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War and Peace 2013: Entry 22--Readings Twenty-Three and Twenty-Four

N.B.: This post will be discussing events through the end of Book IV, which means pretty much everything not in the Epilogues is fair game. So, spoilers, etc.

"Nothing remained for the representative of the national war but to die, and Kutuzov died."

Nothing remained for the novel but to end, and it ended. Rather abruptly, with little fanfare, and seemingly almost at random. Sure, there is still an epilogue--two, actually, but only one continues the story--to come, but that is, by definition, not part of the main thrust of the story. The story is told--the story of Napoleon's invasion of Russia, and Russia's almost emetic expulsion of the invader, is complete. Once Tolstoy has told that story--and, more important, presented his commentary on it--he quickly moves on. The fact that we, as readers, are probably more entangled in the lives of characters that in the movements of nations is secondary. As we'll see as we conclude the book--the First Epilogue wraps up the characters as much as he chooses; the Second Epilogue, however, the last words Tolstoy wants us to read, have nothing to do with the characters and rather focus on the lessons we can draw from the war.

As I mentioned in the the last post, Tolstoy has almost seemingly lost interest in many of his own characters and spends very little time wrapping up their various story-lines. Just think how long ago it was we last read of Nicholas! He seemingly had no more to say about young Rostov, and so he just stopped writing about him. His last act was to extricate himself from Sonya and thereby be free to marry Mary. The rest is, apparently, just details.

And poor Petya. While it is altogether fitting that, in a novel about war, there should be loss, I can't help but feel that Petya dies simply because Tolstoy doesn't know what other story to tell about him. In the few scenes where he reappears, eagerly joining in Denisov's attack, it feels like an echo of the very early sections about the 1805 war, with a young, eager Nicholas serving under Denisov and being full of love for the war and the Emperor. But, like an echo, this telling of the story lacks the same depth as the original. And much like Petya's life, Tolstoy ends the story almost as soon as it begins. After numerous passages throughout the book where all of the male leads have had bullets whizzing by them with very few of them hitting their mark--indeed, only Andrew was seriously injured, and he got it twice!--one finally hits. And Petya is gone. Denisov, who so loved the Rostov family and literally knew Petya as a little boy, sees him die. Needlessly. Pointlessly. Harassing an already retreating army.

Except, Tolstoy very much implies that, while the general decision to let the French beat an ever-quickening retreat out of Russia without a major battle was the right one--indeed, he says it was the *only* decision possible, something he'll come back to in the Second Epilogue--he has praise for this sort of commando and guerrilla warfare style attack, and, in narrative terms, it's this very attack which costs Petya's life that frees Pierre from his captivity. Pierre was almost certainly quite near death, given the duration and severity of his illness upon his release, so his liberation seems quite timely. And while it "makes sense" that Petya die, as a brutal and terrible reminder that even a glorious victory has real, human cost, it's very striking that Tolstoy links the two events--Petya's death and Pierre's liberation--so closely. Is the "cost" of a live Pierre a dead Petya? Must one Pyotr die so that another may live?

P.S.--There will be at least three more posts as part of @WandP2013, one on each of the epilogues, and at least one concluding post, but I will be traveling for most of December, so they might be delayed. After that, however, this blog will, as it has done in the past, take on a new cast, as we move on to another writer...


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