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War and Peace | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


Which events in War and Peace have the most significant effect in moving Marya out of her passivity?

Marya becomes less passive after her father loses his grip on reality, right before the family has to abandon Bald Hills, and from that point she begins to think more about her own happiness and doing what is necessary to get it. When Prince Nikolai insists that she leave in the wake of the French invasion, she disobeys him and stays with him until he dies. This allows her to face up to her less-than-charitable thoughts about her incarceration inside the prison of her father's need. Marya then attempts to facilitate her own evacuation after the prince dies, despite Mlle Bourienne's desire to wait for the French. She speaks directly to the peasants and tells them to come with her to Moscow. Although she fails in her attempt and has to rely on Nikolai to escape from Bogucharovo, she has taken charge of her life. She accepts a preliminary courtship from Nikolai while she is staying with her aunt and then travels to a town near Moscow to see Andrei when she learns he is still alive. During this visit Marya belatedly befriends Natasha—something she would never have done if her father were alive. Perhaps her most courageous act is to reject Nikolai's proud rebuffs after the war, when he thinks to give up Marya because he fears she will see him as a fortune hunter. Instead she tells him her true heart, saying, "But why, Count, why? ... There has been so little happiness in my life that every loss is hard for me." This declaration allows Nikolai to put aside his own pride and accept her love. Thus Marya grows into a mature woman after her father dies, when she is released from their enmeshed relationship. She is able to make rational and heroic decisions and allow herself to put aside her ideas about extreme self-sacrifice and enter into a relationship with a man—something she always wanted, although she has hid these feelings from herself.

How does Natasha exemplify Tolstoy's view of the ideal Russian woman in War and Peace?

As the critic Laura Olson explains, femininity in the novel is grounded in ideas about "the folk" (i.e., the Russian peasants) and the Russian soul. Natasha is the clearest embodiment of both ideal femininity and the Russian soul; thus Natasha is a muse figure for many of the men in the novel. Natasha is initially "wild"—which means that she is so full of life that her liveliness overflows and results in Natasha's violating the mores of her culture. People put up with her wildness, however, because she is brimming with a love and joy that seduces and intoxicates. Natasha's spontaneity and rootedness in the fatherland is evident in the famous scene in which she suddenly performs a Russian folk dance with no prior training, as if she "had sucked this spirit in from the Russian air she had breathed." Natasha also initiates the decision for the Rostovs to give up their carts to the wounded soldiers during the evacuation of Moscow. This act of self-sacrifice comes from her Russian soul, which loves her people and her land. But Natasha's spirit is too large for the domesticity she will inhabit as a married woman. Thus she undergoes a transformation through suffering, after her brush with Anatole's seduction and the consequent destruction of her engagement to Andrei. Natasha learns to keep her feelings within acceptable boundaries and becomes the ideal wife and mother to Pierre and his children that the Countess Rostov always knew she would be. The narrator says, "Only the old countess, with her mother's intuition, understood that all Natasha's impulses came only from the need to have a family, have a husband." All of her life force is directed toward nurturing her family members and keeping them all within the circle of domesticity. For Tolstoy the most important organization in society was the family unit, which is held together by the wife and mother. In that sense Natasha is the ideal Russian woman because she harnesses her considerable life force in the service of the family unit.

In War and Peace, what does Andrei believe are the most important qualities in a general?

As Andrei listens to the generals argue about strategy for the 1812 campaign in Volume 3, Part 1, Chapter 12, he thinks about how there can be no such thing as "military science," because in war there are always too many changing variables. He thinks there is no such thing as military genius, and people call generals by the name of genius only because they are "clothed in splendor and power." According to Andrei the best commanders need to be devoid of the best human qualities, such as "love, poetry, tenderness, a searching philosophical doubt." A good commander has to be convinced that he is right and what he is doing is important. He cannot be "a human being and come to love or pity someone, or start thinking about what is just and what isn't."

How does Tolstoy demonstrate class differences in War and Peace?

Tolstoy demonstrates class differences mostly through narration that shows how the aristocrats treat the peasant classes, but in some cases he includes characters who are servants and serfs and are juxtaposed with the noblemen and noblewomen. For example, these include the servants in the Rostov and Bolkonsky households. For the most part, Russia was divided into a very large class of serfs, who were slaves bound to the land, and aristocrats—most of them propertied nobility who owned the estates and towns on which/in which the serfs lived. During the evacuation of Moscow, the small numbers of middle and lower-middle class Russians are also evident. Many of the class distinctions are seen in the treatment of the men in the military. For example, when the order comes in 1806 to recruit "not only ten recruits, but ... another nine fighting men per thousand," the reader should understand that these men are coming from the ranks of the peasants. And the foot soldiers do not get the same treatment as the gentry in the military. For example, when Nikolai visits Denisov in the so-called "hospital," he at least is in a room with some privacy and has a bed while the rank and file are lying on the floor. When the French take prisoners, they keep the foot soldiers and the officers in separate places, and Pierre clearly gets better treatment once he is identified as a nobleman. Platon Karataev, the peasant soldier who helps Pierre change the direction of his life, was drafted for some minor offense in place of his brother. Platon is happy his brother did not have to serve, since he had a family, and serfs were kept in the army for most of their lives once they were drafted. Platon is a middle-aged man and has been in the army a long time. Thus through the depiction of the differential treatment of officers and foot soldiers, the reader sees how the one group is privileged, even in the harsh conditions of war, while the other is even more oppressed.

How does Prince Nikolai's death provide healing for Marya in War and Peace?

Marya both dreads and looks forward to her father's death in Volume 3, Part 2, Chapter 8. He has made her life extremely difficult in his final years. Moreover his possessiveness has prevented her from getting married and starting her own family. A desire for her own life has become a strong emotion in her since her father's illness, and she cannot help thinking about being free of the burden of her father. He has treated her badly for a long time, and she is worn out. Still she feels guilty about her feelings and thinks they come from the devil. When her father finally verbalizes his love and gratitude, she realizes how much she loves him. While it is painful to face his death, her mind becomes filled with her father's vindication, and that makes Marya feel as if all of her care has not been in vain.

How much credit does General Kutuzov deserve for the Russian victory, based on Tolstoy's views about history in War and Peace?

According to Tolstoy's view, people are caught up in the movement of history, and thus individuals such as Alexander or Napoleon are given undeserved credit for being world movers. According to Tolstoy's view, it is the sum total of the actions of all of the people that create the events that unfold as history. The purpose of the movement of history is also unknown. It is by chance that Napoleon came to power, by chance that he miscalculated in invading Russia, and by chance that he lost the final war against the Russians. On the other hand, Tolstoy gives Kutuzov credit for knowing that he was not a world mover, but rather an instrument of the people. For him the greatest warriors were "patience and time," and the best thing that Kutuzov did was hold back the Russians so that the army would not destroy itself in trying to repel the invaders. He allowed the invaders to destroy themselves. Thus Tolstoy has it both ways: According to his historical analysis, Kutuzov deserves little credit. However, according to his literary analysis, Kutuzov was a hero and helped save the Russian homeland.

How does Tolstoy use sensory detail to illustrate Napoleon's narcissism on the eve of the Battle of Borodino in War and Peace?

In Volume 3, Part 2, Chapter 26, the narrator first describes Napoleon in the middle of his toilette (daily grooming), in which at least two men are helping him dress because he is so special. Napoleon then asks the envoys who bring the painting what Paris is saying about him, and one messenger tells him what he wants to hear, that "all Paris is sorry for your absence." Napoleon pulls on the messenger's ear, which was considered to be a mark of favor from the emperor. The painting is then unveiled, and Napoleon looks tenderly at it, as if he is thinking about how his reactions will be recorded for posterity. Napoleon then orders the portrait to be taken outside of his tent so that officers and soldiers can exclaim over it. In all of these actions, Napoleon shows himself to be a self-satisfied narcissist who is watching himself being watched by others.

What does Tolstoy mean when he calls Napoleon "executioner of the peoples" in War and Peace?

Tolstoy argues in his historical essays that all so-called great men are simply instruments of the will of the collective movement of history and says that Providence had predestined Napoleon for "the sad, unfree role of executioner of the peoples." Napoleon takes pains to point out that only 140,000 of his 400,000-man army "who crossed the Vistula" were French. Because Napoleon's Grande Armée was made up of so many different nationalities, Tolstoy refers to the "peoples" in Volume 3, Part 2, Chapter 38, because Napoleon was proud of uniting so many different nationalities in one army and dreamed of Europe becoming "one people" with Paris as the capital of Europe. Thus while Napoleon had a dream of uniting all peoples, according to his memoirs, in fact he was instrumental in killing many different nationalities and preferred them to die ahead of Frenchmen.

How does Tolstoy use verbal irony to make fun of the political discussions that take place in the Petersburg salons in War and Peace?

The two major salons in Petersburg are run by Anna Pavlovna, strongly pro-Russian and anti-French, and Hélène Buzukhov, sympathetic to the French with the hope that somehow the Russians and French will work out their differences. Vassily, who frequents both salons and wishes to make himself amenable to both factions, sometimes forgets where he is and spouts anti-French opinions at Hélène's or pro-French opinions at Anna Pavlovna's. He keeps changing his opinion about Kutuzov, first criticizing him and calling him blind and then praising him after he is reinstated as commander-in-chief. Thus despite one man's "wish to obtain a post, he could not help reminding Prince Vassily of his former opinion ... 'But they say he's blind, Prince?'" Vassily answers, "Come now, he can see well enough." In Volume 3, Part 2, Chapter 6, the narrator shows both the hypocrisy of people like Vassily, who change their opinion according to which way the wind is blowing, as well as the shallow understanding of the war exhibited by the salon attendees, whose political opinions are a matter of fashion.

In War and Peace, how does Marya help Nikolai become less violent after they marry?

Nikolai is attracted to Marya mainly because of her spiritual superiority. He senses in her a deep spiritual intelligence, and he knows that it will counterbalance his own tendencies toward violence and excessive passion. Marya's "submissive, tender love" for Nikolai who "would never understand all that she understood" helps smooth out his rough edges. His short temper and tendency to resort to violence come out in his treatment of the peasants, and when Marya cries over his beating of a headman, Nikolai resolves to curb his temper and is mostly successful. When he gets impatient with his wife, he easily reconciles with her because a disagreement between them makes him feel "lost," like he "can't do anything." Marya has become his moral compass as illustrated in the epilogue, Part 1, Chapters 8, 9, and 16.

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