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War and Peace 2013: Entry 17--Reading Seventeen

N.B.: This post will discuss only the events through the end of Book III, Part 2, Chapter 33. 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 editions of the novel, Kindle and otherwise. I've updated the reading schedule to make it clearer where the readings end and will be more than happy to answer any questions if you're confused.

"Now they will stop it, now they will be horrified at what they have done!" --Pierre's thoughts during the Battle of Borodino

If Tolstoy's thorough examination of the Battle of Borodino wasn't enough for you, the Wikipedia entry linked to above does a nice job of laying out the ebb and flow of the battle. For me, however, the most interesting thing about Tolstoy's (lengthy) description of the battle is that he seems to profess to understand what really happened in a way no-one else does. Indeed, his writing in this section can seem positively arrogant. In short, what gives?

Well, I think Tolstoy is playing two games at once here. Firstly, he is, indeed, playing amateur historian--applying his "superior" understanding both of how History unfolds and of basic facts about the battle, in order to promulgate his version of the Battle of Borodino, the largest battle of the 1812 Campaign.

Secondly, however, and more interestingly to me as a reader who is *not* an expert on the Napoleonic Wars, he gives us something of an alter-ego in Pierre. Pierre knows nothing about war and battle save what he reads and hears. In that way, he is very much like us. Also, given that he wasn't even born at the time of the battle, Tolstoy surely knows that he can't relate to us what it was really like. But what he can show us is a glimpse of what it must have been like and, more importantly, the effect it has one the character who is arguably his favorite: Pierre. Pierre is confused by the battle plans, can't make out the lines of the Russians as opposed to the French, and ultimately, is so appalled by the carnage that he comes to the conclusion that, surely, someone will stop this wanton destruction. We're clearly meant to share his horror.

By being so fervent in his belief regarding what *actually* transpired during the battle, Tolstoy's depiction of Pierre's horror is heightened, because it has an increased reality for us. We know the Battle of Borodino was a real thing. We know tens of thousands of people died. Tolstoy, by placing his analysis before his fictionalized version of it, cements it in our mind as a real event--the stuff of history--before reminding us that history is just stories about the past, and his version, with Pierre at the heart of it, has just as much Truth as most history books.

Don't forget Twitter: @WandP2013 & #WandP2013.


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