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War and Peace | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


What does Bilibin's letter to Andrei in Volume 2, Part 2, Chapter 9, reveal about the business of war in War and Peace?

Bilibin's letter to Andrei demonstrates how war is irrational, chaotic, and violent. Bilibin writes at length about how one general claims to have won a victory when he actually retreated, and then spends his time avoiding another general—his ally—instead of fighting Napoleon because he does not want to subordinate himself to the first general. In the meantime, the rank and file are hungry and begin looting the countryside. Some of the regiments begin roaming like bandits, killing people and setting fire to their land. Bilibin's letter shows that in actuality no one is in charge of the war, and it is somewhat like a wild, rampaging beast that destroys everything in its wake without rhyme or reason. Bilibin's letter demonstrates the theme that war is immoral, which was Tolstoy's strong belief. Tolstoy had a lot of experience with war, having fought in the Caucasus during Russia's pacification of the ethnic indigenous peoples of the region, and in the Crimean War, even receiving a medal for bravery. He knew the chaos of war up close and personal, and by drawing on his experience, he creates the authenticity of the war scenes in War and Peace.

How does Nikolai use the military as a way to hide from life in War and Peace?

Even though the war is organized chaos, Nikolai Rostov finds an order and peace in the army he doesn't experience in the outside world. He prefers military life to civilian life because he doesn't have to make choices. For example, he doesn't have to think about whether or not to marry Sonya. He is being pulled in two directions—one by Sonya and her love and the other by his family, who expects him to marry a wealthy girl. The relationships between and among the men in the regiment are clear, not like the more ambiguous and changing relationships of civilian life. It is simple to know what is good and bad in the army—what's good for the regiment is good and what's bad for it is bad. In the world good and bad are not so clear cut. Nonetheless Nikolai does come up against ambiguity as a soldier, for example, when he sees the neglect of the wounded in the camp "hospital" and then watches Alexander make peace with Napoleon. Suddenly the Russians and French are friends again, and nobody seems to mind that so many Russian soldiers have died for the cause and countless more are suffering untold hardship. To cover up his confusion, Nikolai says it is not for him to reason why—rather that is the job of his betters. "If we're punished, it means we're guilty; it's not for us to judge," he says. He falls back on the classical excuse of people operating within a group mentality when they say they were just following orders. Nikolai is a moral man but dislikes making moral decisions, and the army lifts much of that responsibility off his shoulders.

How is Tolstoy's depiction of Napoleon different from any other character in War and Peace?

Napoleon is the only character in the novel who does not have any redeeming qualities. Tolstoy consistently depicts him as a narcissist and a mass murderer with very little human feeling. For example, the narrator quotes Napoleon's real diaries to show how he was proud that fewer Frenchmen were killed in the war than soldiers from other ethnic groups. He shows Napoleon as being unconcerned about the cavalry soldiers who try to cross the Niemen River to impress him and wind up drowning. After the Battle of Borodino, the narrator calls Napoleon "the executioner of the peoples," who only fleetingly shows any feeling at all for the carnage he sees on the battlefield: "Personal human feeling for a brief moment got the upper hand over that artificial phantom of life which he had served so long." But even here the narrator says Napoleon felt "a heaviness in his head and chest [which] reminded him of the possibility of his own suffering and death." Thus even when Napoleon has some feeling for the countless dead, it is only in reference to his own death. The depiction of Napoleon as entirely evil is an anomaly in a story in which all other characters are a mix of good and bad, even if there are some who are more bad than good (such as Dolokhov). Tolstoy wanted his novel to serve as a corrective of the pervasive view held in his time that Napoleon was a great man, a hero, and someone worthy of respect and admiration. Even to this day, Napoleon is more praised than damned. Given the number of lives lost in the war of 1812 on both the French and the Russian sides, which began with the aggressive incursion of the French Grand Army into Russian territory with no real provocation, Tolstoy feels justified in depicting Napoleon as a mass murderer with no redeeming qualities.

Why does Hélène want a reconciliation with Pierre in Volume 2, Part 3, Chapter 8, of War and Peace?

Hélène wants to reconcile with Pierre so that she can again take up a social life in Petersburg. She has done her best to damage her husband's reputation and to imply that he is an unreasonable and jealous husband. Nonetheless his refusal to live with her reflects badly on her reputation. Not surprisingly Hélène has been living abroad. For the sake of propriety and so she can again take an active part in Russian society, she wants to resume life as a married woman. Although she pretends to be genuinely sorry and claims she will devote herself to Pierre, she simply wants to have the cover of marriage to continue doing as she pleases.

How does Andrei change as a result of falling in love with Natasha in War and Peace?

Andrei is deeply affected by Natasha's sincerity, innocence, and openness. Natasha says "yes" to life in every moment and has the happiness of a person who experiences the world as a revelation and is grateful to take part in it. Andrei, on the other hand, focuses on the emptiness of life—empty because it is temporary and, in the grand scheme of things, merely a passing fancy. For his intellectual and philosophical soul, the ephemeral quality of life is something that casts a pall on all joy. The opposite is the case with Natasha. She is not worried about life's transiency and simply enjoys each moment. Natasha has the effect of bringing Andrei over to her way of seeing life. After he falls in love with her, he allows himself to be open to life in a way that is new to him.

Why does Andrei allow his father to dictate the terms of his engagement to Natasha in War and Peace?

The Bolkonsky family members are closely tied to one another. Prince Nikolai has a strong personality and has been the primary parent of both Andrei and Marya. Even though Andrei is a man and has been out in the world for some time, he still honors and respects his father and wants Prince Nikolai to accept Natasha into the family. If Andrei marries without his father's blessing, Prince Nikolai is not likely to accept Natasha. The Rostovs will not be able to give Natasha much of a dowry, which is another consideration for Andrei's father, in addition to the fact that a new wife for Andrei will change the family dynamics, especially with regard to Prince Nikolai's grandson. Of course Andrei is aware of these objections. Although Andrei tells Pierre that he would marry without his father's consent, that is not a real option for him in Volume 2, Part 3, Chapters 22 and 23. Because he honors his father so highly and because the Bolkonsky family members are so close and dependent on one another's approval, Andrei agrees to a year's engagement. Such a long engagement was almost unheard of, since people usually married a few months after being engaged. But Andrei is hoping that a year will help his father get used to the idea of his bringing a new person into the family. The long engagement turns out to be a serious mistake, since it estranges the engaged couple and leads to Natasha's looking elsewhere for love and validation, especially after Andrei's family rejects her.

In what ways does Tolstoy make a convincing argument in War and Peace that free will does not exist?

In Part 2 of the epilogue, Chapters 8 and 10, and in Part 3, Chapter 9, the narrator argues that if each person were free and could act autonomously, then history would be "a series of incoherent accidents." To say that even one person in millions would have the ability to act freely is to nullify, in Tolstoy's view, the existence of laws that govern all of mankind. Further if there is even one law that governs man, then it precludes the existence of free will. People are subject to "a general law of necessity," says Tolstoy. Nonetheless people feel themselves to be free in the consciousness of their own will. But they are subject to natural law as well as the limitations of constitution, character, and outside influence. Tolstoy acknowledges that the consciousness of freedom is "irrefutable," and without it "any notion of man is unthinkable." This is why he looks at the ratio of freedom to necessity, which varies according to the point of view from which an act is examined. For example, a criminal who had a dysfunctional upbringing and bad influences from childhood might deserve more sympathy than a criminal who had every advantage and many choices in life. People naturally feel that the first person was more subject to the law of necessity and had less freedom to behave well. Tolstoy's arguments are quite convincing. When he says people have no free will, he doesn't mean they are automatons; rather he is saying that almost if not all of our actions have elements of "necessity"—i.e., they are influenced by forces over which we have no direct control. Tolstoy's views are not opposed to similar ideas in the modern social sciences (sociology, psychology), and especially in the new field of cognitive neuroscience. In fact the more scientists find out about the way the human brain works, the less it appears that a person has much control over what they think, say, or do.

Why is it so difficult for Natasha to wait for Andrei in War and Peace?

Natasha is still a girl when she becomes informally engaged to Andrei. There is no doubt that he has captivated her in a way that no other man has done until now. But her nature is one of abundance—which includes an abundance of love—and she needs time to actually attach herself to Andrei. The fact that he disappears after their initial and intense interactions makes her feel estranged from him. Moreover she is a little frightened by Andrei's intensity even though she is also drawn to it, which is all the more reason Andrei should not have left her. It was also customary for an engagement to be shortly followed by the marriage, and in some sense Natasha feels abandoned. Once she is rejected by his family, Natasha feels even more estranged from the missing Andrei. When the toxic Kuragins reach out to her, particularly Hélène, they soothe her ego. She is then no match for their masterful manipulations, and when Anatole awakens Natasha to her sexuality, she mistakes her physical feelings for love.

If Pierre is disgusted with his life, what keeps him from making changes in War and Peace?

Pierre cannot radically change his life because he is tied to his wife, the Masons, and Petersburg society. While he initially thought the Masons could help him change, he becomes disillusioned with the hypocrisy of the members of the organization who do not follow the principles they pretend to espouse. Now that he is so deeply involved with the Masons, he cannot easily extricate himself from his duties and responsibilities to the organization. Further they are at least partially responsible for his decision to forgive his wife and try to live with her again. When he reconciles with Hélène, he is forced to socialize with her empty society friends and waste his time at endless parties. Pierre's wealth and position make it difficult to change his life because he keeps getting drawn back into the very things he is trying to escape. Further he is at the mercy of his personal addictions— food, drink, and sex. Without something more wholesome to look forward to—and without someone to love him and guide him—he drugs himself with sensual pleasures to escape his unhappiness.

In what ways do the historical and philosophical portions of War and Peace enhance or detract from the fictional portions of the novel?

The historical and philosophical portions of the novel are more difficult to understand than the fictional parts of the novel, and for that reason some readers become frustrated or annoyed with some of Tolstoy's interruptions. While the major essay on the meaning of history and the dialectic between free will and necessity appears at the end of the book, in Part 2 of the epilogue, Tolstoy nevertheless interrupts the action in several places, with sections that are a run-up to the major essay. These interruptions begin in Volume 3. While Tolstoy's ideas are worth pondering, he does keep repeating them again and again. The nonfiction commentary on the fictional work is also meant to enhance the reader's understanding of the historical characters presented in the fiction and the historical events of the period. Those sections that address themselves directly to the historical characters (for example, Napoleon, Kutuzov, and Alexander) or to the events (for example, what happened before and after the Battle of Borodino) may be more interesting and helpful to the modern reader than Tolstoy's extended musings on free will and necessity. Still it is hard to argue with a genius, and considering the magnificence of War and Peace, it may be presumptuous for the discerning critic to quibble with some unnecessary repetition of ideas. Tolstoy famously said that his magnum opus "is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed." He did not consider War and Peace a novel per se, and when he produced Anna Karenina, he famously said that he had written his first novel.

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