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

This part starts with Tolstoy musing again on the cause of historic events. He draws an analogy with calculus. If we regard time as discrete units, movement is incomprehensible; only when we see time as sequences of moments infinitesimally small, and integrate these infinitesimals together, can we understand the process of change. And similarly with historic events – they are products of an infinite number of infinitely small causes, and to attempt to ascribe them to one or two major causes – such as, say , the will of Napoleon – is sheer charlatanism.

After Borodino, the French Army, like a badly wounded animal, advances towards Moscow out of its sheer forward momentum. It cannot stop. And Kutuzov gives up Moscow without a fight rather than sacrifice the army in an attempt to defend it. This is met with general disapproval: Moscow is, after all, the “ancient and sacred capital”.

Those who can – i.e. those wealthy enough to do so – evacuate Moscow.

Meanwhile, in Petersburg, Hélène has a dilemma: she has two suitors. And to complicate matters, she is already married. That is not a problem, however: to someone of Hélène’s great intellect, it’s all so simple. Hélène suddenly converts to Catholicism. Now, she can obtain a divorce – ratified by His Holiness the Pope himself – and then choose from between her two suitors. She sends a letter to Pierre, asking for a divorce. The letter arrives when Pierre is at Borodino.

After the battle, Pierre returns to Mozhaisk, and is forced to spend the night in a carriage. He has a confused dream, in which the words Andrei had said to him about war merge with Masonic teaching. On his way back to Moscow, he hears of the death of Anatole, and of his friend Andrei.

The governor of Moscow, Count Rostopchin, advises Pierre to make himself scarce: all sorts of rumours are flying around – will Moscow be given up to the French? Who is responsible for this? etc. – and Rostopchin cannot guarantee the safety of freemasons. A certain Verschagin has been sentenced to hard labour for allegedly circulating forged proclamations. Moscow is descending into chaos.

The Rostovs have left it late to evacuate from Moscow, mainly because they did not want to leave without Petya, who, until recently, had been with his regiment. Natasha, now recovered somewhat from her depression, helps with the packing. But when the wounded pour in from Borodino, Natasha tells them that they may make use of their carts and wagons. Her father, she knows, won’t mind. Her father indeed does not mind, but her mother is furious when she finds out. As if it weren’t bad enough that her husband had squandered the family fortune – now they must leave everything behind! Count Rostov, for ever feeling guilty about the ruin of the family fortunes, has no alternative but to give way. But Natasha is furious. How can they even think of taking their belongings instead of taking the wounded! The Countess has no option but to give way to her daughter. And, unknown to Natasha, one of the wounded they take is Andrei. The Countess, reluctant to re-open old wounds, tells Sonya not to let Natasha know.

On their way out of Moscow, the Rostovs meet Pierre, who is wandering around Moscow in a peasant coat. Pierre, having returned from Borodino, his mind swimming from what he had witnessed, had deserted his house, and had made for Bazdeyev’s. Bazdeyev is now dead, and the house is occupied by his widow, and by his mentally retarded brother. Pierre settles down to go through Bazdeyev’s papers. At the back of his mind is the vague thought that his fate is somehow related to Napoleon’s, and an idea starts taking shape: he, Pierre, will liberate Europe by assassinating Napoleon. He asks for a peasant coat, and a gun.

Napoleon has entered Moscow, but, to his surprise, there is no deputation to meet him. The rulers of the town and its chief citizens have all left. The city is populated only by the working men and women: their “masters” are all gone. For all intents and purposes, Moscow is empty. Rostopchin, before he leaves, fearing an insurrection, eggs on the crowd gathered in front of his palace to lynch Verschagin. And he justifies to himself this dreadful crime: after all, Verschagin was a criminal, wasn’t he? And the crowd’s wrath has to be appeased!

Fires start in Moscow soon afterwards. It’s not the French armies who start it; and neither is it the fanatical patriotism of the Russians that is responsible. Fires are inevitable in a city consisting mainly of wooden buildings left unattended.

Some French officers enter Bazdeyev’s house, and Pierre sees Bazdeyev’s retarded brother attempting to shoot one of them. Instinctively, Pierre prevents him. The French officer is a genial chap, and is very grateful to Pierre for saving his life. On Pierre’s request, he even allows Bazdeyev’s brother to go free. He introduces himself as Captain Ramballe, and invites Pierre to sup with him. And as Pierre sups, and becomes more and more drunk, he feels his resolution – to kill Napoleon – vanishing. And, after a few drinks, he tells Ramballe all about himself – even about his love for Natasha.

We now move to the Rostovs, who, with the other evacuees from Moscow, see the sky red with the fires. They look on helplessly as their beloved city burns.

Much to the Countess’ annoyance, Sonya tells Natasha about the presence of Andrei amongst the wounded. There’s a whiff of suspicion that this was a calculated act: if Andrei survived, and married Natasha, then, according to the rules of the Orthodox Church, Nikolai could not marry Maria. Ever since Nikolai had rescued Maria at Bogucharovo, there has been much talk of this.

Natasha waits till all her family is asleep, and then goes to where she knows Andrei is. She does not know how he would react to seeing her again. He smiles, and holds out his hand to her.

We are taken back to Andrei’s perspective. Still semi-delirious with pain, his mind is not in a normal state. He has, uncharacteristically for him, asked for a New Testament. It seems to him that in the army hospital, something new had been revealed to him – something he could not quite define to himself. He remembers that next to him was a man he had wanted to kill. This man’s leg had been amputated, and he had been sobbing like a child. And Andrei had felt no bitterness, no anger: just pity – pity for himself, and for this man who had been an enemy of his. And as he muses in his semi-delirious state on love – which he knows he cannot quite attain in the course of his normal life – he sees a figure in white approaching him. It is Natasha. Falteringly, she asks for forgiveness, but he does not understand what there is to forgive.

From that day onwards, Natasha tends to Andrei, never leaving his side.

We now return to Pierre. The morning after his drunken supper with Captain Ramballe, Pierre, disgusted with the way he has behaved, determines to carry out his intention. There is chaos in the streets. Pierre rescues a girl from a burning building, but then cannot find her parents. Then, noticing some French soldiers harassing a woman, he goes to her rescue. Strong though he is, he is overpowered. They find in his possession a revolver, and a knife; and he refuses to reveal his name. Pierre is arrested on suspicion of being an incendiary.

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


3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by sckenda on April 24, 2016 at 11:06 pm

    I am now at this point in my reading of War and Peace in the Briggs translation. I thank you for your brilliant distillation, which helps to consolidate my reading.


    • Thank you for your kind words. These were written quite a few years ago now, when I was reading a group read of War and Peace on a now defunct book site. I had intended them merely to be summmaries of the plot, but inevitably, a few comments crept in also! It’s good to know they’re still being read.

      All the best, Himadri


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