Synopsis of “War and Peace”: Book 4, Part 3

Kutuzov is still doing his best, despite pressure, to avoid open conflict. But the French troops, who are in a quite dreadful state by now, are harassed by guerrilla waged by the Russians. Denisov – whom we had seen earlier proposing guerrilla warfare to Kutuzov – is in charge of a band, and tries his best to resist pressure to join up with bigger battalions. Denisov is looking to attack a French detachment, but he needs information about their numbers. He is awaiting Dolohov, who leads another such band of guerrillas.

A young officer comes to report to Denisov: it is Petya, trying his best to act grown-up. Petya, soon recognized by Denisov, asks for permission to stay with him. He soon meets with Tikhon, a jovial, daredevil young peasant from a nearby village. Tikhon had, without permission, been into the French camp, trying to capture someone who would give the information required for the attack. Tikhon had been unsuccessful on this particular venture, but he amuses everyone by giving his own very idiosyncratic account of his adventures. And, even while laughing at Tikhon’s account, it occurs to Petya that Tikhon had just killed a Frenchman minutes earlier. This makes Petya feel uneasy, but seeing that it doesn’t seem to bother anyone else, he tries to forget about it.

Petya is recognizably a Rostov, and in his patriotism and his eagerness to see action, we are reminded of Nikolai in the Austrian campaign. And yet, for all his efforts, his childlike innocence is apparent. He wonders whether he should mention the French drummer boy who has been arrested. Eventually, he does, and is surprised to find that no-one laughs at him. Petya calls the drummer boy over to have something to eat. Petya wants desperately to be accepted, and gives away all sorts of things to other soldiers – knives, flints – even raisins, which he loves.

Dolohov now arrives. Dolohov is renowned both for his bravery, and for his cruelty to prisoners-of-war. Seeing the French drummer boy, he mischievously asks Denisov what he does with the prisoners. Denisov becomes defensive here: he never kills prisoners, and hands them over to the proper authorities. Dolohov, ever the bully, has discovered Denisov’s weakness, and probes it mercilessly. The “proper authorities” don’t look after the prisoners: the prisoners die of cold and starvation, says Dolohov, and it’s best for everyone just to shoot them on the spot. Denisov is aware of this, but tries not to face the facts. He cannot bring himself to shoot prisoners, and insists that he has no-one’s death on his conscience.

Dolohov wants to go into the French camp dressed as a French officer, and asks for a volunteer to accompany him. Denisov cannot prevent Petya from volunteering. Dolohov and Petya, dressed in French uniform, walk straight into the French camp. Petya is astonished at Dolohov’s cool courage, as he refuses to give the password to the French sentry, and then openly asks the French how many men they have, and how they are positioned. As they return, Dolohov is the subject of open hero-worship by Petya.

As Petya sleeps, he dreams that he hears music. But soon, he is awoken: they are about to attack.

The attack is successful. The French don’t put up much of a resistance, and soon surrender. However, a bullet has pierced Petya’s skull. Dolohov’s reaction to this is to order all French prisoners to be shot. Denisov, however, picks up Petya’s lifeless body, and howls like an animal.

Among the Russian prisoners liberated is Pierre Bezuhov.

We now go back to Pierre’s march. Conditions have deteriorated even further. The casualties even amongst the French soldiers have been horrific; amongst the prisoners, it has been even worse. They march on, starved, ill, frozen. One evening, around the campfire, Platon tells a story about a merchant who had been wrongly sent to Siberia for a murder he had not committed. And this man, in his prison, had accepted his unjust punishment as reparation for his sins. For some reason, this story seems very important to Platon, and Pierre, too, finds himself sharing in Palaton’s happiness as he tells this story.

The next day, Platon refuses to march further. Pierre, looking back, sees him sitting on the ground, with two French soldiers standing over him. Then, he hears a shot. Two French soldiers run past him, one with a smoking gun, and with an expression Pierre recognizes from the executions he had witnessed in Moscow. They, too, were afraid.

That night, Pierre has a dream similar to the one he had had in the carriage at Mozhaisk. It seems someone is uttering certain words into his ear:

Life is everything. Life is God. Everything changes and moves to and fro, and that movement is God. And while there is life there is joy in the consciousness of the Godhead. To love life is to love God. More difficult and more blessed than all else is to love this life in one’s sufferings, in undeserved sufferings.

“Karatayev!” flashed through Pierre’s mind. And he has in his dream a vision of his old schoolteacher, a gentle man, showing him a globe in which everything is in constant motion, everything constantly changing. This is life, the old teacher says, and it all seems so clear and so simple to Pierre. Then, he was brutally awoken by a French soldier.

Before sunrise, Pierre and the other soldiers are liberated. The cost is great. As Dolohov sees to the French prisoners – whom he means to kill – Denisov gently carries the body of Petya to a hole that has been dug in the ground.

Then, the frosts begin. On top of everything else, the retreating French troops have to bear the ravages of a Russian winter. And still, Kutuzov holds back, as far as he can, from direct engagement with an army that is being destroyed even without any action on the part of the Russians.

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

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