Literature Study GuidesWar And PeaceVol 4 Part 1 Chapters 1 4 Summary

War and Peace | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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War and Peace | Vol. 4, Part 1, Chapters 1–4 | Summary



In addition to news about the war, Petersburg is talking about the illness of Countess Bezukhov (Hélène), who is being treated by an Italian doctor from whom she recently obtained an abortion (Chapter 1). But at Anna Pavlovna's salon, people say she is suffering from angina (severe chest pain). The Petersburg aristocrats have heard that the Russians were victorious at Borodino (Chapter 2). The next day Countess Bezukhov dies suddenly from angina, although people say she deliberately took an overdose of medicine because one of her lovers was jealous and her husband wouldn't give her a divorce.

A few days later Petersburg learns about the occupation of Moscow. Several days later Kutuzov sends a messenger to Tsar Alexander. He explains that Kutuzov chose the lesser of two evils in abandoning Moscow, because if he had tried to defend the city, he would have lost it and his army, too (Chapter 3). The sovereign learns the troops are in good spirits and only fear he will negotiate with Napoleon. Alexander sends back the message that he will fight Napoleon to the last man.

In Chapter 4 Tolstoy debunks historical accounts that make much of widespread patriotism during 1812, asserting that most people paid no attention to the war. Moreover those most intimately involved in the defense of Russia said little and simply soldiered on. Nikolai Rostov, for example, has been sent to Voronezh to buy new horses for his division. When Nikolai visits the governor, he promises him horses and other assistance and then invites him for a social evening. Nikolai is the star of the event—a handsome, brave, and eligible bachelor—and enjoys himself by flirting with all the ladies.


Hélène Bezukhov's life of debauchery is finally catching up with her. The Petersburg crowd knows that "the lovely countess's illness came from the inconvenience of marrying two husbands at once, and that the Italian's treatment consisted in removing that inconvenience." The fact that Hélène is a leading light in Petersburg society, despite the fact that she is unfaithful to her husband, keeps two lovers, and finally has an abortion, speaks volumes about the people she associates with. For Tolstoy the city of Petersburg, with its salons, French aristocrats, court intrigue, and petty gossip, is the epitome of continental decadence borrowed from the French. Moreover Hélène may have been one of the most prominent people in Petersburg, but they are nonetheless happy to judge her behavior and to gossip about her behind her back. On the other hand, the Muscovites, who abandoned their city rather than suffer under French rule and who sacrificed a great deal of wealth and peace of mind in a patriotic exodus, are exemplars of the Russian soul. Without discussion or forethought, the community of Muscovites with means collectively agrees not to provide the French with the satisfaction of ruling over them or acceding to occupation by living with the enemy of their beloved homeland. Petersburg is all form and no content, while Moscow is form that reflects the people's content. It is not surprising that Hélène kills herself, since it is impossible to sustain hardship if a person cannot draw strength from an inner life.

When Alexander hears that the army is in good spirits and ready to keep fighting the French, he is gratified, sending back to Kutuzov the message that he has no intention of giving up the fatherland to the French emperor: "Tell our brave men ... that when I have no soldiers left, I will personally put myself at the head of my dear nobility, of my good peasants, and will thus use every last resource of my empire."

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