Synopsis of “War and Peace”: Book 3, Part 2

This is the longest part of War and Peace, and is virtually a novel in itself. In many ways, it is a sort of microcosm of the entire work, mixing as it does great historic events and panoramic long shots of movements of entire peoples, with scenes of personal drama, often of a quite overwhelming emotional intensity. The whole part culminates in a depiction of the Battle of Borodino, which is possibly the greatest representation of battle in literature.

In the first chapter, Tolstoy presents a picture of the advance of the French troops into Russia. As ever, he pours scorn on the idea that any of this was planned by anyone, either from the French or from the Russian side. Everything has an infinite number of infinitely small causes. Tolstoy also presents the mutual antagonism between the two leaders on the Russian side, Prince Bagration and the German Barclay de Tolly. There is much anti-German feeling in the Russian Army.

At Bald Hills, Prince Bolkonsky’s cruelty to his daughter continues. He accuses her of having created the rift between himself and his son. Maria still receives letters from Julie Karagin, now Boris’ wife: she writes in curiously Frenchified Russian. (It is now considered unpatriotic to write in French, but people of Julie’s class barely know their own language.)

Princess Maria is so used to leaving major decisions to her father, that she has not been concerned about the French advance, mainly because her father had given the matter no importance. But her father simply cannot grasp what is happening: his mind is not what it was. As far as he is concerned, the French armies are still in Poland. Now, we get a quite extraordinary chapter where we se the world from Prince Bolkonsky’s unsteady perspective. His mind cannot settle on anything, and is constantly wandering back to the past. At long last, he takes in the letter from his son, who has written to him in conciliatory terms to heal the rift between them. And from this letter, the old man grasps with horror how close the French really are. But then, once again, his mind drifts back to the past – to the first time he had met with Tsarina Catherine and with the great Potemkin.

The Bolkonskys’ steward, Alpatych, is sent on an errand to Smolensk, some 40 miles to the west of Bald Hills. While he is there, the town comes under attack, and those who hadn’t left the city already start evacuating. There are scenes of disorder, and of panic, as the French shells and cannon-balls land all around. Alpatych is met by Andrei, who writes a note to his sister instructing her to leave for Moscow. It is significant that it is his sister to whom he now writes, and not his father: Andrei had seen the state of his father’s mind when he had last left Bald Hills. As Andrei is speaking to Alpatych, Berg, not recognizing Andrei at first, admonishes him for merely standing by while the city is being shelled. Andrei does not stoop so much as to acknowledge Berg’s presence.

After Smolensk has fallen, Andrei visits Bald Hills. The family has all left. Andrei tells Alpatych to take the peasants on the estate towards Moscow. And there is nothing more to be done. A great air of sadness hangs around the now deserted place. On returning from the estate, Andrei sees some soldiers jumping into a dirty pond. He is invited to join them. And inexplicably, Andrei feels a strange distaste for the sight – for the sheer physicality of the naked white flesh. His own flesh, too, makes him shudder in horror. All he can see in this mass of humanity is flesh that will be torn apart by cannons.

We now move briefly to the salons of Petersburg. Anna Pavolvna’s salon has become patriotic, and anti-French; Hélène’s salon is still hoping that peace can be restored. Prince Vasili has become old, and his mind, too, is starting to fail: he can no longer always remember what is the right thing to say in each salon. But as ever in these salons, nothing is sincere or deeply felt. We learn in these chapters that Kutuzov has been appointed commander-in-chief of the Russian forces.

We are given another comic interlude as one of Nikolai’s serfs, Lavrushka, is captured by the French. The great Napoleon himself speaks to him, imagining that Lavrushka does not realise to whom he is speaking. Lavrushka has realized this all along, but plays along with Napoleon’s ego, feigning horror and shock when Napoleon’s identity is revealed to him. The great man, pleased with the effect produced, lets Lavrushka go.

Princess Maria was not in Moscow as Andrei had thought. The Bolkonskys had gone only as far as Bogucharovo, Andrei’s estate. And it is here that old Prince Bolkonsky has a stroke. He lies there like a corpse, his right side paralyzed.

To remain at Bogucharovo is becoming unsafe, but the old man can hardly be moved. And Maria suddenly finds herself looking forward to what her life would be like after her father’s death. Her naturally tender mind is shocked at finding herself thinking of this.

The next morning, the old man asks for Maria. His slurred speech is not easy to understand, but she makes out what he is saying. “My soul is troubled.” He is always thinking of her, he says, and had been calling for her all last night. Now, at the gates of death, he suddenly – for the first and only time in his life – feels capable of expressing the love he feels for his daughter, the love he has always felt for her, even when he could not help himself from tormenting and humiliating her at every step. And he thanks her for everything, and asks her forgiveness.

Is this the man whose death she had wanted? Maria asks herself. The old man asks for Andrei, and on being reminded that he is with the army, recalls to himself the state of Russia, and he weeps. And the last thing he says to his daughter is: “Put on your white dress. I like it.”

By the afternoon, he is dead. And as Maria kisses her father’s dead face, she suddenly recoils. “In a flash, all the deep tenderness she had been feeling for him vanished before the horror and dread of what lay there on the bed before her.”

In and around Bogucharovo, the peasants had been used to working for absentee landlords. (Andrei’s own peasants had all been emancipated, of course.) Ignorant and uneducated as they are, and ever open to rumours, their mistrust of the aristocrats comes to the fore. Why should they help these people to get away? After all, haven’t the French promised to treat everyone well?

When it is made clear to Maria that she has to get away, she finds the peasants unwilling to co-operate. Still reeling from the shock of her father’s death, and of the unexpected tenderness he had shown her at the very end, she tries desperately to think what her father would have done. She tries her best to meet their concerns, but they’re having none of it. Even Dron, Andrei’s trusted steward, finds himself forced to side with the peasants.

It is at this point that Nikolai, who is out with the young Ilyin foraging for his men, comes across Bogucharovo. He knows exactly how to deal with the peasants: threaten them, tie them up, beat them if necessary. (That’s the way aristocrats dealt with peasants, who were, of course, essentially slaves, and who were treated at least as badly as the slaves on the American plantations.) Nikolai can do this on his own in the full knowledge that, if required, he will have the full backing of the army. And there is something about Princess Maria’s luminous eyes – now in tears – that strikes him. He inevitably sees something very romantic in all this. But he has given his word to Sonya.

Andrei, meanwhile, meets with Kutuzov. Denisov is there as well, enthusiastically proposing guerrilla action against the French troops. Kutuzov is moved to hear of the death of Prince Bolkonsky. He tells Denisov in fatherly tones that they will discuss his ideas the next day. Kutuzov is also lenient on Russian troops taking all the crops available. Never mind the looting – nothing must be left behind for the French! If retreat is inevitable, make sure as little as possible gets left behind.

Kutuzov offers Prince Andrei a position on his staff, but Andrei prefers to serve with the fighting troops. Kutuzov consents.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, society continues in its frivolity. These people, so used to French that they even think in that language, are now struggling with speaking Russian, which, they feel, they have to do for patriotic reasons. The governor of Moscow, Count Rostopchin, has forbidden anyone to leave the city: there is no reason to evacuate – the French will never reach Moscow. This convinces Pierre that the occupation of Moscow is but a matter of time.

In the streets, Pierre sees a Frenchman accused of spying being mercilessly whipped. Pierre is deeply troubled. He toys with the intention of joining the army. Hardly knowing his own intentions, he finds himself going to Mozhaisk, near Borodino, where much of the Russian army is quartered.

The battle, Tolstoy points out, was to the advantage of neither army. Yet it happened. Why? Pierre walks around, seeing the soldiers, and he wonders how many of those he sees would still be alive the next day. His own life seems to lack any meaning or direction; he scarcely knows why he has come here. To see the battle as a sort of spectator? To help out? His mind in a whirl, he does not know. He wants to take part in the battle, and is told to apply directly to Kutuzov. (Pierre is a count, after all – he would hardly be treated as an ordinary recruit.)

After having seen as much of the lay-out as he can, Pierre tries to seek out Andrei. He briefly meets with Kutuzov, and then, Dolohov, who, quite unexpectedly, apologises to Pierre for past “misunderstandings”, and hopes there is no ill-feeling between them. Pierre does not know what to say as Dolohov embraces him with tears in his eyes.

Andrei, meanwhile, muses to himself. He feels very close to death, and does not regret it. This is not because he has conquered his fear of death, but because he has lost all emotional ties that bind him to this life. And all the questions that had so tormented him appear to him as if “illuminated by a cold white light, having no shadows, without perspective, without distinction of outline”. All that he had valued – “honour and glory, the good of society, love for a woman, the Fatherland itself” – all seems meaningless now to him. And he thinks how foolish he was in having loved Natasha. (But he does not think of her by name.) Andrei is haunted by three great sorrows: his love for a woman (he still does not mention her name, not even in his thoughts); the death of his father; and the invasion of the French Army. To continue living has no attraction for Andrei.

This is a quite remarkable chapter, that somehow takes the reader as close to the reality of death as seems possible.

It is at this point that Pierre arrives. Andrei is naturally surprised, but, for the one and only time, he is not pleased to see his friend. At first, he seems disinclined to be left alone with Pierre: his friend is too much associated with various things that still pain him. Pierre notices Andrei’s displeasure on seeing him, and is unsure what to make of it. But far from feeling offended, he feels for his friend’s sake.

Andrei speaks bitterly about the French invasion. Bald Hills, that his father had looked after with such care, where he himself had grown up, is now overrun with invaders. And he can feel nothing for the invaders but hatred.

Andrei is sceptical about the “science of war”. What will win is not numbers or strategy, but the feeling that is in the men. Then, with growing passion, Andrei starts talking about war itself, and about military values. There is a deep bitterness in him. Let us stop playing at war, he says – let us stop pretending that it is honourable and glorious. It is merely murder on the greatest scale, nothing more. And yet, our societies are such, that it is the military profession we honour most: all Emperors wear military uniform, and those who have killed the most are the most honoured. Given that Andrei is himself from a proud military family, this is as close as he can come to expressing self-hatred.

“Life has become a burden to me,” Andrei finally tells his friend. “I see that I have begun to understand too much.” He advises Pierre to leave. Then, suddenly, he embraces his friend and kisses him, and starts to tell him something. But then he stops himself and turns away. In the dark, Pierre cannot see whether his face is angry or tender.

After this extraordinarily moving scene, Tolstoy takes us to Napoleon’s tent. Napoleon, the great self-deceiver, is convinced that it has been merely his will that has brought him here, and that it will be his genius that will ensure victory. A portrait of Napoleon’s infant son is brought before him: in the picture, the pretty little boy is playing with a toy globe. Napoleon, aware that whatever he does and says now will be recorded in the history books, says “Take him away – it is too early yet for him to look upon the field of battle.” And everyone is apparently impressed by the wisdom and profundity of this saying.

Tolstoy then sets out to debunk the myth of Napoleon’s military greatness. Every single one of Napoleon’s instructions was, he claims, impossible to carry out; and, naturally, none of them was executed. By the time any report comes to Napoleon on how the battle is progressing, a million and one things have already happened that make the report out of date.

We are shown the battle mainly from Pierre’s perspective. Without realising it, he is in the very place where some of the main events of the battle take place, and Pierre witnesses horrors unimaginable. He attempts to help, but merely gets in everyone’s way. Then, the cannonballs start hitting, leaving behind the dead, and the wounded writhing in agony.

The battle is simply mass slaughter. The Russian armies withstand the most devastating shelling, but without retreating. The French also suffer heavy losses. All around are death and devastation, and veritable rivers of human blood. These are some of the most grotesque scenes ever committed to paper. And Napoleon, convinced though he was of his own genius, faces for the first time the possibility of defeat, and of the unthinkable possibility that his genius may be fallible after all.

Kutuzov, knowing how little commands from on high mean on the actual battlefield, says little. Only when someone brings news of a setback does he loudly insist that he is wrong – that there is no setback. Unlike Napoleon, he knows that all he can do is to try to maintain morale.

Andrei’s regiment is kept back in reserve, but soon, even they come under fire. A shell lands near Andrei, and others shout at him to lie down and cover himself. But Andrei hesitates. “Can this be death?” he asks himself. And suddenly, in that split second before the shell goes off, he feels an overpowering love of earthly life. He suddenly loves this grass, this earth, this air….And then, the explosion happens.

As he is being carried to hospital, Andrei, half delirious with the pain, asks himself why he suddenly felt that way. “What made me so reluctant to part with life? There was something in life I did not and don’t understand.”

The scene in the military hospital is of a nightmarish intensity. An overworked doctor comes out of the tent in a blood-soaked apron, holding his cigar between his thumb and little finger so as not to stain it with blood. A detail like that nails him as a human being, and not merely a character in fiction.

As Andrei is taken in, we see again the class resentment we had noted before with the peasants in Bogucharovo: the “quality” – i.e. the upper classes – are seen to first. Andrei is barely aware of what is happening. In his semi-delirium, the events around him get mixed up with fleeting thoughts and sensations. All around is pain, and people bearing the most hideous of wounds scream in agony. Andrei finds his mind reverting to his happiest moments – especially his earliest childhood when he was being undressed and put to bed.

In the bed next to Andrei, a man is having his leg amputated. Hearing his sobs, Andrei too wants to weep, but he does not know why. He does not know whether this is because he was dying a death without glory, or whether he was sorry to part with life; or whether it is because that childhood of his would never return, or whether because he was in pain and others were in pain. But the tears he wants to weep were, he felt, “almost happy tears”.

And suddenly, he remembers who the man is next to him who was having his leg amputated. It is Anatole. Andrei remembers vaguely that Anatole was somehow connected to him, but he cannot remember how. And suddenly, an unexpected recollection presented itself to Andrei. It was Natasha the time he had seen her at that ball, “with her slender neck and arms, with her timid, happy face prepared for ecstasy”. And “his soul awoke to a love and tenderness for her which were stronger and more pulsing with life than they had ever been”. Now, he remembers who Anatole is, and all he can now feel for this man is a passionate pity and love. No longer able to restrain himself, he weeps tears of compassion for his fellow men, and for himself. “But it is too late now,” he says to himself, “I know it.”

The battle is over now. The slaughter on both sides has been devastating. Napoleon, who enjoys surveying the wounded and the dead on the battlefield, looks upon the devastation, but the horror “made no impression upon his soul”.

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

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