Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece War and Peace is nothing short of a literary masterpiece. 2019 also marks the 150th anniversary of the work’s publication in book form, which came out in 1869. I have also written a long-winded 10,000-word commentary on the book for the occasion which can be read here. As such, I will not address in the same detail the significant literary themes which I discussed in my academic commentary since this will be more of a general synopsis and overview of the characters and Tolstoy’s reflective criticism on philosophy of history.
At about 1300 pages (most translated editions), the work is towering and the reading a laborious but joyful undertaking. Given the length and content of the work I will be devoting Tuesdays and Fridays this month to dealing with some of the topics of the book. As such, I will be providing short character contrasts alongside broader themes contained in the book.
To start we shall look at the two heroes of the story: Count Pierre Bezukhov and Prince Andrei Bolkansky.
Tolstoy casts the struggle of each character as the same. All the characters featured are fighting their own internal war to find peace, joy, and meaning in life. Thus, each character is trying to live, to find, that meaningful life—as Pierre says toward the end of the novel having finally come to his revelatory moment, “Life is God. Everything changes and moves and that movement is God. And while there is life there is joy in consciousness of the divine. To love life is to love God. Harder and more blessed than all else is to love this life in one’s sufferings.”
Pierre Bezukhov is first introduced as the spirited but illegitimate child of Count Bezukhov, he floats the circles of high society (having been invited to attend Anna Pavlovna’s party in the beginning of the book) which keeps him at an arms distance. He is not only struggling to find meaning in life, he is struggling to find acceptance in society. As an illegitimate child Pierre occupies a territorial limbo. He partakes in high society events because of his connections and friendships, but he is still an outsider; both in lineage and political ideas.
The high society of Russia is vehemently opposed to the French revolution and to Napoleon Bonaparte whom they refuse to call emperor. He is, until the Franco-Russian alliance following the Russian defeat at Friedland in 1807 and the subsequent Treaty of Tilsit, referred to as a madman, usurper, monster, and antichrist. As Anna Pavlovna says, “Russia alone must save Europe.” Pierre, by contrast, is a supporter of the Jacobin ideas of universal rights, liberation, and republican governance—it matters not the Reign of Terror and bloodshed spilled, the very ideas of universal humanity and prosperity are intoxicating. And this becomes a constant theme throughout the book which infects every major character—the struggle with falling in love with ideas instead of embodying concrete love in life.
When Pierre is legitimized as the heir to the Bezukhov fortune he finds new acceptance by high society. The Kuragin family, led by Helene, pursues after him—primarily for his wealth. The Kuragin family is depicted as obsessed and embodying the values of objects and objectification. Helene is case and point, but the contrast of Helene and Natasha will come later. Pierre, when he is courted by Helene, even acknowledges that he’s not sure he truly loves her but the two marry anyway. It is not a good marriage. It is marriage marred by distrust, alienation, and infidelity.
Pierre, from start to finish, understands that life is about service—love of others. In his famous reunion with Andrei after a two-year absence following the Battle of Austerlitz he says as much, imploring his friend to live more than just for oneself. However, the stumbling and generally incompetent Pierre can never actualize this. He is, at first, in love with the ideas of serving other through primarily political ends. This is alienating because one is always kept at a distance in the political process. Politics is depersonalizing. Pierre is in love with the idea of serving (or helping) others but not actually engaged in the nitty-gritty of real service to others: the concrete, physical, and intimate helping in person and not through impersonal mechanism and constructs (which is the realm of the political).
Trying to find meaning in his life following the duel with Dolokhov, Pierre turns to Freemasonry to help guide his life. I will explore the theme of Freemasonry with Pierre in greater detail in another post. It is suffice to say here that the importance of Freemasonry is that it, paradoxically, points Pierre in the right direction of Christian love of others (love of fellow man in a very intimate way, which is what charitable love—agape—is) but is also intoxicated by the abstract ideas and esoteric secrets of Freemasonry. He has taken one step forward but two steps backward, so to speak. Freemasonry breaks him from the edifices of the impersonal for a more declarative concrete engagement with others, but it also places new edifices over him; best seen when he is pondering the signs of square and its meanings. The most important contributions Freemasonry passes to Pierre is that “No one can attain truth by himself” and that belief in God is necessary for true joy and joyful services of others to be realized in life.
So, Pierre is leaving the realm of ideas and moving into the realm of the concrete. This is a good movement. He also becomes a sort of missionary to others, namely Andrei. Pierre’s movement to love and service of others is completed after the Battle of Borodino and his reunion with Natasha, whom he is in love with and eventually marries. It is this relationship of love with another person that Pierre has been struggling to actualize in life. The happiness found in love, sanctified through marriage, is the key to human meaning and happiness in the world. This is a standard and Christian outlook; and War and Peace is the quintessential Christian story. It is also the universal story because the story of the struggle for love in life is the human story. Sacrifice and love of others is what brings joy—Pierre finally experiences this joy in his marriage to Natasha.
Prince Andrei Bolkansky is the foil and perfect contrast to Pierre. When Andrei is introduced he seemingly has everything. He is handsome. He is married. His wife is pregnant. He comes from a good family. He is the aide-de-camp to General Mikhail Kutuzov, the greatest of the Russian generals. Yet, Andrei is hollow on the inside.
Andrei is seeking glory to find meaning in his life. As such, he begins the story as an Achilles literary archetype. He seeks glory in battle to find the immortality he craves. Yet, Andrei is not himself. He is depersonalized in this pursuit. Like Pierre, Napoleon is his hero. But Napoleon is Andrei’s hero for different reasons. Where Pierre finds Napoleon’s conquest of Europe through the distorted lens of bringing liberation to others, Andrei looks at Napoleon as the man he needs to become to find meaning and happiness in life. Up to the Battle of Austerlitz, Andrei seeks his “Toulon moment.” Andrei abandons his own identity in pursuit of becoming a cookie-cutter replication of Napoleon. His idolization of Napoleon is shattered during the Battle of Austerlitz when he looks up at the heavens, wounded, and concludes all was vanity and he opens himself up to the majestic beauty of the infinite.
Andrei’s Austerlitz moment is the beginning of a long and arduous transformation. Andrei was really serving himself—his pursuit of glory was for himself and himself only; though when he meets with Pierre in 1807 at Bald Hills he asserts otherwise. Andrei is confused, but Andrei always accomplishes what he sets his mind to. Right or wrong. Foolish or wise. Here is another contrast with Pierre. Pierre has great plans but can never execute them. Andrei makes his plans and devotes himself to them and realizes them. Believing his vain pursuit of glory was for others (though not realizing it was for himself), he sinks into isolation at Bald Hills as he becomes a sort of ascetic monk isolated and locked away from the world. But in his talk with Pierre he becomes more and more animated; he is experiencing a resurrection to new life. “His meeting with Pierre formed an epoch in Prince Andrei’s life. Though outwardly he continued to live in the same old way, inwardly he began a new life.” In this transformative conversation with Pierre Andrei comes to agree that Pierre was right; love of others, love of the world, relationships, not love of self is what brings meaning into life. Andrei subsequently struggles to achieve precisely that.
Where Pierre moves to embody love through service to others and marriage, Andrei’s becoming an image of Christ is through the struggle to forgive. In the heartwarming turned heart wrenching relationship of he and Natasha, Anatole Kuragin intruded and seduced the young Natasha which ruined their marriage plans. Andrei, in the events leading up to the Battle of Borodino, is seeking out Anatole to confront him—either in a duel or to kill him outright.
Andrei and Anatole have their meeting in a hospital during the Battle of Borodino. Anatole has lost a leg and is pain. Andrei recognizes him and could easily punish Anatole for his crimes. Instead, he comes to forgive him. As he thinks to himself, “Compassion, love of our brothers, for those who love us and for those who hate us, love of our enemies; yes, that love which God preached on earth and which Princess Marya taught me and I did not understand—that is what me sorry to part with life, that is what remained for me had I lived. But it is too late know it!” Beside Anatole, and others, Andrei weeps for all the errors, he, Anatole, and all men make in life.
But the movement from hollow and vain Achilles to an image of Christ is not yet complete until he comes face-to-face with Natasha. Natasha and other aristocrats escaping Napoleon’s invading forces pick up the wounded of Borodino and she finds Andrei among them. She begs him for forgiveness to which Andrei replies he already has. Although Andrei dies he does experience the loving joy that comes in love of others through forgiveness. In this respect Andrei becomes an image-bearer of Christ’s love and forgiveness.