Synopsis of “War and Peace”: Book 4, Part 2

If the previous chapters had been shot, as it were, in extreme close-up, Tolstoy now switches to long shots, and gives us a panoramic view of the French retreat. The French army is retreating without discipline. They burden themselves with their plunder, which they seem unable to relinquish. The army is self-destructing.

Kutuzov understands this, and, aware of the perilous state of his own army, tries to avoid battles. But he cannot always prevent this. The military staff wants to engage in conflict, and makes all sorts of elaborate plans for destroying the French army. But Kutuzov sees little point in risking his own badly worn troops to achieve what was being achieved anyway. And even when conflicts are agreed upon, against Kutuzov’s will, he sees – to his fury – that the troops are not even prepared for battle. Kutuzov makes himself unpopular by what is perceived by those who do not understand the situation as his cowardice and inactivity.

Tolstoy pours more scorn on Napoleon, and on the historians who insist on seeing him as “great”. At no point, Tolstoy insists, either in his career on in his subsequent exile, did Napoleon live up to the standards of human dignity or of simple goodness. The proclamations he gave out in Moscow were meaningless, especially in view of the forged Russian currency he was busy circulating.

Pierre and the other prisoners have established friendly terms with their captors: Platon is busy making shirts for one of the French soldiers. But as soon as the orders came to withdraw, things changed, and again, the soldiers turned to brutality. The prisoners are forced to march with their captors, and there are orders that any stragglers were to be shot. Pierre could see in the faces of the French soldiers the same expression he had seen at the executions.

While a prisoner in Moscow, Pierre had actually been happy – possibly for the first time in his life. Unhappiness, he felt, was not deprivation: it came from superfluity. Here, he didn’t eat much; but when he did, it was only because he was hungry; and when he drank, it was only because he was thirsty. He found a great solace in what he took to be the simple wisdom of Platon Karatayev – just as, after an earlier crisis in his life, he had taken solace in the wisdom of Bazdeyev. But now, Moscow is being evacuated. And as the prisoners march through the city, they are shocked to see how much of it has been destroyed. Amidst the ruins, someone had – presumably as a joke – propped up a corpse and had blackened its face. The prisoners look at this grotesque image as they march on.

The French soldiers, themselves stretched badly, ill-treat the prisoners, who are exhausted and starved, but who have to keep marching, as all stragglers are shot. And, at the end of his tether both physically and mentally, Pierre bursts into hysterical laughter: Who is imprisoned? He, Pierre? How can they imprison his soul? What nonsense!

That genius, Napoleon, had made the worst possible decision under the circumstances: he had decided to withdraw from Moscow. Of course, this “great man” made sure that he got away first, and did not have to suffer with the rest of his troops. When Kutuzov hears of the French withdrawal from Moscow, he weeps, and prays to God with tears of gratitude.

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

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