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War and Peace 2013: Entry 4--Reading Two

N.B.: This post will discuss only the events of the first twenty-five chapters of the book, thought the end of Book I of Part 1. Unlike with The Odyssey, the eventual resolution of the story is not necessarily common knowledge, so I will make every attempt to avoid spoilers as we go. Also, there seems to be some weird chapter numbering going on with some of the free/cheap Kindle editions of the novel. I've updated the reading schedule to make it clearer where the readings end.

"How often we sin, how much we deceive, and all for what?"--Prince Vasili

As if I had planned it (which I didn't), this reading takes us through three very different set pieces, each one centered around one (or more) of the family groupings I called out last time. After the initial, very awkward encounter between Boris and Pierre, we have the party at the Rostovs, the machinations involving the death of Count Bezukhov and his will, and the Bolkonskys at home. In their own way, they each demonstrate people who possess "goodness of heart," as Mary puts it, trying to live in a world that it is more complicated and more dangerous than their goodness will allow them to see, and the people around them who do what they can to allow that goodness and purity to survive intact.

While this dynamic is apparent both in how the Rostovs and their circle treat Natasha and in how Prince Andrew accepts the icon from Princess Mary, it is most evident and striking in Pierre's interactions with Anna Mikhaylovna. Anna is clearly doing what she can to help Pierre secure the inheritance his father intends for him for her own ends--she is a woman of St. Petersburg, after all--but in taking on his claim as her own, she effectively shields him from any knowledge of the various attempts being made by Vasili to deprive him of it. These two wily people, Anna and Vasili, each a product of the capital city, have a battle of wills, with Princess Catherine a rather poor second behind Vasili. Anna merely has Pierre, who never once figures out what's going on. Indeed, he almost floats through the entire scene, following Anna's instructions, only doing so because he knows that, whatever it is that's going on, it's very important that he let it happen.

Of course, what's going on is the death of old Count Bezukhov and the establishment of Pierre as his legitimate heir, immediately making Pierre one of the wealthiest men in Russia. These matters of death and religion and finance, however, are simply too much for Pierre, and so he removes himself from them. There are only a few moments during these scenes where Pierre stops doing simply what he is told and realizes the gravity of the situation, and they both deal with the physicality of his father's impending death. Indeed, when he sees his father's lifeless arm refuse to move with the rest of his body, Pierre recoils in horror. At this, it seems that his father smiles. It's almost as if, at that moment, seeing that Pierre is still the holy fool, the grown-up child who doesn't fully understand what all the adults are talking about, old Count Bezukhov feels relieved and pleased with his decision to make him his heir. We're told early on, after all, that Bezukhov has many illegitimate children, but that he long-ago singled out Pierre. I don't think it's a stretch to say that the old man saw in Pierre that naivety, that purity, that authenticity, and did what he could to both encourage and protect it, just as Natasha's family does with her.  

When I first read this book, during the summer of 2000, I immediately fell in love with Princess Mary Bolkonskaya. Intelligent, deeply religious, isolated, and plain, she still is somehow full of life and love, and I just adored her. I mention this mainly because, when I first read War and Peace, I didn't care for it. Or, at least, I didn't care for it much until we got to Mary--she was the character that made it all click. I still found some of the characters and storylines less interesting than others--which is only to be expected--but I had found my hook. Through Mary, I came to love Andrew, and so the Bolkonskys became "my" family. I use this to illustrate the truism of this book: it's so big, and it covers so many things, that, while you won't necessarily love everything/everyone in it, you will, necessarily, find someone or something you do love. It's essentially a mathematical certainty. So, if you're struggling so far, keep going. It's worth it.

The next reading will be our first glimpse of the war, as our characters, so far kept safely at home, begin to find themselves entering the crucible of battle. Nicholas, in particular, will be our first entry point for a look at life at the front.

P.S.--This novel, while set in Russia, is essentially set at the same time period, and features many of the same fashions, dances, architectural styles, etc. as the novels of Jane Austen. So, if you're having trouble imagining what the characters are wearing or what the houses look like, just think of any filmed adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, or Sense and Sensibility and you'll have a good frame of reference.


  1. Interesting. I have been having my own internal dialogue about how I haven't yet found a "hero" to cheer for in the story. This isn't a bad thing -- I'm enjoying discovering these many personalities and watching them interact. But so far, no one has "hooked" me as the character I should endorse and support (emotionally?) as I read. Many of the characters have some qualities that are admirable and others that are not, which I suppose makes them more realistic. Also, just minutes ago, I told my husband over dinner that I thought this novel reminded me of Austen in the way we see society characters interacting during social events.

    I am enjoying this. Onward and forward!

  2. Indeed, the Austen comparison, I feel, is quite apt, though he's a very different writer in many ways. Her famous phrase about working on a piece of ivory two inches wide certainly doesn't apply to this sprawling epic.

    As for not being hooked by the characters, I'll be curious to see how you react to them after they start to change--especially as the war starts to change them.

  3. I really like Pierre--well except for the fact that he tied a policeman to a bear and threw him in a river. I like his honesty, his naivety--though perhaps that will change in the war or with an inheritance. And Sonya and Nikolai, though we've seen them only briefly, seem promising. Haven't gotten to Mary. Am reading veeeeery slowly, but interested to hear this tidbit.


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