Having followed these characters for some seven or eight years, Tolstoy, in the epilogue, skips another seven or so years to 1820. These characters have all changed once again – life, as we have seen, is, after all, a constant process of change; and yet, they are all recognizably the same. And, in contrast to the sense of elation and optimism with which the main part of the novel had ended, in the epilogue, we are presented a different picture. There is no “happy ever after”: Pierre is older, but his experiences – and the wisdom of Platon Karatayev which he had thought had given him a new lease of life – have not made him wiser. He is still searching, still bumbling.
We are filled in on some of the events. Pierre has married Natasha. Count Rostov has died, and has, as expected, left his family in poverty. Nikolai, ever aware of his duty, does not shirk his inherited debts. He resigns his commission in the army, and moves into a small house with his mother and with Sonya. He very nearly ends up in prison. Marriage with Sonya is now out of the question, and anxious not to be seen as a mercenary, he tries to avoid Maria as well. Eventually, Nikolai and Maria do eventually marry; and, through hard work and dedication, Nikolai pays off all the debts without touching his wife’s property. They live on in Bald Hills, where Maria had spent her unhappy childhood. And Nikolai is saving to buy back the old Rostov country estate.
We spend an evening in Bald Hills with Nikolai and Maria, and with Natasha and Pierre. Denisov, an old friend of Nikolai’s, is there also. Natasha has become fat, and is almost insanely jealous of her husband Pierre: Denisov can’t help wondering what he had seen in her all those years ago. And there’s the old Countess Rostov, who seems to have lost touch with what’s going on around her. And Sonya is also there, accepting with apparent contentment her by now accustomed role as martyr.
Also in the family circle is young Nikolai, Andrei’s son. He does not get on too well with his Uncle Nikolai, and Nikolai feels a bit guilty about not loving his nephew as much as he does his own children. But there’s one feature young Nikolai shares with his late father and his late grandfather: he loves Pierre.
We see these characters changed, more mature: but, since we know them so well by now, we can figure out for ourselves how they have changed, and why. We see them older, not wiser: a great sense of sadness hangs over these pages. Pierre still respects the memory of Platon Karatayev, but having met this wonderful man has not made him any wiser: he will go on searching till the end, never satisfied.
Nikolai, on the other hand, is very satisfied: his mind is not the questioning mind. Pierre has obviously been involving himself with secret political organizations. (In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, European governments became very reactionary, and political liberalism was barely, if at all, tolerated.) Nikolai instinctively reacts against the very idea. As we had seen in Tilsit, Nikolai needs certainties in his life, and, when faced with anything that disrupts his sense of certainty, he is happy to accept blindly whatever authority decrees. He is not prepared to question authority, any more than he is prepared to have his own authority questioned. And Pierre’s questioning of authority annoys Nikolai, who speaks rather bluntly.
Nikolai is unhappy to find that young Nikolai had been present at this disagreement: he does not like the idea of young minds coming into contact with disrespect for authority. But young Nikolai is already on Uncle Pierre’s side. He excitedly tells Uncle Pierre that his father, Andrei, would certainly have agreed. Wouldn’t he? Well, no, he wouldn’t: and Pierre knows that. Pierre turns away with some embarrassment.
Young Nikolai cannot even remember what his father had looked like. But he has built an image in his mind of his dead father that is nothing like what he had actually been. Throughout this scene, the dead Andrei is a sort of unseen and unspoken presence. And in the end, we are with Andrei’s son, Nikolai. He had just woken from a dream in which he had been marching alongside Pierre, and suddenly his Uncle Nikolai had appeared as a threatening presence. And, instead of Pierre, there was his father, Andrei, who loved him.
Nikolai clearly knows nothing of what his father Andrei had been like. He knows nothing about Andrei’s thirst for glory, his disillusion, his longing for death – that great spiritual journey that we, the readers, have witnessed. So Nikolai’s last words are all the more poignant: “Yes, I will do something that even he would be content with….” And who knows? – Where the older generation has failed, maybe the younger might yet succeed…
[All excerpts quoted are taken from the translation by Rosemary Edmonds, published by Penguin Classics]