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

Until now, the war episodes and the peace episodes had been kept separate. Now this is no longer possible: Napoleon invades Russia, and the war is brought to those who had previously kept out of it. And the novel enters a new phase.

Tolstoy starts this part by meditating on the nature of historic action. We will get quite a few of these authorial meditations, and some readers object to it. Of course, such chapters don’t ordinarily belong to a novel, but this is no ordinary novel. We have no choice but to go wherever Tolstoy decides to take us. It is worth the effort.

When readers complain that these chapters are irrelevant, they are surely wrong. The novel so far has enquired into why the characters behave in such a way, and not any other. It is an enquiry into the roots of human behaviour. Now, we have the same enquiry, but on a much larger scale: what determines the behaviour of entire people? What determines the events of history? Historians tell us that it was because of certain economic factors; or because Napoleon willed it; or whatever. Tolstoy dismisses these. Any event is a consequence of an infinite number of infinitely small factors, and ascribing it to merely a few of these factors – as historians tend to do – was, in Tolstoy’s opinion, charlatanism. But that leaves open the question: why did hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen march across Europe to invade Russia? Surely, it was more than merely one man’s will. But what?

The Tsar is in Vilna when he hears of the French armies crossing the border. Boris, who is there at the time, notices something momentous is happening, and positions himself to hear what it is. The Tsar sends Balashev with a message for Napoleon, demanding that he withdraw his troops immediately from Russian soil.

We are now shown the French armies crossing into Russia. The scene is painted on a massive canvas. If the domestic scenes at the Rostovs’, say, were in close-up, then these are long, panoramic shots. We are given a vivid picture of hundreds of thousands of men on the move. Napoleon himself takes all the adulation of his troops in his stride, as if it were something only to be expected. It even irritates him at times, as he is trying to think. Tolstoy seems to have little respect for this man whom he saw borne on the waves of history, but who vainly imagined that it was he who was controlling the waves.

Balashev, in his journey to meet with Napoleon, first meets two of his generals – the vain Murat, and the boorish Davoust. They appear briefly, but are brought to life with unerring skill. Finally, Balashev gets to meet Napoleon in the very palace at Vilna in which the Tsar had charged him with the mission. Napoleon is not interested in listening. After all, why should a man in his position listen to anyone? Napoleon does all the talking, and carried away by his own verbosity, says whatever comes into his head. Later, Napoleon invites Balashev to dinner, quite unconscious of having behaved improperly. As far as he is concerned, the very fact that he had acted in a certain way means that that was the correct way to act.

Now, we move to Bald Hills again, and a very sombre place it is now. The old Prince’s mind is going; senility is setting in, and he wastes no opportunity to torment both his daughter and himself. Andrei, now a sort of walking zombie after the episode with Natasha, has joined the army again. He is trying to seek out Anatole, so he could provoke him into a duel and kill him. Andrei comes to stay briefly in Bald Hills. When with his father, he tries to talk – as he usually does with his father – of military strategy, but his father now has something else on his mind: his daughter, whom he cannot help tormenting. Andrei sides with his sister, and the old man flies into a rage. For the first time in his life, Andrei parts from his father on bad terms.

Before he leaves, there is a wonderful short scene between Andrei and Maria. Speaking of Mademoiselle Bourienne – who seems delighted that the senile old Prince is ludicrously paying court to her – Andrei bursts out in uncontrolled passion: “And to think that such – such trash can bring misery on people!”

There is almost a sort of telepathy between brother and sister. She knows right away that her brother is not referring merely to Mademoiselle Bourienne: she asks Andrei not to seek out Anatole Kuragin. And Andrei does not promise – he cannot. Anatole Kuragin has dishonoured him – him, Andrei Bolkonsky – and he must be punished for it.

Andrei finally reaches the Army headquarters, and we are given an account of the various factions therein. The German general Barclay de Tolly is in charge, but is not much liked: there is much xenophobia around. Andrei speaks to the Tsar, and rather than be a hanger-on at the Tsar’s court (the Tsar is leaving the Army on advice of the military staff), he asks to serve with the army at the front.

We now move to Nikolai, still with the hussars. He has heard that his sister’s engagement has been broken off, but doesn’t know of the full facts of the matter. His family keep asking him to return home. We see Nikolai and some others innocently flirting with the pretty wife of a jealous Army doctor. Under Nikolai’s command is a lad of sixteen called Ilyin, and Nikolai is attached to him like an older brother. The relationship between Nikolai and Ilyin is like the one that had previously existed between Denisov and Nikolai.

Nikolai is involved in a skirmish. He is no longer frightened of action — not because he had become used to it (that is impossible), but because he has learnt how not to think about it. On his own initiative, Nikolai charges down and captures some French soldiers. As a result, he is commended and decorated. But Nikolai is uneasy: is this really what heroism is? He remembers the frightened face of one of the French soldiers whom he has captured. And something which Nikolai cannot articulate even to himself gnaws at him.

We now move to the other Rostovs. Natasha had been dangerously ill, but is now beginning to recover physically. Emotionally, she remains depressed. We follow her to church, where services are being given for the safe deliverance of the Fatherland. And Natasha prays for everyone – the country, and also for her brother, and for Andrei. It strikes her momentarily that there is something not quite right about praying for one’s enemies, and also praying that the French be defeated; but she doesn’t allow that thought to bother her too much. She prays in the church as devoutly as anyone.

Pierre visits the Rostovs often. He has quite clearly, fallen in love with Natasha. Suddenly, the big questions concerning life – although still present – cease to torment him: instead, he finds himself musing on Natasha. Otherwise, he leads a meaningless, idle life. Having nothing better to do, he tries various contrived pieces of numerology to try to interpret the Revelation of St John, and somehow manages to convince himself that Napoleon’s destiny and his are vaguely intertwined. This is the occupation of a mind that has nothing to do.

Natasha welcomes Pierre’s visits. After the terrible episode with Andrei, it is Pierre who has shown her affection and tenderness, with not a hint of reproach. One evening, at the Rostovs’, it suddenly strikes Pierre how unfair it is for him to keep seeing Natasha: when all is said and done, he is a married man. He leaves the Rostovs’, and stops visiting.

Meanwhile Petya, much to his parents concern, insists on joining the army. He is only 15, but the patriotic fever sweeping through Moscow has hit him hard. Without telling his parents, he goes to see the Tsar, who is visiting Moscow in an effort to convince the nobles to raise troops from amongst their serfs. Petya imagines that he would be able to go straight up to the Tsar, and ask him directly to serve in the army. It doesn’t, of course, work out that way. Petya is swept along by the crowds, and is nearly crushed. And he is not even sure whether the man he does see really is the Tsar or someone else. But nothing can dampen his patriotic fervour: he is determined to join the army. Eventually, Count Rostov makes enquiries on the safest place for Petya to serve.

In the final two chapters of this long part, we are shown the nobles and the merchant classes of Moscow, who have all gathered to hear the Tsar’s patriotic appeal. The scene is one of apprehension, disorder, and patriotic fervour. The war has now entered their very homeland, and will soon be on their doorsteps.

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


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