N.B.--This post will cover the First Epilogue to War and Peace, which means it essentially deals with the final outcomes of most of the characters. In other words, SPOILERS AHEAD. Also, this will not necessarily be my last post on this topic, but it very well might be, so, if you're reading this--thanks for reading any/all of these posts and keeping me company on this journey. :)
People joke that the First Epilogue is essentially the "Peace" part of War and Peace. While that's an oversimplification, it's roughly accurate. The tone and feeling of the First Epilogue is rather different from what came before it. While there are brief mentions of what's going on in the outside world, there's a much more timeless quality to these domestic scenes of the combined Rostov/Bolkonskaya/Bezukhov families. The story that Tolstoy was telling is over, so the epilogue merely shows us what happened later to our main characters.
After some explanation of the Rostov's financial situation and the death of the old Count, we read about Mary and Nicholas. While there are some elements of their marriage that might surprise the reader--Nicholas' intense interest in farming, for example--by and large, I think Mary and Nicholas' marital dynamics follow on from what we already know of their characters and what can be inferred from the few times we've seen them interact. Mary maintains the otherworldliness that has defined her character throughout, continuing to live her life in the most Christian way possible, and not judging herself worthy of the happiness she has found, but accepting it gracefully. Nicholas has grown into a somewhat dull, but reliable man, a predictable defender of tradition and custom. Their marriage is happy, if perhaps limited by Mary's inability to understand why farming makes Nicholas so happy and Nicholas' inability to understand Mary's innate religiosity. They will always remain something of a mystery to each other, but their love is real and enduring.
The other couple we see takes more explaining, I feel. Pierre's marriage to Natasha leaves him relatively the same character, though without his previous tendency towards flights of fancy and dissolution; however it completely changes our understanding of Natasha. Tolstoy essentially writes that the liveliness that Natasha expressed earlier was simply her maternal and wifely feelings bursting out and that, once properly channeled, Natasha became rather dull. Old Countess Rostov claims to have always known that this was the case, but it feels like something of a betrayal, I think, to modern readers. Natasha and Pierre are the most vivid and vibrant characters in the book--they, each in their own way, personify the vitality of the Russian people, in the same way that Mary typifies their spirituality and Platon Karataev was emblematic of the wisdom of the peasants. Pierre, after his (second) marriage, continues to be much the same striving, questioning, and engaged person that he was. Natasha, however, loses all of her spark. She cares only about her family and her immediate circle of friends, never goes out into society, and never sings. I understand, I think, what Tolstoy was trying to get at with this depiction of mature Natasha--but I don't think I like it, and I think it could certainly be interpreted as misogynistic. While I wouldn't go that far, it is still, for me, a problematic end for a character that had so much potential.
All the forgoing, of course, is in no way meant to disparage the importance of being a wife and mother--or a husband and father, for that matter. Rather, it's merely to illustrate that, of all the characters dealt with in the First Epilogue, it is only Natasha, the willful, lively, impetuous girl, who seems to undergo a major shift. The men are allowed to maintain their natures, essentially, and Mary's personality remains relatively unaltered. Even Sonya, the sterile flower, remains Sonya--loyal, meek, and unfailingly helpful. It was almost as if Tolstoy viewed the young Natasha as a problem to be solved by the end of the book.
The final character we spend time with in the First Epilogue, and therefore in the narrative as a whole, is young Nicholas Bolkonsky, Andrew's son. Like his father, he is full of ambition, and wants to do great things. Also like his father, he admires and loves Pierre, even if it seems unlikely that Nicholas will grow up to be anything like his father's best friend. Young Nicholas dreams of a future where he can be a great man, like his father--knowing little that, at the end of his life, his father had utterly renounced all those ideas of greatness he'd earlier espoused. His father is not a real person, but rather an ideal--one he'll likely always fall short of. In this way, the Bolkonsky tradition of impossible standards seems to be alive and well.
Still, Tolstoy does something very clever, I think, by ending with young Nicholas. Given the argument he makes in the Second Epilogue (discussed here) about history and the chain of cause and effect that extends essentially infinitely in both directions, the natural question to ask of him is: "Okay, but then how do you tell a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end?" The answer is that he doesn't--what we get it is all middle. Return briefly to the very beginning of the book, which we read essentially a year ago. The first line, spoken by Anna Pavlovna, refers to something that has previously happened, and the entire conversation between her and Prince Vasili flows from it. There is no true beginning, but rather a place wherein we join the great chain of history. Just the same is it in the First Epilogue. Tolstoy's story is finished, but the lives of its protagonists continue, so he tells us about them, almost as if it prove his point. He actually does it in order of how long they have left to be a part of the great story unfolding, starting with the Old Countess, passing on to the two married couples, and ending with young Nicholas. But young Nicholas is looking toward the future. And, due to his age and position, he essentially is the future of Russia. Again, we've not reached the end--just an ending. The book may be over, but just as the story began before we started reading, so it continues long after we have stopped.