Literature Study GuidesWar And PeaceVol 1 Part 3 Chapters 13 19 Summary

War and Peace | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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War and Peace | Vol. 1, Part 3, Chapters 13–19 | Summary

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Summary

Nikolai, riding half asleep as part of an advance guard of Bagration's detachment, wakes up when they reach the front line (Chapter 13). The French have set fires, and Dolgorukov thinks it's a ruse and that the enemy has retreated. Bagration sends Nikolai to see if the French are still at their posts. He takes off with a few hussars, and when they get close to the French they are fired upon, which they report to the generals. The next chapters describe the Battle of Austerlitz.

On the morning of the battle, November 20, 1805, fog obscures the view of the allies (Chapter 14). The movement forward is delayed because two commanders are arguing about troop positioning. Napoleon's forces are very near to the allies; he can see them because he is on a height, but they still cannot see the French because they are in a valley of fog. Kutuzov delays the movement of his troops because he doesn't know where the French are (Chapter 15). Soon the emperors arrive, and Alexander wants to know what the general is waiting for, so Kutuzov gives the order to advance. Finally the French attack at close range (Chapter 16). Kutuzov gets hit in the cheek, and the troops begin to flee. When the ensign (standard bearer) drops the standard, Andrei rushes to retrieve it and then runs forward, urging the men to follow him, and the battalion rallies. Andrei gets hit on the head and has a spiritual moment of epiphany in the midst of the battle, thinking, "How is it I haven't seen this lofty sky before? ... [E]verything is empty ... except this infinite sky."

In another part of the field of action, Nikolai is sent by Bagration to find out from either Kutuzov or Tsar Alexander whether the troops should begin fighting (Chapter 17). When he arrives in the town where they are supposed to be, he sees only disorderly troops and more and more mayhem—the wounded and the dead (Chapter 18). He finally sees Alexander alone in an empty field but cannot approach the downcast, grieving sovereign. He rides on to find Kutuzov in the village.

Meanwhile Andrei lies bleeding in a field where he fell. The French come by with Napoleon, who comments on Andrei's fine death. Andrei's hero appears small and insignificant to him as he watches the sky. When Napoleon realizes Andrei is alive, he orders him brought to a first-aid station along with other wounded Russians. Napoleon looks over the prisoners, and Andrei's hero "seemed so petty to him, with his petty vanity and joy in victory, compared with that lofty, just, and kindly sky."

Analysis

According to the history books, the Battle of Austerlitz is a huge defeat for the Russians and Austrians because they are outsmarted by Napoleon, who actually have fewer troops than the combined allied forces. Napoleon pretends weakness and lures the allies into a premature attack; on the day of the battle he traps them on a plateau. While General Kutuzov is in charge of the troops and is later blamed for the defeat, in fact he is following the tsar's orders.

On the morning of the battle, Kutuzov's instinct to wait is overruled by the tsar, and as a result the French surprise the allies and scatter them. When Kutuzov says to the regimental commander, "Stop those villains!" Andrei is mortified and angered by the behavior of the troops and runs with the standard to egg the battalion on, capturing his moment of glory. When Andrei's heroics are stopped by a blow to the head, he has an experience of enlightenment—in which he suddenly sees how beautiful the world is and that nothing really exists, because everything is temporary. Only the sky exists, but the sky represents infinity, the backdrop against which the petty cares of men are being played out.

All along Andrei has admired Napoleon as a great hero, even though he is fighting against him. But when he sees the emperor at close range through the eyes of his sudden wisdom, he realizes how petty and vain he is, and how ignorant he is in the face of imminent death, which comes to all. The narrator says, "Prince Andrei thought about the insignificance of grandeur, about the insignificance of life, the meaning of which no one could understand, and about the still greater insignificance of death, the meaning of which no one among the living could understand or explain." It is a transformative moment for Andrei, who until now has cared a great deal about glory and honor, but who has been inflexible and closed off from others as well as from life. The purpose that Andrei created for himself is gone, but in its place is knowledge that can potentially lead to a new purpose, one based on an acceptance of the paradox that each life is important, yet insignificant in the greater scheme of things.

Andrei's transformation is accomplished through suffering, one of the themes threaded through the novel. On the other side of the battle, Nikolai has an awakening as well, although less transcendent than Andrei's. Still he also grows in understanding through suffering. Bagration has sent Nikolai on a fool's errand, knowing full well that he will either be killed on his mission or never get back in time to give him an answer. Bagration doesn't want to take responsibility for beginning action, so he passes it on as leaders sometimes do. Like Andrei, Nikolai is also enamored of a hero—in his case Tsar Alexander. He is ready to die for the tsar at a moment's notice, and when he sees him lonely and in despair, he too experiences a change in perception. Is this Alexander, who is only human after all? Thus both men feel disillusioned and both gain some wisdom as a result of battle experience.

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