One of the better things about reading War and Peace is that it gave me the chance to exercise my plot-analysis muscles—that is, to try to dig down past the surface and see how Tolstoy’s gears were grinding away, trying to do whatever he was trying to do in the novel. He’s not, how shall I put it, terribly subtle about these things (though not unsubtle either), so it works well as a bit of an exercise piece, I think. Well, we can see about that at the end of this post!
Here I’d like to examine the story of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, one of the (many) principal figures in the novel, who figures heavily in both the “war” and “peace” sections. At the beginning of the novel, we meet Prince Andrei married to “the little princess,” a pretty woman he doesn’t seem to much care for and who soon dies in childbirth, leaving him a son, the little Prince Nikolai (as opposed to the old Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky, Andrei’s father). At the time, Andrei is out fighting in the first Russian campaign against Napoleon, at Austerlitz. On his return home with a wound, Andrei assumes an estate of his own, leaves his son largely in the care of his spinster sister Princess Marya (and employees), and drifts about, improving his estate but without much of a raison d’être.
A few years later, Prince Andrei meets the young Countess Natasha Rostov at a ball, and it’s clear the two of them will soon be engaged. It also seems clear that their engagement is ill-fated. With the old Prince Nikolai disapproving (the Rostovs are broke, if respectable), Andrei agrees to tour Europe for a year before the wedding. Everything is going swimmingly—Natasha might not be exactly happy about their separation, but she is devoted to Andrei in a way she has never been before (this is love; the others were just crushes) and there’s no question of her fidelity. Until! Enter Prince Anatole Kuragin, longtime and well-known womanizer, brother of the shiningest star in high society and, secretly, husband to a Polish peasant woman whose father (unlike others’) was clearly smart enough to know when to grab a shotgun. Kuragin has an amazing ability to turn Natasha’s head, beginning with a ridiculous scene at the opera (where Tolstoy would have you believe women in the audience end up topless by the second intermission*). Natasha breaks off her engagement to Prince Andrei and attempts to elope with Kuragin (who has not, of course, mentioned that he already has a wife).
Long story short: Prince Andrei is crushed but proud; Natasha tries to kill herself and spends months in a deep depression; Kuragin is run out of Moscow by his brother-in-law, a friend of the Rostovs, who helps hush up the whole affair as much as possible. And when the next Russian campaign against Napoleon rolls around, Prince Andrei is ready to go fight once more. At Borodino, he is struck by shrapnel, and in the field hospital, through intermittent bouts of unconsciousness, realizes that the man next to him, who’s just had a leg agonizingly amputated, is none other than Anatole Kuragin—the man who ruined his life.
Prince Andrei remembered everything [Kuragin's affair with Natasha], and a rapturous pity and love for this man filled his happy heart.
Prince Andrei could no longer restrain himself, and he wept tender, loving tears over people, over himself, and over their and his own errors.
“Compassion, love for our brothers, for those who love us, love for those who hate us, love for our enemies—yes, that love which God preached on earth, which Princess Marya taught me, and which I didn’t understand; that’s why I was sorry about life, that’s what was still left for me, if I was to live. But now it’s too late. I know it!”
“‘My God! What is this? Why is he here?’ Prince Andrei said to himself” as he realized who his neighbor was, and I ask the same question: why is Kuragin here? Which is to say, why is Kuragin in the novel at all? Briefly, Prince Anatole Kuragin is used as a sort of generic depraved character, with purposes half didactic and half entertaining, but his role in the novel becomes significant only when he becomes part of the Andrei–Natasha plot. Here, he is a pretty simple tempter (with Natasha, painted as somewhat naïve or sheltered, an easy mark), and you could say he simply gets his comeuppance (not only does he get his leg hacked off, he dies afterward). But why does he tempt her to begin with? Why break up the happy engagement of Prince Andrei and Natasha Rostov—they are in love, they are waiting to be together again, why are they not a right couple for each other? Here we have what is for me Tolstoyan hand-waving: Andrei has not yet found God, and, lacking peace, cannot successfully enter into marriage with Natasha.
But Prince Andrei will be redeemed by the end of the novel. He claims to know it’s too late in the field hospital, but he makes it to Moscow, and he makes it through the retreat from Moscow, which he makes with the Rostovs (by chance, of course). Natasha discovers him and spends weeks nursing him, until shortly before his sister arrives and he has accepted death. Too far above the cares of Natasha and Marya now, Andrei is upsetting to be around and then simply expires. Death is very much a part of the redemption, as well—it is the only real way to find peace.
So: the Prince Andrei storyline accomplishes principally the redemption of Prince Andrei. His redemption has the following side-effects: Natasha Rostov nearly has her reputation ruined, nearly dies, nearly sulks away her life hopelessly depressed, and loses a fiancé she is in love with; little Nikolai (who mostly exists for this purpose) is left fatherless and Princess Marya nearly alone in the world shortly after the death of her father; Anatole Kuragin (who only exists at all for this purpose) undergoes surgery without anaesthesia and dies in great pain; even old Prince Nikolai dies in pain because of the whole affair. Oh, and Prince Andrei dies too, of course.
So ultimately, we have this despicable chain of characters being used as means to an end, turtles all the way down. And this may sound like a somewhat common complaint, that characters are bad people, that they use each other, and that we shouldn’t like such people. So let me be clear: it’s not that Tolstoy’s characters are using each other, it’s that he‘s using them—grotesquely pulling the wings off flies, to prove that flies can only suffer.
Of course, this all fits in with Tolstoy’s fatalistic worldview. We are all players in a show we do not understand, stage-managed by an incomprehensible and mysterious God. Hmm, it looks like I’ve gotten myself into some ideas again!
Title quote from Vol IV, Part One, Chapter XV.
*”When the second act was over, Countess Bezukhov got up, turned to the Rostovs’ box (her bosom was now completely bared)…” Vol II, Part Five, Chapter IX of Pevear & Volokhonsky, and a line I’d like to check against a couple other editions.