Wednesday, 22 June 2022

Rereading War and Peace: Vol.4, P.3-4

1/ In Part 3 of Volume 4, we meet again Petya, the youngest of the Rostovs. His naïve enthusiasm is reminiscent of the naïveté in the young Nikolai (his brother) but it’s more reckless and childish—in War and Peace, as in Hong lou meng, some characters may have similarities but they are all distinct. 

In an earlier blog post, I wrote that there’s a sense of enchantment in the scene of Nikolai and Natasha reminiscing about their childhood and in the scene of the Rostovs in the troikas.

Again, Tolstoy conveys a sense of enchantment when Petya is dreaming before a battle:

“The big dark blotch might really be the watchman’s hut or it might be a cavern leading to the very depths of the earth. Perhaps the red spot was a fire, or it might be the eye of an enormous monster. Perhaps he was really sitting on a wagon but it might very well be that he was not sitting on a wagon but on a terribly high tower from which, if he fell, he would have to fall for a whole day or a whole month, or go on falling and never reach the bottom. Perhaps it was just the Cossack, Likhachov, who was sitting under the wagon, but it might be the kindest, bravest, most wonderful, most splendid man in the world, whom no one knew of. It might really have been that a hussar came for water and went back into the hollow, but perhaps he had simply vanished—disappeared altogether and dissolved into nothingness.

Nothing Petya could have seen now would have surprised him. He was in a fairy kingdom where everything was possible.” (Vol.4, P.3, ch.10)

It is magical. And that makes his death more heartbreaking.

This is a character who for a large part of the book has been minor, who has always been in the background, known mostly as the youngest Rostov. Tolstoy makes him come alive mostly through two sequences: first, when he wants to enter the army and tries to petition to the Tsar; and second, when he is in the army and attaches himself to Denisov’s regiment, and insists on always putting himself forward and always tries to be heroic. Petya feels vividly real, and his death is shocking in its suddenness. 

And when the news reaches the Rostov family, the scene is heart-rending. 

2/ This is Pierre after his imprisonment and the influence of Karataev: 

“While imprisoned in the shed Pierre had learned, not with his intellect but with his whole being, by life itself, that man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfaction of simple human needs, and that all unhappiness arises not from privation but from superfluity. And now during these last three weeks of the march he had learned still another new, consolatory truth—that there is nothing in the world that is terrible. He had learned that, as there is no condition in which man can be happy and entirely free, so there is no condition in which he need be unhappy and not free. He learned that suffering and freedom have their limits and that those limits are very near together; that the person in a bed of roses with one crumpled petal suffered as keenly as he now, sleeping on the bare damp earth with one side growing chilled while the other was warming; and that when he had put on tight dancing shoes he had suffered just as he did now when he walked with bare feet that were covered with sores—his footgear having long since fallen to pieces...” (Vol.4, P.3, ch.12) 

This is one of those passages in War and Peace that I imagine Chekhov reading and mumbling to himself “Lev Nikolayevich writes some shit sometimes”. 

(If you haven’t read “Ward No.6”, you should). 

I like this though: 

“There was a new feature in Pierre’s relations with Willarski, with the princess, with the doctor, and with all the people he now met, which gained for him the general goodwill. This was his acknowledgement of the impossibility of changing a man’s convictions by words, and his recognition of the possibility of everyone thinking, feeling, and seeing things each from his own point of view. This legitimate peculiarity of each individual, which used to excite and irritate Pierre, now became a basis of the sympathy he felt for, and the interest he took in, other people.” (Vol.4, P.4, ch.13) 

3/ I have said that Tolstoy’s metaphors/ similes tend to be direct (there are exceptions, as I’ve pointed out on this blog), but sometimes I’m still surprised at how commonplace an image is. 

“… All the profound plans about cutting off and capturing Napoleon and his army were like the plan of a market-gardener who, when driving out of his garden a cow that had trampled down the beds he had planted, should run to the gate and hit the cow on the head. The only thing to be said in excuse of that gardener would be that he was very angry. But not even that could be said for those who drew up this project, for it was not they who had suffered from the trampled beds.” (Vol.4, P.3, ch.19) 

His metaphors are straight-to-the point: 

“The Russian army had to act like a whip to a running animal. And the experienced driver knew it was better to hold the whip raised as a menace than to strike the running animal on the head.” (ibid.)

The French army is again compared to an animal. 

4/ There is, let’s say, a gentleness in Tolstoy. 

I like that the old Bolkonsky, as he’s dying, has the chance to say to Marya some words of tenderness he never said to her. 

I also like that Natasha and Andrei have some sort of reconciliation before he dies, that she has the chance to make up for wronging him, and that Andrei dies having near himself his sister Marya and the girl he loves. 

5/ The last sequence of War and Peace (before the Epilogues) is so good, especially the first meeting of Pierre with Marya and Natasha after the war. Tolstoy is good at both conversations between two characters and group scenes; and he’s also good at scenes of three people. One example is at the beginning of the book, when Lise has an outburst with Andrei in Pierre’s presence. The scene of Pierre, Natasha, and Marya is magnificent as there are many things happening at the same time and Tolstoy lets us see all three points of view: we see Natasha talking, for example, and at the same time see Pierre listening to her and thinking about her, and we also see Marya watching both of them. It is especially moving when Natasha, for the very first time, talks about her few weeks nursing Andrei.

I personally find it interesting that Tolstoy chooses to have Natasha and Pierre reunite and rekindle their feelings whilst Marya is present. Imagine a different scenario, without Marya: it’s perfectly possible. But Tolstoy brings in another perspective and adds some “complications” to the happiness of Pierre and Natasha. 

“The change that took place in Natasha at first surprised Princess Marya; but when she understood its meaning it grieved her. ‘Can she have loved my brother so little as to be able to forget him so soon?’ she thought when she reflected on the change. But when she was with Natasha she was not vexed with her and did not reproach her. The reawakened power of life that had seized Natasha was so evidently irrepressible and unexpected by her, that in her presence Princess Marya felt that she had no right to reproach her even in her heart.” (Vol.4, P.4, ch.20) 

The narrator says Marya doesn’t reproach Natasha, but I can’t look at it without thinking of Hamlet’s “Frailty, thy name is woman” speech. 

What do you think? 

I have now finished reading the main text of War and Peace, having the epilogues left. 


  1. In regard to point 2--Chekhov has my sympathies.

    Meanwhile the recurrence of the animal imagery in regard to the French army seems to me a case of Tolstoy's prejudices, once more, showing themselves--Tolstoy the realist becoming Tolstoy the patriot-romantic detester of Napoleon and all he represented (the same impulse that we see in his idolization of Karataev, and making Pierre's journey follow that trajectory).

    I we go with Berlin's reading of things, it would also seem Tolstoy the fox acting Tolstoy the hedgehog.

    1. Yeah in terms of views, I'm more similar to Chekhov and should perhaps feel closer to him. But then literature isn't really about that.
      It's interesting that Tolstoy of War and Peace could later write something like Hadji Murad, where the Russians and the Tsar don't look good at all.


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