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War and Peace | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


Why did Tolstoy choose to write 2 percent of the text in French in War and Peace, with a translation, rather than write the whole novel in Russian?

Tolstoy writes about his class, the aristocracy, who were a small portion of the population but held all the power and wealth. The aristocratic Russians spoke French rather than Russian most of the time, and the embrace of the French language throughout Russia dated back to the time of Catherine the Great in the 18th century. Many aristocrats could not even speak Russian properly and knew only enough to speak to their servants. Tolstoy associates Petersburg and the French language with pretentious, superficially intellectual, and spiritually bankrupt continental values. He associates Moscow with the Russian soul and all that is good and beautiful about his native country. A character like Marya Dmitrievna, who exemplifies a non-Westernized Russian, will not speak French, and the reader is meant to understand that she is a quintessential Russian. Tolstoy uses a lot of French when he is describing what goes on in the pretentious aristocratic salons and less French when people like the Rostovs are with their families. Further there is much less French in the second part of the novel, when the Russians are at war with France. In fact some of the characters make a patriotic decision not to speak French; Julie Karagin, Marya's silly friend, at one point writes to her in Russian, and Tolstoy shows how hard it is for her to express herself in her native tongue.

In War and Peace, how are the actions of Anna Pavlovna in her salon similar to the actions of a general on a field of battle?

Anna Pavlovna has influence in aristocratic circles as a maid of honor for the dowager empress (the mother of the tsar), and she has power in the sense that all the important people come to her salon. Therefore she has power like a general, and much of what is socially important takes place on her "battlefield." She helps in arranging connections between people and facilitating people's ability to trade in influence among the various circles of high society. Therefore she makes use of strategy like a general. For example, in Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter 1, she tells Prince Vassily that perhaps she can help him arrange a match between his son Anatole and Princess Marya Bolkonsky. Later, in Volume 1, Part 3, Chapter 1, she helps engineer a match between Vassily's daughter and the newly rich Pierre. The narrator says that she was "in the excited state of a commander on the battlefield, when thousands of brilliant new thoughts come along," and she sits Pierre next to Hélène. The manipulation of Pierre is part of a battle plan engineered by her and Vassily to increase the Kuragins' family fortunes.

How do the characters of Anatole and Hélène in War and Peace exemplify the worst qualities of the Russian aristocracy?

This brother and sister of the Kuragin family are amoral and have no ability to empathize with the feelings of others. Moreover, as Russians entirely corrupted by the ways of the French, they resemble Napoleon in their narcissism and act as if the whole world exists simply for their convenience. Early on in the novel, the reader learns about rumors of a sexual relationship between these two, which violates one of the strongest taboos imaginable—incest. Both are sexually depraved and have no ability to love. Anatole thinks it is only natural that everyone should give way to him and provide him with what he desires. When his father first tries to pair him with Marya, he doesn't have enough self-control to keep his hands off her lady companion for the purpose of furthering his own interests of making a brilliant match. He doesn't care what others think of him, so he is not worried about any disgrace that might come from pursuing an innocent girl like Natasha, even though he is married. He doesn't think about what will happen to Natasha after he elopes with her; he will do whatever it takes to possess her. Similarly Hélène marries Pierre only for money and then pursues her own sexual interests with any number of men, including Dolokhov and Boris Drubetskoy. The fact that either her lover (Dolokhov) or Pierre could have been killed in the duel has no importance for her—rather she is only concerned about how her separation from Pierre affects her ability to participate in society. At the end of the novel, she has no compunction about lying and manipulating the churchmen of two faiths to get what she wants—which is to remarry. Both characters display an outsized sense of entitlement based on their class. They can live only on the surface of life. Both are spoiled aristocrats who misuse their wealth and power, and not surprisingly, they both come to a bad end.

Pierre is illegitimate, yet accepted into society in War and Peace. What does this situation tell the reader about the attitude aristocrats had toward having children out of wedlock?

The fact that Pierre is accepted, and that Vassily Kuragin, above him in rank (Pierre is a count, but the Kuragins are princes and princesses), wants him as a suitor for his daughter, indicates that wealth is more important that conventional morality for the aristocratic class. Moreover the aristocrats made their own rules because they had the power to decide what was acceptable in high society. Pierre's father, Count Bezukhov, is exceptionally rich, and with money comes status and power. He is also well connected at court, a former well-known adviser to Catherine the Great, and rumored to be one of her lovers in his day. Further it was not unusual in the 19th century for people to have children outside the bounds of marriage, and Russia already had taken measures to protect illegitimate children. Finally it was common for those in the nobility to have children out of wedlock. Pierre is brought up and educated as a noble, and, clearly no one thinks that is odd. His status is based on his father's status and influence, and he is easily accepted into society, although the taint of illegitimacy would have initially affected his marital prospects. However Paul I, the emperor who preceded Alexander, instituted a process whereby a petition could be made to the tsar so that a bastard child could be made legitimate and then inherit property. This is exactly what happens to Pierre. His father makes a petition to the tsar, and it is sure to be granted after his death because of how well Bezukhov had been received in the court of Alexander. Once Pierre has been legally accepted into the aristocratic fold, all barriers come down.

How do Nikolai and Boris in War and Peace differ in their approaches to advancing in the military?

Nikolai joins the military out of patriotic fervor, while Boris signs up with the idea of making a career. He goes along with his mother in her use of influence to get him into the prestigious Semyonovsky guards attached to the tsar. Anna Mikhailovna wants to place her son Boris in the royal guard because he will then be in a position to meet influential people and gain favor at court. As the story progresses, Boris first courts Andrei to help him get a position as an adjutant, a confidential assistant to a general. When he comes to Petersburg, he becomes a favorite of Hélène, mostly for the purposes of climbing the social and career ladders. Boris is not interested in fighting at the front, but rather advancing as far along as he can on a staff career path, away from the dirty business of war. On the other hand, Nikolai does not want his family's help in making his way in the army. When he first leaves to join the service, he signs up as a "junker" in the hussars (cavalry), which is the lowest status someone of the nobility could hold in the army. Unlike Boris he does not seek patronage to get himself a good position. Nonetheless in the first war against the French, his mother has procured a letter, on the advice of her friend Anna, which is a recommendation to Prince Bagration, a general. This letter will get Nikolai a position on Bagration's administrative staff (as an adjutant). But Nikolai wants to fight, and since adjutants generally do not participate directly in combat, he throws the letter away. Nikolai rises in the ranks based on his skill and ability to lead, as well as bravery.

Why does Vera scold Sonya about her relationship with Nikolai in the first chapters of War and Peace?

Vera is the eldest sister and also a conventional and judgmental person. She has found Nikolai's verses to Sonya and accuses her of ruining Nikolai, saying she is ungrateful to the family. Vera is representing her mother's view on whether Sonya and Nikolai should marry. Sonya is an orphaned cousin the Rostovs have raised, but she has no dowry. It was customary among the upper classes for a woman to bring dowry (money and or land) into a marriage, and Sonya has none. This might be acceptable if the man had enough wealth, but this is not the case for the Rostov family. Therefore it is important that Nikolai, as the oldest son, bring wealth into the family by marrying a wealthy bride. The fact that Sonya and Nikolai are cousins is also a problem, although they can get permission from church officials, and they are also second cousins, as Natasha points out to Sonya. Vera wants Nikolai to marry Julie Karagin, and in fact he has been flirting with Julie at the party, which upsets Sonya. Vera also feels like Sonya and Natasha have not been so well brought up as she and that they violate the social code of behavior expected of demure young ladies. Thus she has a personal objection to both Natasha and Sonya for this reason.

Why is Marya so attracted to the "people of God," the wandering mendicants, in War and Peace?

The people of God are religious beggars that share Marya's Russian Orthodox Christian faith. From early on, Russian Orthodox Christianity had a tradition of "wanderers," who chose to go on a lifetime pilgrimage to the holy places of their religion and live off the charity of strangers. Marya is a devout practitioner of her religion and regularly feeds and socializes with these mendicants, who stop by from time to time and tell her about their journeys and the religious wonders they see on pilgrimage. Some of the wanderers also take on penances (consciously chosen hardships) to purify themselves. Marya is attracted to these people because she is a very devout Christian who has chosen to sacrifice her life for the sake of her father. She justifies that sacrifice with religion. The people of God serve as a role model, and her sacrifice seems little next to theirs. The people of God also serve as a religious fantasy. From another perspective, they have escaped the restrictions of conventional life and can devote themselves entirely to God. They go where they please and don't have responsibilities. Marya fantasizes about running away from her life and joining the mendicants and has even prepared an outfit and kit for leaving home. But she is too attached to her own family to actually carry out this plan.

How does Nikolai's view of Tsar Alexander evolve in the course of War and Peace?

Nikolai begins his military career with a perfect worship of his emperor and exemplifies a typical attitude among young men who idealistically go off to war. Alexander is the leader of the country and, by extension, the head of the troops through his generals. He also has the aura of infallibility associated with absolute rulers. He is young and handsome as well, and when Nikolai first sees him up close, he appears beautiful to him, and he feels something akin to romantic love. Nikolai thus worships his sovereign and would gladly lay down his life for him and count himself as lucky to do so. After the Battle of Austerlitz, Nikolai first sees Alexander as a mere human, alone in an empty field, and can tell from his body language that he is grieving and downcast because the battle has been lost. Nikolai feels that it is impossible to ask him the question he has been charged with—which is about troop movements—when the allies have so clearly lost. He chooses not to disturb Alexander and goes to find Kutuzov. By the time the Russians are signing the Treaty of Tilsit with the French, Nikolai cannot help but question why so much blood has been shed when the Russians are now making friends with their enemies. He wonders how Alexander can bear to be on the same footing as Napoleon. He is shocked that Napoleon treats Alexander as an equal. While he still worships the sovereign, his worship is tainted. Even though Nikolai doesn't fully face up to his doubts about the Russian leadership and, by extension, the emperor, he no longer finds him perfect. When another officer remarks that he found it "offensive" to look at the French, Nikolai suddenly reveals what's in his mind, scolding the officer: "How can you judge the sovereign's actions, what right have we to discuss it?!" In fact he is talking more to himself than his fellow officer.

In what ways does Nikolai betray Sonya by marrying Marya in War and Peace?

Whether Nikolai betrays Sonya is a matter of perspective. Certainly his decision not to marry her is heavily influenced by the decline in the family fortunes and his responsibility as the oldest son. Before he leaves for war at the beginning of the novel, there are words of love exchanged between Nikolai and Sonya, but he does not promise marriage. Meanwhile he is flirting with the wealthy Julie Karagin at Natasha's name-day party. When Nikolai comes home on leave, he specifically tells Sonya that, although he cares for her, he cannot promise her anything. He deliberately tries to clear the field for Dolokhov's advances. Sonya claims that it is enough for her to love him like a brother, although she continues to hope for more. Nikolai's mother does not stop putting pressure on him to marry into wealth. When Nikolai is called home by his mother over the family's financial troubles, she actively opposes a liaison between them. During one Christmas season, he seems to fall in love with Sonya again when he sees her in dress-up with the mummers. At this point Nikolai finally makes a clear promise, and Sonya is counting on his keeping his word. As time passes Countess Rostov is hard on Sonya and finally asks her to release Nikolai from his promise. When she does, Nikolai is very much relieved, since he has begun courting Marya Bolkonsky. Although Nikolai does not technically break the engagement with Sonya, he has still been courting another woman, and Sonya is aware of this fact. He is portrayed as having a strong attraction to Marya, apart from the wealth she would bring to his family. So in that sense he has turned his back on Sonya and turned toward Marya. Nikolai and Marya never abandon Sonya, however, and she comes to live in their house after they marry. Still it seems that Nikolai should have clearly told Sonya much earlier that he would not marry her, rather than give her some hope and then bind himself to her during a moment of infatuation.

Are Pierre's feelings toward Hélène based on love or lust in War and Peace?

When Pierre first meets Hélène, he feels a strong sexual attraction to her. Hélène is by no means modest and is wearing a fashionable gown that is "open in front and back." Pierre then notices her neck and shoulders, "sensed the warmth of her body, the smell of her perfume, and the creaking of her corset as she breathed." He is very close to her because someone has handed him a snuff box behind Hélène's back. He suddenly becomes aware of the "loveliness of her body ... covered by clothes." Pierre thinks Hélène is "stupid," however, and he has also heard stories about how she and her brother Anatole were in love. Pierre realizes his desire for Hélène is purely physical, and he says that his attraction is vile for that reason—and also because he suspects she is sexually depraved. He knows he is supposed to propose to her, but he hesitates because, although he has never been in love, he senses that he doesn't have the proper feelings to justify a proposal. Nonetheless he is tricked into proposing.

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