Literature Study GuidesWar And PeaceVol 1 Part 1 Chapters 1 6 Summary

War and Peace | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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War and Peace | Vol. 1, Part 1, Chapters 1–6 | Summary

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Summary

War and Peace begins in Saint Petersburg (Petersburg) in 1805, at a soirée hosted by Anna Pavlovna, whose fancy parties are frequented by Russian aristocrats. The hostess playfully attacks Prince Vassily Kuragin, her first guest, speaking to him in French. She accuses him of wanting to make excuses for the "Antichrist," "Buonaparte," the French conqueror who has recently annexed two Italian principalities. As the conversation progresses, it becomes clear that Russia, along with its ally Austria, will soon be at war with France. Anna Pavlovna speaks with great fervor, claiming that the Russian emperor will save Europe. Vassily complains about his dissolute second son, Anatole, but says that both of his sons are imbeciles. His hostess suggests she can facilitate a match for Anatole with the rich Princess Marya Bolkonsky, who lives an unhappy life with her eccentric, strict father.

In Chapter 2 Prince Vassily's older son, Ippolit, and beautiful daughter Hélène arrive, along with Princess Bolkonsky—called "the little princess." She is pregnant and recently married to Marya's brother, Prince Andrei. Also newly arrived is a tall, overweight young man, the illegitimate son of Count Bezukhov. Recently back from France, Pierre Bezukhov has just come into society and doesn't know how to act. Last to arrive is the handsome Prince Andrei, bored and weary (Chapter 3). Andrei cheers up when he sees his good friend Pierre, who is staying with the Kuragins, relations of Count Bezukhov.

In Chapter 4 Prince Vassily is accosted on his way out by Anna Mikhailovna Drubetskoy, an impoverished elderly princess with former high connections. She persuades Vassily to intercede with his contacts to get her son Boris an appointment with the imperial guard—reminding Vassily that her father had helped him get ahead in his younger days. At the party a French viscount speaks against the upstart Napoleon, while Pierre defends him, saying he has reined in the excesses of the French Revolution.

Andrei is about seven years older than Pierre, who is 20. In Chapter 5 Andrei invites Pierre to his house after the soirée, and in the subsequent chapter they continue their conversation. Andrei plans to go to war since he is fed up with society and his shallow wife. Pierre admires his friend for his calmness, intelligence, and rationality. Andrei warns Pierre to stay away from Anatole, but after Pierre leaves he meets up with Anatole; his wild companion Dolokhov, who gambles and drinks to excess; and the rest of young Kuragin's army buddies.

Analysis

Tolstoy wrote about 2 percent of his novel in French to demonstrate the Russian nobility's worship of French language and culture. By the early 1800s, most of the upper class could not even speak their own language properly, and this is something that Tolstoy both satirizes and calls attention to in War and Peace. The fact that Anna Pavlovna is railing against French aggression in the French language is extremely ironic, as is her hosting of a salon in the French tradition.

Anna's playful attack of Vassily announces that war will play an important role in this story—and war takes place on and off the battlefield. The backdrop of the story is Napoleon Bonaparte's two wars with the Russians. The first begins in 1805, when Austria joins the British-Russian coalition to prevent Napoleon from moving farther East. Anna, like other Russians, disparagingly uses the Italian pronunciation, Buonaparte, to emphasize that Napoleon is not French but a Corsican upstart.

Anna and her salon are the essence of Petersburg—effete, pretentious, superficially intellectual, French—and by extension, Western European. Beginning in the 17th century, Russia became westernized (more like the rest of Europe) due to the forced reforms of Peter the Great. While many were beneficial, some undermined traditional Russian values and culture. Petersburg is the city built by the great reformer, as a European capital that would bring Russia into the modern period. In Tolstoy's view Petersburg also is the center of aristocratic corruption, brought on by an abandonment of traditional morality and the imitation of the excesses of the French upper classes. Moscow represents the Russian soul, which Tolstoy associates with Orthodox Russian Christianity, mysticism, and the land and peasants in their simplicity, strength, and honesty. Some aristocrats, such as Natasha Rostov, Marya Bolkonsky, and Pierre Bezukhov, possess the Russian soul and have not been corrupted. Not surprisingly, the Rostovs, who are the happiest and least dysfunctional family in the novel, live in Moscow.

These first chapters introduce members of four of the five principal families in the novel. First there are the Kuragins, exemplars of the worst kind of Russian aristocrat. Everything the patriarch does is based on advancing his family's position. Vassily respects neither of his sons, however, and identifies Anatole as a "troublesome" fool because he spends money recklessly and is a notorious womanizer.

Second are the Bolkonskys. Prince Andrei Bolkonsky is one of the novel's two heroes. He is handsome, rich, and respected, but he finds the superficiality of his class unbearable. As the novel progresses, Prince Andrei will be revealed as someone who longs for fame and glory as he attempts to create a meaningful life. One of the major themes of the novel is that life is a journey toward wisdom and understanding, and Andrei makes both metaphorical and literal sojourns.

Third are the Bezukhovs, to whom illegitimate Pierre belongs. Pierre is young, naïve, and somewhat out of control. He blunders through Anna's salon and makes everyone uncomfortable by defending Napoleon, and his awkwardness causes people to dismiss and overlook him. Unlike Andrei, the other hero of the novel, Pierre has no self-discipline, but both men are on a spiritual quest to discover the best way to lead their lives and to reach an understanding of life's ultimate meaning.

Finally the Drubetskoys consist of Boris and his mother. These impoverished aristocrats become consummate politicians to hold onto their class status. Anna Mikhailovna, tenacious and fearless, will stop at nothing to help Boris make his way in the world. Later in the novel, Boris will surpass his mother in skillfully cultivating influence and climbing the ladder of success.

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