1/ Tolstoy starts the epilogue by talking about historians’ criticisms of Alexander I.
“In what does the substance of those reproaches lie?
It lies in the fact that an historic character like Alexander I, standing on the highest possible pinnacle of human power with the blinding light of history focused upon him […] had not the same conception of the welfare of humanity fifty years ago as a present-day professor who from his youth upwards has been occupied with learning—that is with books and lectures and with taking notes from them.” (Epilogue 1, ch.1)
This is interesting. He goes on:
“But even if we assume that fifty years ago Alexander I was mistaken in his view of what was good for the people, we must inevitably assume that the historian who judges Alexander will also, after the lapse of some time, turn out to be mistaken in his view of what is good for humanity. This assumption is all the more natural and inevitable because, watching the movement of history, we see that every year, and with each new writer, opinion as to what is good for mankind changes; so that what once seemed good, ten years later seems bad, and vice versa. And what is more, we find at one and the same time quite contradictory views as to what is bad and what is good in history: some people regard giving a constitution to Poland and forming the Holy Alliance as praiseworthy in Alexander, while others regard it as blameworthy.” (ibid.)
Not hard to see what Tolstoy would have thought about the idiots today who mock others as being “on the wrong side of history”.
2/ In the epilogue, a few images reappear.
We see the theatre metaphor again:
“This man is still needed to justify the final collective act.
That act is performed.
The last role is played. The actor is bidden to disrobe and wash off his powder and paint: he will not be wanted any more.
And some years pass during which he plays a pitiful comedy to himself in solitude on his island, justifying his actions by intrigues and lies when the justification is no longer needed, and displaying to the whole world what it was that people had mistaken for strength as long as an unseen hand directed his actions.
The manager, having brought the drama to a close and stripped the actor, shows him to us.” (Epilogue 1, ch.4)
“This man” is Napoleon, in case you’re not sure.
The bee image, earlier seen in the analogy between an abandoned Moscow and a queenless hive, appears again as Tolstoy talks about the unknowability of purpose.
The comparison of Sonya to a cat, which I noted in Vol.1 P.1, also recurs:
“She seemed to be fond not so much of individuals as of the family as a whole. Like a cat, she had attached herself not to the people but to the home.” (Epilogue 1, ch.8)
Because of its smaller scope, Tolstoy can later build a neater, more consistent network of motifs in Anna Karenina. War and Peace has its own qualities, but Anna Karenina is more artful.
3/ In the epilogue, Tolstoy condenses years into a few chapters and shows the changes of characters.
I like the maturity and sacrifice of Nikolai after his father’s death. I like the pride of both Nikolai and Marya, and the sequence of them meeting each other again is wonderful. But the interesting thing I want to note is that in the epilogue, Nikolai seems very much like Levin, and thus like the author himself. His reading, his work on the farm, his relationship with the serfs, his temper, and his relationship with his wife are very much like Levin’s.
“Countess Marya was jealous of this passion of her husband’s and regretted that she could not share it; but she could not understand the joys and vexations he derived from that world, to her so remote and alien.” (Epilogue 1, ch.7)
That sounds like Kitty and Levin and, from what I know, Sonya and Tolstoy.
I personally feel sorry for Sonya in War and Peace. Compared to Marya, she may not be so deep, she’s also small-minded, and very conscious of her own sacrifice, but I still feel sorry for her.
4/ People tend to complain about what Tolstoy did to Natasha in the epilogue. So did I, when I read the book for the first time 8 years ago.
It is certainly disappointing to see a charming, vivacious girl like Natasha turn out the way she does at the end—fat, boring, her whole life revolving around her husband and children—especially when she’s only 28 in those chapters. But I no longer see it as a failure on Tolstoy’s part, nor something incredible and incomprehensible.
I’m copying here Himadri’s reading of the epilogue, as I can’t express it anywhere near as well:
“What comes out of that epilogue is that *all* human dreams and aspirations end in disappointment. Pierre had thought he had attained great wisdom: we see him again eight years later, and find that he hasn’t. The Countess Rostova, whom we had seen as a dominant figure in the family, is now a pathetic nobody, possibly going senile. Nikolai is effective as landowner, but nothing special. Maria too seems to have inherited little of her father’s brilliance. That’s how all human aspirations end. There’s a marvellous moment where Andrei’s son, who had never known his father but idolises the image he has of him, says to his Uncle Pierre that his father, Andrei, had he been alive, would have agreed with him, and Pierre turns away embarrassed, for he knows Andrei wouldn’t. None of this is betrayal as such of our former selves: it is simply the dying of the flame that comes with the years. That is the overriding mood of this epilogue, and it is superb. This is what the passing years do to us.”
The dying of the flame over the years is the subject of Chekhov’s fiction a few times, such as in “Ionych”.
On a side note, it’s wonderful to read Tolstoy (and Shakespeare) with a great, insightful reader such as Himadri.
5/ Lots of readers complain about the second epilogue, call it unnecessary and superfluous, and tell others to skip it.
Before getting into details, I’m going to say that it’s not superfluous: whatever you think about Tolstoy’s ideas, War and Peace is intended to be more than a novel and these philosophical essays have been part of the book since the third volume; outside the essay chapters, Tolstoy continues arguing with historians about war, history, and Napoleon in the history chapters and even in the fictional battle scenes; these ideas run through the book and therefore he closes the book with them. More importantly, whether or not you agree with Tolstoy, he raises interesting questions about history, war, the concept of genius or a great man, causes, purposes, free will, necessity, and so on.
“We learn that Luther had a hot temper and said such and such things; we learn that Rousseau was suspicious and wrote such and such books; but we do not learn why after the Reformation the peoples massacred one another, nor why during the French Revolution they guillotined one another.” (Epilogue 2, ch.4)
Is this not an interesting question? About why people go to war and kill each other?
Tolstoy opposes the Great Man theory of history, and people tend to argue against him by saying that the 20th century would have been different without Hitler, Lenin, or Mao Zedong, but my (limited) understanding is that Tolstoy doesn’t really say that history would have been exactly the same whether or not Napoleon existed. My understanding is that Tolstoy mainly opposes two things: one, the concept of military genius, and two, historians’ attribution of every victory and defeat to one man.
“The activity of a commander-in-chief does not at all resemble the activity we imagine to ourselves when we sit at ease in our studies examining some campaign on the map, with a certain number of troops on this and that side in a certain known locality, and begin our plans from some given moment. A commander-in-chief is never dealing with the beginning of any event—the position from which we always contemplate it. The commander-in-chief is always in the midst of a series of shifting events and so he never can at any moment consider the whole import of an event that is occurring.” (Vol.3, P.3, ch.2)
Tolstoy argues, and shows in the novel that the concept of military genius doesn’t make sense when the enemy’s movements cannot be predicted and things don’t go according to plan: things may go wrong, there may be delays, people may not be where they are meant to be and cannot get a command in time, troops may take longer to arrive at a certain point, some officers may disobey, and so on and so forth.
“When, for instance, we say that Napoleon ordered armies to go to war, we combine in one simultaneous expression a whole series of consecutive commands dependent one on another.
[…] For a command to be certainly executed it is necessary that a man should command what can be executed. But to know what can and what cannot be executed is impossible, not only in the case of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, in which millions participated, but even in the simplest event, for in either case millions of obstacles may arise to prevent its execution.” (Epilogue 2, ch.6)
There are a million different factors, that’s what Tolstoy’s saying.
“I do not know why a certain event occurs; I think that I cannot know it; so I do not try to know it and I talk about chance. I see a force producing effects beyond the scope of ordinary human agencies; I do not understand why this occurs and I talk of genius.” (Epilogue 1, ch.1)
The other thing to which Tolstoy objects is the way historians attribute victory or defeat or a change of events in a war to one man.
“Many historians say that the French did not win the battle of Borodino because Napoleon had a cold, and that if he had not had a cold the orders he gave before and during the battle would have been still more full of genius and Russia would have been lost and la face du monde eût été changée.” (Vol.3, P.2, ch.28)
“Napoleon’s historians describe to us his skilled manoeuvres at Tarutino and Malo-Yaroslavets, and make conjectures as to what would have happened had Napoleon been in time to penetrate into the rich southern provinces.” (Vol.4, P.2, ch.18)
Tolstoy also talks about the way historians select facts that fit a narrative:
“… all these hints at what happened, both from the French side and the Russian, are advanced only because they fit in with the event. Had that event not occurred these hints would have been forgotten, as we have forgotten the thousands and millions of hints and expectations to the contrary which were current then but have now been forgotten because the event falsified them.” (Vol.3, P.2, ch.1)
Tolstoy hates Napoleon and seems to want to reduce him to something small, but I think these essays are more like his reaction to the historians of his day.
“‘Greatness’, it seems, excludes the standards of right and wrong. For the ‘great’ man nothing is wrong; there is no atrocity for which a ‘great’ man can be blamed.
‘C’est grand!’ say the historians, and there no longer exists either good or evil, but only ‘grand’ and ‘not grand’.” (Vol.4, P.3, ch.18)
6/ I started rereading War and Peace on 3/5, so it’s been over 7 weeks, and apart from a couple of days I was rereading Jane Austen’s Sanditon when I was at Filey beach for my birthday, I’ve been reading the same book.
This rereading confirms that Anna Karenina and War and Peace are the two novels dearest to my heart. I would say that Anna Karenina is stylistically a greater novel—it is perfect—but I like Andrei, Pierre, and Nikolai more than Levin, Vronsky, or Karenin, and like Natasha and Marya more than Anna or Kitty, and some moments of War and Peace would stay with me forever. Like Andrei looking at the sky at Austerlitz, or Natasha doing a folk dance in the peasants’ house, or Pierre watching his dying father.
I love both novels, in different ways.