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War and Peace | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


Why does Natasha think she is in love with Anatole in War and Peace?

Anatole and his sister, Hélène, are highly skilled seducers, and Natasha is an innocent virgin with no experience of sex. She is also a spontaneous, lively, and loving young person who easily responds to the physicality of existence. She lives in her body—not in her mind, as Andrei does—and she has a hyper-awareness of her physical surroundings. Tolstoy consciously connects her to the earth—specifically the Russian earth, and at times she functions as both a muse and an earth goddess. So when Anatole skillfully touches her (for example, when he dances with her, hands her into the carriage, and kisses her), she suddenly becomes aware of herself as a sexual being. For Tolstoy sexual love is a component of romantic love—not the whole of it. But though Andrei is handsome, he is too honorable to do anything that could be construed as sexual in his relationship with Natasha before they are married. Thus Natasha suddenly has feelings for Anatole that she has not yet felt for Andrei, and for that reason she thinks she must be in love with him.

How does Tolstoy use the cities of Moscow and Petersburg to symbolize what's good and bad about the Russian aristocracy in War and Peace?

Tolstoy spends a lot of energy highlighting the bad qualities of the aristocracy, but it is important to keep these negative assessments in perspective and remember that he is writing almost entirely about the aristocratic class, which was the world he knew. Further, as a social critic, he is bound to point out the abuses of his class. Much later in his life, Tolstoy turned his back more completely on his class, but at the time of the writing of War and Peace, he saw some of the nobility as living up to their class responsibilities and acting as good human beings and others squandering their resources and abusing their power. The good aristocrats are generally associated with Moscow, while the bad aristocrats are associated with Petersburg. This is because Petersburg is the new capital of Russia, associated with the reforms that brought Western influence. It is also the seat of the government and the breeding ground for "high society." Thus the salons that Tolstoy writes about with humor and irony are located in Petersburg. People carry out their intrigues in the salons, spread malicious gossip, and jockey for power and position. On the other hand, Moscow is the home of aristocrats like Marya Dmitrievna, who has not succumbed to pernicious continental influences and even refuses to speak French, the language of the hoi polloi. It is the Muscovite aristocrats who abandon their town rather than stay behind to entertain the French—who no doubt would have treated them with some respect. And it is people like the Rostovs who in Moscow hand over almost all their carts to carry the wounded soldiers away from the invading army.

How might Pierre's insistence on being present at the Battle of Borodino in War and Peace be interpreted as a misuse of his power as an aristocrat?

As Moscow begins to disintegrate before the occupation of the French, Pierre feels compelled to do something, and in Volume 3, Part 2, Chapter 18, he feels a happiness come upon him in the delight of self-sacrifice. He ends up interpreting this feeling as a need to run to the battlefield and somehow be of help. In fact Pierre is still trying to overcome his own depression about the meaninglessness he feels in his own life and suddenly embraces the war as a way to rise above his despair. He wants to take part in something bigger than himself. When he rushes to the battlefield, he takes advantage of his status as a privileged citizen and aristocrat to travel wherever he wants and watch the battle, more like a tourist than a participant. People allow him to do this because he is well known and respected and has contributed a lot of money to the war effort. However his behavior is childish and even dangerous for the real participants, and more than one person expresses annoyance with Pierre for interfering. Nonetheless he continues with his fake participation in the war until he is knocked unconscious. When he wakes up, he suddenly understands that the war is real, along with its mayhem and murder.

How does Pierre change from the beginning to the end of the novel in War and Peace?

At the beginning of the novel, Pierre is an innocent and somewhat clownish young man who, as Anna Pavlovna thinks, "did not know how to live." This comment is made in the first pages of the novel, and the hostess is entirely right but for the wrong reasons. In fact Pierre does not know how to live, and in the course of the novel he learns how through a series of trials and errors. Early on Pierre is floundering with what to do about a career, but his exploration is cut short when he inherits a huge fortune and then is snared in a marriage that enmeshes him in high society. After his wife betrays him, he realizes he is unhappy because he finds no satisfaction in trivial social pursuits and has no worthwhile project to which he can devote his energies. He doesn't believe in God, but after joining the Masons he cultivates, for the most part, a superficial faith. When the Masons turn out to be a disappointment, he deliberately puts himself through trials. This hardship of imprisonment finally purifies him and leads him to the knowledge that there is no key to the meaning of life. Rather its meaning must be created every day in his interactions with others and his cultivation of compassion. At the end of the novel, Pierre no longer needs to drug himself with food, sex, and drink and is able to gather his energies and focus them on family and doing some good in the larger world.

Why do some critics say that Platon Karateav is not a fully realized character in War and Peace?

For Tolstoy the simple Russian peasant is "the salt of the earth," emblematic of the Russian soul. Platon becomes Pierre's spiritual guide in jail, teaching him to live in the moment and find joy and goodness even in the worst of situations. However, the portrait of Platon is an ideal and lacks elements of realism that the other characters possess. Platon is the only character who appears to have no flaws, which in itself is unrealistic. Further the author does not provide enough of a backstory to make his transformation into a wise man plausible. How did he become such a perfect vessel of Christian love? Platon provides stories and proverbs for Pierre to digest and hardly seems to understand them—when asked to repeat them, Platon can never remember what he said. Pierre's choice to abandon Platon when he becomes a liability is never commented on by the narrator, which also creates the impression that the good peasant is less of a fully realized character and more of a mouthpiece for Tolstoy's ideas.

What is Tolstoy's attitude toward marriage and the family in War and Peace?

For Tolstoy marriage and family is the essential building block of society and a necessary institution for the realization of a person's potential. The Rostovs are the ideal family in the novel because they love and nurture one another. This generosity is extended into the world and can be seen in the family's willingness to support relatives, friends, and hangers-on, even to their own detriment, and finally in their sacrifice of the carts that will carry the soldiers out of Moscow. One son fights in two wars and distinguishes himself, taking part in the great defense of the fatherland. The other son loses his life in the war for the fatherland. The Rostov family continues in the next generation, when Natasha marries Pierre and Nikolai marries Marya. The happiness depicted in the union of these couples is the basis for raising the next generation and for the men to do their work in the world. Throughout the novel people's happiness is tied to their families. For example, even single Marya in her misery with her father finds happiness in his love and a purpose for living. The family is the place where people first learn to love, and only in a somewhat functional family are people able to carry that love out into the wider world. The novel's characters sometimes learn the importance of family at a great price, as when Andrei's wife dies in childbirth just as he has come back from war, and he is prepared at last to appreciate and value her.

How does Sonya's fate exemplify the limited choices of women in the era described in War and Peace?

Sonya is a single woman of noble birth with no family other than her cousins, the Rostovs. Therefore she is entirely dependent on their largesse. There is no evidence in Tolstoy's novel that a woman of her class would have had any way to earn money. For example, noblewomen in Russia did not have the option to become a governess, even if they were poor. While Russian women were allowed to inherit property (unlike their European sisters, who could not), Sonya has no wealth. Although the Rostovs are generous, loving, and kind, Sonya is not an equal with the other children, evidenced by the fact that the countess calls her an interloper when she doesn't immediately give up Nikolai. Thus Sonya takes on the role of serving the Rostovs and only steps out of it in her half-hearted attempts to secure Nikolai as a husband. Nikolai's ultimate rejection of her means that she has no choice but to live with him and his family once he marries, and both she and the countess move in with Nikolai and Marya. Sonya then has the bitter pill of living with the object of her unrequited love (and his wife) for the rest of her life. The narrator gives us no window into Sonya's mind, but Natasha, in an attempt to rationalize what happened, says to Marya that she is "a sterile blossom" she sometimes feels sorry for, but "sometimes I think she doesn't feel it the way we would." Such is the fate of poor, unmarried Sonya—to live her entire life as a dependent and subordinate in someone else's house, while the woman who was closest to her thinks that her feelings are less real than her own in matters of the heart.

How are friendships between women portrayed in War and Peace?

The true friendships between women occur within the circumference of familial ties. For example, Sonya and Natasha are second cousins and good friends. They know each other's secrets and can trust each other completely. Natasha comforts Sonya early in the novel when she feels rejected by Nikolai, and Natasha continues to champion her cousin's claim to Nikolai—which began as an unspoken promise in their childhood. Sonya is a true friend to Natasha, revealing to Marya Dmitrievna her intentions to elope. While Natasha suffered as a result of getting caught, she would have suffered irreparable damage to her soul and her reputation if she had gone through with the marriage. Similarly when Natasha and Marya become provisional sisters-in-law, they bond during Andrei's illness. Their friendship survives his death as they grieve together, and when they become part of the same extended family in marriage, their friendship deepens. On the other hand, friendship not based on familial ties is depicted as false friendship. For example, Marya's extended friendship with Julie Karagin turns out to have no depth on Julie's side. Once she gets married, she has little use for Marya and even uses her private business as fodder for covertly poking fun at her friend at one of Julie's parties. Clearly she is a false friend. Another false friend is Hélène, who pretends to take Natasha under her wing when she simply wants to help her brother seduce Natasha. Anna Mikhailovna is no friend to Countess Rostov either. While she lives with the Rostovs and takes money from the countess for years, she suddenly evaporates when Boris moves up in the ranks, since she has no further need for her good friend once her son becomes a big shot. The only exception to this rule seems to be Marya Dmitrievna, who is a true friend to the Rostovs, particularly the countess and Natasha, although her relationship to them is more like a great aunt than a friend. Marya Dmitrievna helps save Natasha, both before and after the aborted elopement.

How does Tolstoy depict the feeling of love in the relationships of Natasha and Andrei and Natasha and Pierre in War and Peace?

Tolstoy's depiction of love shows that, while people have romantic notions about soul mates when choosing life partners, the truth is that people are capable of deeply loving a variety of people and could be matched with many persons. Love begins as a hypothesis, when one person chooses to love another. That love is either proven or disproven, as people remain loyal to each other, weather the storms of the relationship, and prevent its severance from outside forces. True love is a maturity that occurs in the heart of the lover to embrace the love object unconditionally—as much as that is possible. Natasha is a young person who is full of love. She loves Andrei, but that love is first maimed by Natasha's fall. After Natasha's reconciliation with Andrei, their love cannot be "proven" because Andrei dies. Subsequently Natasha's heart is still full of love. Therefore it is easy for her to turn to Pierre and make a life with him. To do so does not negate her earlier feelings for Andrei. Natasha matures in love when she fully commits herself to Pierre.

What is Tolstoy's view of free will in War and Peace?

There is no definitive answer as to whether Tolstoy believes in free will. On the one hand, he goes to great lengths to explain his view of history, which is that events occur because of the sum total of the wills of all the people, meaning that no one individual is the architect of history, and in fact people are merely the instruments of history. If it is the case that people are the instruments of history, then that means their individual wills are shaped by the collective will, so how can anyone be free? Tolstoy, however, also spends time explaining how people feel in their hearts that they have free will and that they could not live without this feeling. For example, when Pierre is in captivity, he thinks about how the French have imprisoned his body but cannot imprison his soul. On the one hand, he says Napoleon was merely an instrument of history, but on the other hand, he charges him as "an executioner of the peoples." On the whole Tolstoy seems to believe that people do not have free will, only the illusion of free will, although he allows for a tiny amount of free will in the epilogue.

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