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

We return now to Natasha, in mourning for Andrei, and as yet unaware of the latest loss. She goes through in her mind all that she and Andrei had said to each other before his death, and whether they had understood each other fully. And then, the next storm breaks. News comes of Petya’s death, and Countess Rostov is hysterical. The old Count, who had long felt guilty about his inability to do his duty to his family, is now helpless: when his wife most needs support, he is unable to provide any. And after all, who is there to support him? He is a broken old man. Between his sobs, he asks Natasha to see to her mother, and waves his arm in despair. The Countess is screaming hysterically, banging her head against the wall.

The latest tragedy seems to awaken Natasha from the torpor that had settled on her after the death of Andrei. What brings her mother down strangely reawakens her. Natasha tends to her mother now, and it is only after three days that her mother starts weeping for what has happened.

Maria, on hearing of Petya’s death, postpones her departure to Moscow. When she does go, she takes with her Natasha, with whom she is now the closest of friends. Not least of Tolstoy’s achievements is his ability to depict without sentimentality close friendship.

We return now to the final stages of the war. Kutuzov, on one of his routine inspections, sees line upon line of wretched French prisoners – ill, wounded, starving, frostbitten. He sees two of them fighting over a piece of raw meat, and is horrified. Can humanity really sink to such depths? He addresses his men. And then, as if to exorcise the pity he feels for his enemies, he shouts out: “Who invited them here?”

We are given a picture of Russian soldiers by the campfire. Some have torn down a wall made of wattle, and are using it as a screen against the bitterly cold northerly wind. Two French stragglers, both in a bad way, make their way to the campfire, and ask for sustenance. They are Captain Ramballe and his orderly, Morel.

Kutuzov is facing criticism from all quarters for his “failure” to wipe out Napoleon’s army when he had the chance, and for his refusal to chase the French army beyond the borders. He is openly accused of blundering, and the Tsar is known to be displeased with him, even though, as a matter of form, he awards Kutuzov the highest military honour. But, whatever others think of him, Kutuzov, old and tired, had done his duty. He can now die in peace.

Pierre, on being rescued, had seen Petya’s corpse. Now, he learns about other matters – the death of Andrei at the Rostovs’, the death of his wife Hélène. He finds it hard to take all this in. And, on his way back to Moscow, he falls ill: the horrific experiences he has undergone take their toll on even so powerful a physique as Pierre’s.

Recovering from illness, Pierre is overcome by an unaccountable sense of elation. It seems as if he had learnt great wisdom from Platon Karatayev. And all the matters that had so tortured his mind before suddenly seem irrelevant. Everyone seemed to notice this change in Pierre.

On hearing that Maria Bolkonsky is in Moscow, he goes to visit her. With her is a lady in black whom he does not at first recognize: it is Natasha. He had not recognized her partly because he had not expected to see here there, but mainly because that expression of joy that had so distinguished her features had now vanished, and replaced with one of the most profound sadness. And she was thinner and paler than before.

But Pierre still feels elated. Natasha tells him in detail about Andrei’s last days: she had never told this to anyone before. Pierre listens, deeply moved: he had last seen Andrei a very bitter and tortured man. And Pierre tells of his experiences. As he does so, he can feel his love for Natasha resurging. And, as if able to read her mind, he tells her that it is not his fault that he is alive and wants to live on; and neither is she at fault for feeling the same.

Pierre has decided to go to Petersburg, and honour his former wife’s debts, even though he was under no compulsion to do so. First, he speaks to Maria alone, and ascertains from her that a proposal to Natasha would not be refused. Maria is a bit disconcerted at first that Natasha appears to have forgotten Andrei in so short a time, but she soon reassures herself that this is not so. Natasha now is looking to the future, and is anticipating a marriage between Maria and Nikolai.

And, on this note of optimism for the future, the main part of the novel ends. But there is a long epilogue, and Tolstoy has a few surprises for us.

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

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