early stages of senility, is crueller than ever to his daughter, hurting and humiliating her whenever he can. It has become a habit. He gives a dinner given for select guests; somehow, Boris has wangled an invitation. Having seen Count Rostopchin decline dinner with the commander-in-chief of Moscow to be present at Prince Bolkonsky’s dinner, Boris realizes how important it is for him to be seen there; and sure enough, there he is. He is in the process of choosing between the two heiresses, Princess Maria and Julie Karagin.

After dinner, Pierre and Maria are together. Pierre is in surprisingly jovial spirits, and doesn’t notice Maria’s unhappiness until she – very uncharacteristically – bursts into sobs. Her father is making her life unbearable – all the more so given how much she actually loves him. His mind is in decline, and the tasteless joke he had made about marrying Madamoiselle Bourienne he is now carrying to quite ludicrous lengths, apparently just to hurt his daughter.

Meanwhile, Boris has settled for Julie. The chapter where he woos her is one of the funniest in the novel. She affects a fashionable melancholy, and he plays up to her. And finally, he tells her how much he cares for her.

There was no need to say more: Julie’s face beamed with triumph and self-satisfaction; but she forced Boris to say all that is usually said on these occasions – to say that he loved her and had never loved any woman more. She knew that for her Penza estates and the Nizhni Novgorod forests she could demand that, and she received what was demanded.

Behind the almost bitter irony, there is also sadness. Boris is not an insensitive person. But whatever sensitivity of feeling he had, he has sacrificed. He had hesitated proposing to Julie because, we are told, he had a secret distaste for her, and had a “feeling of horror at thus renouncing the possibility of true love”. We remember also that it was Natasha whom he had loved. But all that is now sacrificed – for the “Penza estates and the Nizhni Novgorod forests”.

Now we return to the Rostovs. Countess Rostov is still in the country, and the Rostovs’ Moscow house has not been heated. So the Count, with Natasha and Sonya stay with Maria Dmitrievna, the lady whom we may remember from Natasha’s name-day party near the start of the novel. She is a vigorous lady in her late 50s, who makes a show of her plainness of manners and lack of affectations. And Natasha is a great favourite of hers.

Maria Dmitrievna suggests that Natasha should pay a visit to her future in-laws, in an attempt to win over old Prince Bolkonsky. Count Rostov takes Natasha to the Bolkonskys’ Moscow house, and, obviously frightened of meeting Prince Bolkonsky, makes an excuse and leaves his daughter with Maria. This is the first meeting between Natasha and Maria, and it mirrors the earlier meeting between their respective brothers, Nikolai and Andrei. As with the young men, the young ladies do not get on with each other. The old prince, on being told that Natasha had come, had angrily refused to meet with her. And Maria, emerging from yet another unpleasant scene with her father, is hardly in the right frame of mind to greet Natasha. Quite unconsciously, she had been hostile to Natasha – partly out of jealousy (Natasha is pretty and leads the kind of happy carefree life that Maria could only dream of), and partly also, I think, because of her Bolkonsky pride. And what she sees merely confirms what she had thought: a frivolous, fashionably dressed, pretty young girl.

Madamoiselle Bourienne prattles on the whole time, refusing to leave; and Maria, worried that her father might come in and create another scene, has nothing to say. Natasha senses Maria’s hostility, and takes offence. Why should they not like her? Her – Natasha – whom everyone loves! What harm has she done to them? And in the middle of this scene, Maria’s greatest fear comes true: her father, wearing a dressing gown and nightcap, makes his entrance. He plays the buffoon to Natasha, insisting that he had not known that she was there. (He is either lying here, or, more likely, he had forgotten: his mind is going, after all). He leaves soon, without having said anything meaningful to his future daughter-in-law, and certainly without having welcomed her. By the time Count Rostov comes to collect Natasha, she feels deeply humiliated; and Princess Maria’s belated attempt at civility Natasha meets (to her own surprise!) with a cold rebuff. Back home, she is in tears.

Then, the Rostovs go to the opera. It is a glittering social occasion, and Tolstoy depicts it with withering contempt. The opera itself is a series of nonsensical and meaningless sounds and actions; the audience – Moscovite society – is affected, unnatural, stupid. The ladies are wearing low cut dresses – especially Hélène, who is in the box next to that of the Rostovs. She dazzles everyone with her great beauty, and especially with her prominently displayed cleavage. Also in the audience are two handsome men who know they are being looked at and admired: Dolohov, and Hélène’s brother, Anatole. Anatole takes a fancy to Natasha: for someone as depraved and as unscrupulous as himself, a young, inexperienced girl like Natasha is a delightful change. His sister, Hélène, finds it amusing to corrupt an innocent young girl. She invites Natasha into her box, and the well-practised seduction begins.

Especially after the unpleasant scene at the Bolkonskys, Natasha finds herself flattered by the attention. Back home after the opera, she wonders if she has done wrong. Has she betrayed Andrei in some way? And after a soirée at Hélène’s – where, once again, Anatole’s seduction continues – Natasha finds herself in love with Anatole. Or so she thinks. She doesn’t know what being “in love” means. What she feels for Anatole she suddenly imagines is overpowering. Possibly, the love she thought she had felt for Andrei had been equally insubstantial. At any rate, she now knows how to answer a conciliatory letter she has received from Maria: she writes to her breaking off the engagement with Andrei.

An elopement is arranged. Anatole – who is actually already married in secret – thinks it would be amusing to corrupt this girl, and Dolohov is to help him. They employ a troika-driver who normally serves them at such events, vicariously enjoying their depravity. But at Maria Dmitrievna’s house, it doesn’t take Dolohov long to work out that the plot has been discovered, and they escape.

It is Sonya who had given Natasha away. Having learnt of the elopement, she had stood guard in the corridor, determined to prove her gratitude to the Rostovs (which has been called into question lately) by defending their honour. Maria Dmitrievna had found her there weeping, and had made her tell all.

The elopement has failed, and Natasha is inconsolable. Maria Dmitrievna is worried that Count Rostov – who had to return briefly to his country estate – would find out, and challenge Anatole to a duel. Or, perhaps, it might be Nikolai or Andrei who might try to fight a duel with Anatole. So she sends for Pierre, to ask him to get Anatole out of Moscow.

Pierre has known Natasha since she was a girl, but his affection for her has, recently, been turning into something more. For this very reason, he had been keeping his distance from his friend’s betrothed. When Maria Dmitrievna tells him what had happened, he is outraged for his friend’s sake. His immediate reaction is to think to himself that women are all like that – his wife, Natasha (whom he sees walking around calmly as if nothing had happened). It is only when he tells Natasha that Anatole is already married that he sees the agony she feels, and, as ever, he sympathizes. Afterwards, Natasha tries to poison herself, but panics, and does not take the full dose.

Pierre finds Anatole in his own house, at one of his wife’s soirées. Hélène sees in Pierre’s face the sort of fury he had shown to her after his duel with Dolohov, and she doesn’t dare oppose him as he frogmarches Anatole out. Pierre is in a fury, and when Anatole refuses at first to co-operate, he shakes him by the throat. Anatole has never seen Pierre like this, and frightened, hands Pierre the letters he had received from Natasha, and agrees to leave Moscow. It is presumably with profound sadness and self-loathing that Pierre tells Anatole to amuse himself with women like his wife, Hélène, who know what to expect, rather than with innocent girls like Natasha.

Then, seeing Pierre has mastered his anger, Anatole asks Pierre to retract what he had said. Pierre does so, and leaves, expressing his utter disgust with the vile and heartless family he has married into.

Andrei has now returned, and Pierre visits him. Andrei is talking loudly and excitedly about politics: anything rather than talk about what has wounded him more deeply than anything at the Battle of Austerlitz. His father is notably pleased that his son’s engagement has been broken. Even Maria cannot quite hide her relief at this. But when Pierre speaks to Andrei privately, the emotional wound is all too apparent. Andrei has staked his entire happiness on Natasha, and now that dream, too, has collapsed. When he says he is sorry to hear of Natasha’s illness, he smiles a cold, spiteful smile like his father’s. And when he hears that Anatole is already married, he laughs unpleasantly – again like his father.

He asks where Anatole is: obviously, he means to find him out and kill him. Pierre hints at Andrei forgiving Natasha, but that is out of the question. Andrei says there is nothing to forgive: he had given her perfect freedom. But Andrei in his heart cannot forgive her for having preferred a worthless nobody like Anatole Kuragin to him – him, Andrei Bolkonsky. He asks Pierre not to talk of the matter again.

Finally, Pierre visits Natasha again. She has recovered from her attempted suicide, but mentally, she is wretched. And Pierre, gentle-hearted as always, feels for her. And suddenly, quite unexpectedly, it comes out. Partly to comfort her, and partly because he really does mean it, he tells her that if he were not himself, but were instead the most handsome and brilliant of men, and if he were free, he would go down upon his knees right away and propose to her.

Riding back from the Rostovs’ house, Pierre suddenly feels a sense of exhilaration. He unbuttons his coat, despite the bitter cold. Above the dirty Moscow streets is a magnificent night sky, with a comet. This comet was seen at the time as prefiguring disaster, but to Pierre it seems otherwise.

It seemed to Pierre that this comet spoke in full harmony with all that filled his own softened and uplifted soul, now blossoming into a new life.

And on that exhilarating note, we come to the end of this first half of this extraordinary novel. And no matter how often I read that marvellous passage, I too, like Pierre, feel joyous and exhilarated. I really know of nothing more glorious in all literature.

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

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