Synopsis of “War and Peace”: Book 4, Part 1

Not even the invasion of Russia, and the fall of its “ancient and sacred capital”, could check the frivolity of society life in Petersburg. Hélène is struck down by a mystery illness, and equally mysteriously, she dies very suddenly. It is given out that she had angina, but it’s not hard to piece out from the various rumours that are circulating that the cause of her death was a botched abortion.

We now turn to Nikolai who, a few days before Borodino, is sent to Voronezh to buy horses for his hussars. In Voronezh, he is greeted – as is usual for this young aristocrat – by the cream of the local society. At a social gathering, Nikolai innocently flirts with the wife of a local official, not even pausing to think that this may be unpleasant for her husband. But there’s a surprise for Nikolai: Maria Bolkonsky is also in Voronezh, with an aunt of hers who lives there. Nikolai feels attracted to Maria, but is reluctant to go back on his word to Sonya: even a promise uttered while still effectively a child is nonetheless, to Nikolai, a sacred word of honour. Meeting Maria again merely intensifies what Nikolai had felt for her, and he certainly does not behave towards her as he had done with the wife of the local official. News of Borodino has reached Voronezh, and Nikolai sympathizes as Maria worries about her brother, and tries to assure her as best he can: after all, had Andrei been killed, the fact would have been reported.

Suddenly, he finds himself unburdening his problems to the governor’s wife, who knows his mother and who appears sympathetic. The very fact that she is a stranger to Nikolai allows him to speak freely to her, just as Pierre had spoken freely to Captain Ramballe. And all that had seemed complex to Nikolai seems straight-forward to the governess’ wife: one can’t be held by promises given in childhood; and besides, he’d break his mother’s heart if he were to marry Sonya.

Then suddenly, as if in answer to a prayer, he receives letters from his family, including one from Sonya setting him free from any obligation to her. There is also news of Andrei: he is wounded, and is with the Rostovs in Yaroslavl. Maria sets off immediately to be with him.

Sonya’s letter had been written in response to repeated entreaties from Countess Rostov. Growing up with the Rostovs as a poor relation, Sonya had learnt to keep her feelings private; and she had learnt also self-sacrifice, which she regards as a duty to her benefactors, despite the daily humiliation that, by this stage, the Countess could not help heaping upon her. But in this case, trusting in Nikolai’s sense of honour, she had written him the letter hoping that far from breaking ties with him, it would bind him all the closer to her. She was right about Nikolai’s sense of honour, but was badly mistaken in her judgment of the strength of Nikolai’s feelings for her.

And of course, there is still the hope that Andrei will recover, and marry Natasha. Sonya suddenly remembers the night when they had tried to tell fortunes. At the time, she had seen nothing, but had said that she had seen a figure lying down. Now, she convinces herself that that vision had been real, and that the figure she had seen had been Andrei.

We now return to Pierre. He refuses to give his name to his captors, even when interrogated by Davoust. This, naturally, strengthens the impression that he is a criminal – possibly one of the incendiaries. Suddenly, Pierre and Davoust catch each other’s eyes; and for a brief moment, they are aware of each other’s humanity. But the moment does not last long: someone comes in with a message for Davoust, and his attention is diverted.

Pierre is led out to a yard with some other prisoners. He is sixth in line. The first two are taken to posts, tied and blindfolded, and shot by firing squad. Pierre turns his head away from the horror, and the loud noise of the guns seems earth-shattering. He opens his eyes again, and sees two bloodied corpses being dragged away. And the next two are led up and tied to the posts. And again he turns his head away as his ears are assailed by the sound of another frightful explosion. Pierre looks around at the faces around him – Russian and French. And on all faces, he could see the same dismay, horror and conflict that he feels in his own heart. So who is doing this? he asks himself. The French themselves are as sickened as he is. So why are they doing this?

They take one more prisoner to be shot. Pierre does not at the time see the significance of this: the order had been to shoot five prisoners, as a lesson to all the others. This time Pierre watches. The fifth prisoner is only a young lad. This lad tries to grasp Pierre, and Pierre instinctively shakes him off. The boy is unable to walk, and he is dragged to the post. Then suddenly, he stops resisting – whether understanding that resistance is useless, or whether unable to comprehend that these men were about to kill him, Pierre could not say. But this fifth murder, he watches. As they tie the blindfold around him, the boy adjusts the knot at the back of his head, which was obviously making him feel uncomfortable. Pierre does not hear the shots ring out this time, but sees the body sag.

Pierre, with all the other prisoners, pass by the pit where the soldiers were dumping the corpses. The body of the young lad still seemed to be heaving, but earth was already being shovelled over them. Pierre sees one young French soldier, standing on the spot and swaying as if drunk. “That’ll teach them to start fires,” says one soldier, but there is no conviction in his voice.

After the break-up of Pierre’s marriage, Tolstoy had given us an image of Pierre’s state of mind as of a screw which had lost its thread, and which can neither go in, come out, nor stop turning. Now, Tolstoy gives us a similar image: the spring which had held its soul together had suddenly been wrenched out, and everything had fallen in meaningless pieces. His faith in everything – in the ordering of the universe, in humanity, in himself, in God – all disappears. At the time of his earlier crisis, he had met Bazdeyev, who, for a while at least, had given Pierre some sense of order and meaning in his life. Now, he meets Platon Karatayev, a fellow prisoner. He is a peasant – a kindly, good-natured, simple man. In many ways, he is saintly. On seeing Pierre in his dazed state, Platon tries to comfort him. He gives Pierre some potatoes to eat from his own meagre share. Pierre mentions to him the executions – particularly that of the young lad. “What a sin, what a sin,” Platon murmurs. He comes out with some homely peasant wisdom – not as a lecture, but simply because this is his way of talking. Over the next few weeks, Pierre grows close to Platon Karatayev, and comes to love the simple goodness of this man.

In the last section of this part, Maria arrives at Yaroslavl to be with her brother. Maria and Natasha had disliked each other at first meeting, but all that vanishes as soon as they see each other again, and recognize in each other fellow mourners. And yet, something has happened. Andrei, who had earlier shown such tenderness, is now more distant and detached than ever – as if nothing could touch him any more. This distresses Natasha, and it distresses Maria also. Even when his son is brought to him, Andrei cannot raise himself out of this detachment. Nothing earthly seems to him to be of the slightest consequence.

Andrei feels not only that he is dying, but that he is already half-dead. That sinister, eternal something, which he had sensed all his life, was now, he knew, upon him. During his hours of painful and semi-delirious solitude, he had brooded much on love – on human love, and on divine love. And he had realized, that to love everything and everybody, always to sacrifice self for love, meant to love no-one in particular, meant not to love this mundane life. And the more imbued he became with this principle of love, the more he let go of life, and the more completely he annihilated that fearful barrier that – in the absence of such love – stands between life and death.

A few days earlier, he had had a dream in which he was with a room full of people. And he had chatted with them, talked, socialized. But he dimly realized that all this was trivial – that what mattered was a fearful “it” outside the closed door. And that he must do everything to prevent “it” from entering. Gradually, all the people start to disappear, and all he is concerned about is to prevent “it” from entering. He tries with all his strength to keep it out, but he cannot. And in his dream, he died. And at that very point he woke up. And on seeing death as an awakening, he felt his soul “flooded with light”.

We have encountered this “it” before – in the first chapter of Book 2 Part 5, where Pierre had felt that he must do all he could “not to see it, that terrible it“.

Andrei dies, and everyone weeps. Andrei’s son, little Nikolai, weeps because his heart is “torn with perplexity”. Sonya and the Countess weep out of pity for Natasha. The old Count weeps because he knows that he, too, will soon be stepping over that terrible threshold. And Natasha and Maria also weep, not so much out of personal grief, but “from the emotion and awe which took possession of their soul before the simple and solemn mystery of death that had been accomplished before their eyes”.

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

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