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War and Peace 2013: Entry 20--Death of a Hero

N.B.--This post will focus almost exclusively on one character, including his/her death. If you haven't read through Book IV, Part 1, there's still time to turn back without getting spoiled. In fact, here's a picture of a young Tolstoy looking pretty dapper to separate this note from the bulk of the post to provide a buffer zone.


After lingering in a liminal state due to the severe wounds he received at the Battle of Borodino, Prince Andrew Bolkonsky dies surrounded by those he loved and who love him best. Of course, he really "dies" because Tolstoy wishes it to be so. The question is why?

I deliberately set this post somewhat aside from the main flow of posts because I think Tolstoy's treatment of Andrew's life and death deserve some space of their own. And I was taught to state my thesis in my title if possible, so I named it "Death of a Hero." Andrew is, for me, the true heroic figure of the novel--only, as often happens, the heroic figure of the novel is not necessarily the one who survives into old age surrounded bu his adoring grandchildren. Rather, Andrew stumbles around for much of his life--searching for something he doesn't even know he's missing. How is that a hero?

Andrew and his sister Mary are fundamentally different from the other members of the younger generation that make up most of the main characters of the book. Pierre, having been the  illegitimate son of a powerful and wealthy man, was sent abroad to study and generally left to his own devices. He became a dissolute youth and never really amounts to much at anything he attempts, throwing himself repeatedly into anything but never really making an impact, careening between self-satisfaction and restless, if ill-focused, searching. Neither Mary nor Andrew are ever really shown engaging in any significant vices, on the other hand, and each seems to achieve some significant things over the course of their young lives.

The Rostov children, Nicholas and Natasha (Vera and Peter aren't in the novel enough to matter for the current discussion) are given a very indulgent upbringing by a nervous, but loving, mother and a father who can't say no to anyone about anything. Even their impending economic catastrophe is largely kept from them, though Nicholas is aware of it. While Nicholas distinguishes himself in the army, it mainly seems to be due to his attitude and bonhomie; he enjoys the army life because it consists mainly of *not* fighting, a fact explored frequently by great art about war, from Homer's Iliad, to the movie Jarhead. Natasha, on the other hand, is absolutely adored by everyone as some sort of personification of youth, life, and Russia, all rolled into one. Even her transgressions are fairly quickly forgiven. I think the differences between this pair of siblings and Andrew and Mary are fairly self-evident.

The Bolkonsky children, on the other hand, while born into great wealth, have no mother and have a father who is stern to the point of cruelty. He instructs them himself in mathematics, languages, and all other matters, expecting the highest performance from each of them. (Brief digression: Think about that--he makes Mary learn advanced mathematics and expects her to achieve mastery. In the early 1800's. Do you think Natasha was made to learn how to factor quadratic equations or derive the Pythagorean Theorem? Or, God forbid, Princess Helene? While his methods are unarguably terrible, old Prince Bolkonsky's belief in the ability of women--or, at least, his daughter--to be the intellectual equal of men is admirable. End digression.) The Bolkonsky children not only suffer the loss of a mother, and the resulting dearth of affection attending their father's parenting style, they are constantly made to feel inadequate in order to spur them on to greater achievement. They work. They struggle. They strive. Even though they are arguably born with everything, their upbringing instilled in them a sense that what they had must be earned, even though it was already theirs. Only Sonya, who actually is a "poor relation," has anything resembling this.

And then, because Tolstoy seemingly hates this family, he presents them with a series of disappointments. For Mary, a thwarted romance early on in the novel when she catches her best (and , really, only) friend--a *paid* companion--having a tryst with the man she'd briefly had hopes of marrying. Followed by the death of her father. And being forced to abandon the only home she'd ever known to the invading Russian army and struggling to deal with an uprising by her serfs. All this while raising her brother's child, because his wife died in childbirth. And speaking of Andrew, while he grew to dislike his wife, her death haunted him. Then, he was wounded at Austerlitz and given up for dead before eventually making his way home. His health remained quite delicate, however, to the point where he didn't publicly announce his engagement to Natasha. Just as well, perhaps, considering that she betrayed him. Then, of course, he gets wounded again, and dies. Also in there, he struggles to make a meaningful impact in the lives of both his serfs and the nation as a whole, before growing disgusted with his fellow "reformers."

In short, nothing comes easy for Mary and Andrew. However, they continue--they strive, they seek, they don't yield, and, as we near the end of the book, it seems they both have found something. Mary now seems destined to marry Nicholas, and Andrew, as he approaches death, finally is rewarded for his years of effort in searching for a higher purpose by receiving a glimpse of two things.

First, he comes to understand Love. Not love for Natasha, or Mary, or his son--but Love. Divine, pure, unadulterated, and without object. The next truth he grasps, however, is of the essential meaningless of life. Not of Life, but of individual lives. Just as an appreciation for the oneness of all things can lead one to value even the smallest insect, it can lead one to devalue the people we previously cared for most. This seems to be the realization that dawns on Prince Andrew as death approaches--his life is over, but Life continues. The finitude of life is nothing next to the Infinity of the universe. The grief of his loved ones is irrelevant when compared to the vastness of Love. Finally, Andrew has achieved peace--but it has cost him his life. And even more than that, it has cost him valuing his life.

In the end, Andrew's most heroic act--Andrew who picked up the standard at Austerlitz, Andrew who thought himself the next Napoloen, Andrew who literally wanted to save Russia single-handedly, both from itself and from its invaders--is to withdraw from this world, and utterly devalue his own self. Perhaps, for a man like Andrew, taught from birth to work and not be satisfied, this abnegation of self and cheerful acceptance of death is the only way to avoid becoming old and embittered like his father. Andrew's final heroism, then, lies in living his life in such a way that, when suffering and eventual death came, he was worthy of the wisdom it brought him. Kant wrote that we mustn't seek to be happy, but rather to be *worthy* of being happy. Andrew Bolkonsky was worthy of happiness--that's heroism.

Comments

  1. Have read just past Andrew's death but not the whole thing so I am bookmarking this to come back to in a week or so. I Googled "prince andrew's death" (and arrived at your page) because I thought that whole scene was beautifully written. Am interested in reading your piece soon.

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    1. Thanks so much--I hope you enjoy!

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