Literature Study GuidesWar And PeaceVol 2 Part 2 Chapters 1 7 Summary

War and Peace | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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War and Peace | Vol. 2, Part 2, Chapters 1–7 | Summary

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Summary

In Chapter 1 the story moves back in time. Pierre has just left Hélène in Moscow and is on his way to Petersburg, when he and his servant stop at a posting station for fresh horses. As is usual for Pierre when he lapses into thought, he doesn't pay attention to anything around him, although the postmaster and his wife are offering him services. Pierre is pondering existential questions: "What is bad? What is good? What should one love, what hate? Why live, and what am I? What is life, what is death? What power rules over everything?" Then an elderly gentleman comes into the station and strikes up a conversation with Pierre. He is a famous Mason, Bazdeev. Pierre and the old man get into a metaphysical conversation about the existence of God. Pierre feels drawn to the Mason's belief system, which seems to have given him wisdom and peace, and asks him for help in changing his decadent life. The old man gives Pierre a contact in Petersburg—Count Willarski.

When Pierre gets to Petersburg (Chapter 3), he begins reading the famous Christian mystic Thomas à Kempis. The young Bezukhov longs for "perfection and the possibility of brotherly and active love among people," which Bazdeev has spoken about. Count Willarski invites Pierre into the Mason brotherhood, waiving the customary trial period. Pierre completes initiation after he gives up all the valuables on his person and confesses his worst vice—women. He feels cleansed and refreshed after the ritual. In Chapter 5 Vassily visits and attempts to persuade his son-in-law to return to his wife, but Pierre finds the strength to stand up to him and orders him to leave. With the idea of setting things right according to his new belief system, especially with regard to his serfs, Pierre leaves for his country estates.

People are now talking behind Pierre's back about the duel and taking Hélène's side, saying he is "a jealous dunderhead, subject to the same fits of bloodthirsty rage as his father" (Chapter 6). Hélène has returned to Petersburg, and she and her father work as a team to smear Pierre's reputation. At the end of 1806, people at Anna Pavlovna's salon are also talking about the defeat of the Prussian army by Napoleon and Russia's continued war with France. Boris is in town as a courier (having become an adjutant), and he meets Hélène at Anna Pavlovna's. Hélène extends an invitation to Boris to visit her at home. In Chapter 7 Boris accepts her invitation, and the narrator says that "[d]uring his stay in Petersburg, Boris became an intimate at Countess Bezukhov's house."

Analysis

In earlier centuries people had to stop at posting stations to change horses when traveling by carriage, since the animals could journey only short distances before needing to rest. Tolstoy, like many writers, treats physical journeys as moments of symbolic transition. Pierre's serendipitous encounter at a rest stop will change his life. He is a seeker of truth, and his spiritual journey reflects an important theme in the novel, which is that life itself is a journey toward enlightenment. That is, as a person grows in self-knowledge and compassion toward others, they draw closer to the meaning of existence.

In Chapter 1 Pierre meets his first spiritual guide, who is instrumental in his initiation into the Freemason brotherhood, a secret society of spiritual seekers with political interests and quasi-Christian beliefs. Pierre tells Bazdeev he hates his life, and his mentor urges him to change it by purifying himself and using his wealth for the good of others. Pierre is only 20 when the story begins, and almost immediately he inherits a great deal of wealth and is conned into marrying a cynical and promiscuous woman.

As an outsider Pierre spent a good part of his young life being educated in France. He has neither the looks, manners, nor wealth to travel in his father's aristocratic circles and is the object of scorn among the upper crust until he becomes rich. Initially he is too naïve to see that people are using him. However, unlike many of the shallow aristocrats who want to put their hands in his pocket, Pierre inherently has a noble nature and a desire for self-improvement. The strong, sensual side of his nature, however, is at war with his spiritual longings. The duel he fights is something of a wake-up call, as he faces up to the terrible mistake of his marriage and gets as far away from Hélène as possible. But Anna Pavlovna is correct at the beginning of the novel in thinking Pierre "did not know how to live." Indeed he does not but wants to learn, and the Masons hold out the possibility of providing him with a framework and direction. In fact when Pierre leaves Petersburg at the end of Chapter 6, his goal is to enact reforms on his estates.

His acceptance into the Mason brotherhood gives Pierre the strength to put his father-in-law in his place. Of course Vassily is concerned about the social repercussions for his family with Pierre so publicly rejecting his wife, which is why they attempt to justify her behavior and characterize him as a jealous and unreasonable husband. Now Hélène has taken up residence in Petersburg and is entertaining people—including single bachelors like Boris. The narrator says [he] made friends and sought acquaintances only with people who were above him and therefore could be of use to him. Thus he eagerly attends Anna Pavlovna's soirée and accepts Hélène's invitation, and the narrator implies that his relations with Hélène go beyond the bounds of propriety.

Hélène is a typical corrupt woman of the aristocratic class. She marries only for wealth and treats her husband with scorn and disrespect, even as she enters into liaisons with other men. She has a voracious sexual appetite, and Tolstoy was unusual for his time in imagining a hypersexual woman. She and Anatole are alike, in fact, except in gender. Their father Vassily has no objections to their behavior, except in how it affects his pocketbook and social status. The depravity of the Kuragins is the result of corruption brought by Western, and particularly French, influences, in Tolstoy's view. The behavior of the Kuragins also shows how the aristocratic class, with unlimited money and power and few people to whom it needs to answer, sinks to its lowest common denominator when it does not have ideals or a vision to guide it. The Kuragins have everything, but they lack love, and without love there is no redemption.

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