On the Meaning of Life (or Till Death Us Do Part):
Two Revelations in War and Peace
Similarities exist in the lives of Tolstoy’s War and Peace characters Pierre Bezúkhov and Prince Andrew Bolkónski. Of course, differences abound. These two main characters struggle with life’s meaning. Both men experience seemingly profound revelations at various points in their lives, and Tolstoy supplies each character with what appears to be an ultimate awakening. Not surprisingly, given the whole of Tolstoy’s writings, Pierre and Andrew’s separate and final insights occur during unique confrontations with death. Andrew’s final realization opens death’s door; Pierre gets a chance to apply his final awakening to his continued earthly existence. In fact, Prince Andrew’s realization arouses in him a preference for death over life. Pierre’s brush with death and consequent realization leads him to prefer life, and he eventually resumes social, political, and family ties. Their disparate outcomes provoke this conversation centered on the following question: Can the ultimate realizations of Pierre and Andrew be explained by how they lived their lives?
Their separate yet sometimes intertwined journeys consist of multiple revelations for both Pierre and Andrew. On the surface and from the beginning, both men share some common characteristics and life experiences: wealth, education, opportunity to travel both geographically and in society, and lives offering many options, including ample time to reflect. Their first wives affect them profoundly. They also share in common the experience of intense feelings for Natásha Rostóv, an instinctive girl-turned-woman who energizes their lives as evidently only Natásha can. In a huge over-generalization, Pierre begins his journey as a naïve, almost spoiled young man of the world, and Andrew begins his journey as a husband and soon-to-be father, openly discouraged with his life as he currently sees it.
We initially meet both men at a Petersburg gathering of high society. Andrew arrives separately from his wife, the little princess. He behaves aloofly to her and almost everyone except Pierre, an apparently old and kind friend, perhaps from his bachelor days. Pierre, still a bachelor, arrives and makes the hostess quite anxious because of his large-framed body and his “clever though shy, but observant and natural, expression which distinguished him from every one else in that drawing-room” (I.One.11). However, most everyone at the party and during the entire story finds “the rather blind and absurd” Pierre “a great gentleman, . . . a clever crank” who harms no one, and generally “a first-rate, good-natured fellow” (I.Six.587).
After the party, twenty year old Pierre visits Andrew and the little princess for supper. Here we get a better sense of Pierre’s identity crisis, a source of frequent personal issues for most of the story. An illegitimate son, a Russian with a French name, Pierre received a ten-year education abroad. Upon returning to Moscow, his father gave him money, sent him to Petersburg, and told him to “look round, and choose your profession” (I.One.29). Three months passed. Even with his father’s support and, we sense later, love, Pierre remains undecided on a career.
Throughout the evening we also learn more about Prince Andrew’s disgruntled life and how his acrimonious relationship with his wife upsets both of them. Andrew’s discontent, his wish to get away from his wife and marriage, leads him to choose military service. When Pierre questions why, Andrew pauses and replies succinctly, “I am going because the life I am leading here does not suit me!” (I.One 29)
The evening’s discussion also provides insight into the inner workings of both characters. From Andrew, we get the following:
Marry when you are old and good for nothing – or all that is good and noble in you will be lost. It will be wasted on trifles. . . . If you marry expecting anything from yourself in the future you will feel at every step that for you all is ended, all is closed except the drawing room . . . . tie yourself up with a woman, and like a chained convict you lose all freedom! . . . My part is played out. (I.One.33-35)
Andrew’s sense of himself here, our initial starting point, provides the basic issue he wrestles with for the remainder of the story. At times, he sees his life in various states relative to this most negative viewpoint, ranging from completely renewed and alive, to merely content to do no harm, to ready for death, an image that the above passage practically evokes.
Tolstoy as omniscient author provides further insight into these two characters through Pierre’s thoughts during their evening discussion.
He considered his friend a model of perfection because Prince Andrew possessed in the highest degree just the very qualities Pierre lacked, and which might be best described as strength of will. Pierre was always astonished at Prince Andrew’s calm manner of treating everybody, his extraordinary memory, his extensive reading (he had read everything, knew everything, and had an opinion about everything), but above all at his capacity for work and study. And if Pierre was often struck by Andrew’s lack of capacity for philosophical meditation (to which he himself was particularly addicted), he regarded even this not as a defect but as a sign of strength. (I.One.34-35)
Here we get a deeper sense of Andrew’s strength of will, his reasoning power, and capacity for reflection. Pierre sees himself as somewhat the opposite, lacking a certain strength of willpower, yet possessing an addiction for philosophical thinking. We find later that Pierre’s philosophical thinking derives mostly from outside influences rather than from an internal fire. Also, almost immediately we witness an example of Pierre’s lack of willpower when he rationalizes participating in a night on the town with his bachelor buddies. He does this on his way home from Andrew’s house, even after giving Andrew his word of honor to refrain.
In short order, life begins changing substantially for both men – and the series of epiphanies begin. Almost immediately, Pierre’s father dies in Moscow, leaving him an immense fortune. Andrew returns to Bald Hills, his father’s estate, to settle his pregnant wife with his family and inform his father and sister of his intentions. From here, except for those instances where the two men’s lives cross paths, following each man individually would work best to show their changes leading to an ultimate, personal revelation.
Prince Andrew soon finds his army life very agreeable and rids himself of his weariness-of-life attitude.
Though not much time had passed since Prince Andrew had left Russia, he had changed greatly during that period. In the expression of his face, in his movements, in his walk, scarcely a trace was left of his former affected languor and indolence. He now looked like a man who has no time to think of the impression he makes on others, but is occupied with agreeable and interesting work. His face expressed more satisfaction with himself and those around him, his smile and glance were brighter and more attractive. (I.Two.158)
Apparently Andrew merely found his former life boring, or perhaps he just needed a change of pace. Andrew now exudes happiness in his work: “Prince Andrew was galloping along in a postchaise enjoying the feelings of a man who has at length begun to attain a long-desired happiness” (I.Two.193). A first brush with death awaits him, though, and interestingly affects his life in an even more significant way.
Prior to Andrew’s first battle injury, Tolstoy discusses the plight of one new recruit (young Nicholas Rostóv) and describes an imaginary boundary line on the battlefield that separates the living and the dead, a line that all soldiers fear, yet long to cross. He also develops an image of the calm, deep, blue sky, an image of almost perfect happiness that he uses several other times with characters wounded in battle. Before what Tolstoy calls the Schön Grabern affair, Andrew dreamily experiences the first metaphor, adding to his sense of happiness with army life:
. . . the sound of cannonading, of musketry and the rattling of carriage wheels seemed to fill his ears, and now again drawn out in a thin line the musketeers were descending the hill, the French were firing, and he felt his heart palpitating as he rode forward beside Schmidt with the bullets merrily whistling all around, and he experienced tenfold the joy of living, as he had not done since childhood. (I.Two.202)
Reflecting on his happiness at being so close to death in battle and on voices he overheard before the Schön Grabern affair, Prince Andrew experienced what we might call his first epiphany, and one that portends his final realization in the book: “if it were possible to know what is beyond death, none of us would be afraid of it. . . . Afraid or not, you can’t escape it anyhow. . . . One is afraid of the unknown” (I.Two.227). In coming experiences, Andrew learns what is beyond death, but first he experiences the blue sky effect.
Andrew’s blue sky occurred at the Pratzen heights skirmish. Before this incident, he entertained visions of self-glorification and battlefield promotions that conflicted with other tendencies to seriously consider death, suffering, and the ever-present what next? But Andrew ignored his conflicting tendencies:
“I don’t know what will happen and don’t want to know, and can’t, but if I want this – want glory, want to be known to men, want to be loved by them, it is not my fault that I want it and want nothing but that and live only for that. Yes, for that alone! I shall never tell any one, but, oh God! what am I to do if I love nothing but fame and men’s esteem? Death, wounds, the loss of family – I fear nothing. And precious and dear as many persons are to me – father, sister, wife – those dearest to me – yet dreadful and unnatural as it seems, I would give them all at once for a moment of glory, of triumph over men, of love from men I don’t know and never shall know, for the love of these men here . . . I love and value nothing but triumph over them all, I value this mystic power and glory that is floating here above me in this mist!” (I.Three.345)
With his hope here for personal glory and fame, Andrew hints that he fears not death. Although his outlook towards triumph and recognition changes soon enough, this passage helps establish a certain degree of fearlessness towards death.
Andrew’s first wound, quite serious but in the end not fatal, causes him to fall on his back and for the first time to notice above him “nothing but the sky – the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty, with grey clouds gliding slowly across it.” He thought further:
How quiet, peaceful and solemn; not at all as I ran . . . not as we ran, shouting and fighting . . . how differently do those clouds glide across that lofty infinite sky! How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God! . . . (I.Three.366)
Andrew’s fearlessness towards death seems to diminish with his injury, subsequent care by the French, and later care by the district inhabitants. His experience of the sky reawakens his love of life as he regains consciousness. In his thoughts, he also acknowledges suffering: “Where is it, that lofty sky that I did not know till now, but saw to-day? And I did not know this suffering either. Yes, I did not know anything, anything at all till now” (I.Three.379). So, Andrew seems to have come round to resolving his conflicting thoughts.
In this brush with death and while fading in and out of consciousness, thoughts of his family and of his former hero, Napoleon, occupied his fancies. Even still, Andrew sensed an attraction to something on the other side of death:
Looking into Napoleon’s eyes Prince Andrew thought of the insignificance of greatness, the unimportance of life which no one could understand, and the still greater unimportance of death, the meaning of which no one alive could understand or explain. (I.Three.382)
To Andrew at this time, “Only the heavens promised peace” (I.Three.383). With this experience, Andrew also finally acknowledged the significance of his sister Mary’s faith, her concept of simplicity, and God (or variously in his thoughts a Power indefinable, the Great All or Nothing):
It would be good if everything were as clear and simple as it seems to Mary. How good it would be to know where to seek for help in this life, and what to expect after it beyond the grave! . . . There is nothing certain, nothing at all except the unimportance of everything I understand, and the greatness of something incomprehensible but all-important. (I.Three.382-83)
Andrew’s experience seemed profound, but his revelation did not last long. He returned home to a family that feared he had died, and to a wife who gave birth to his son and died almost at the moment of his arrival.
With the death of his wife, Andrew left his young son under the care of his sister Mary and nurses. Andrew went to the family’s country estate at Boguchárovo. His mood turned complacent, almost sour. In another instance of their lives intertwining, Pierre came to visit Andrew. This visit occurred shortly after Pierre took up with the Freemasons. To Andrew’s contention that men have always erred in what they consider right and wrong and that the best one can hope to do is to avoid those evils, Pierre strongly disagreed. “To live only so as not to do evil and not to have to repent, is not enough” (I.Five.508). Pierre’s newfound happiness arose from living for others.
During their lengthy discussion, which included a river crossing on a ferry as they made their way back to Bald Hills, Andrew became more and more animated. He listened to Pierre’s words about God and a future life. Apparently all of Andrew’s senses awoke, for he even heard the waves whispering in refrain to Pierre’s proclamations: “It is true, believe it” (I.Five.516). The clincher, however, was when Pierre punctuated these thoughts by pointing at the sky:
If there is a God and future life, there is truth and good, and man’s highest happiness consists in striving to attain them. We must live, we must love, and we must believe that we live not only to-day on this scrap of earth, but have lived and shall live for ever, there, in the Whole. (I.Five.516)
Upon alighting from the ferry, Andrew looked up and once again saw the same sky he had seen at Austerlitz, the high, clear, everlasting, blue sky that awoke happiness within him then. It reawakened Andrew to his joyful, youthful soul. This epochal meeting with Pierre inwardly changed Andrew’s life anew.
Andrew went back and forth a couple more times with his revelations and attitude toward life. Unlike Pierre, Andrew achieved more success with his revelations. For example, Andrew managed his serfs well, liberating hundreds who then became free agricultural laborers. At one point, though, Andrew made another trip to Bald Hills crossing the same river he crossed with Pierre. On his early spring trip, an old and bare oak tree, refusing to acknowledge the arrival of spring like all the other trees and flowers, seemed to talk to him. Its words dismayed Andrew.
“Spring, love, happiness!” this oak seemed to say. “Are you not weary of that stupid, meaningless, constantly repeated fraud? Always the same and always a fraud! There is no spring, no sun, no happiness!” (I.Six.560)
Andrew once again saw no meaning to life. In his words, “Let others – the young – yield afresh to that fraud, but we know life, our life is finished!” (I.Six.560) This mood did not last long, however, for Andrew happened upon Natásha during a business trip to see her father. They did not meet, but her singing and dancing, her “bright and happy life,” cheered him. Magically, upon his return trip from Bald Hills to Boguchárovo, the old oak tree had sprung to life, too.
Andrew regained his youthful thoughts and hopes and decided to re-enter the service. He went to Petersburg to announce and gain support for his army reform proposals. A somewhat predictable change of character occurred, though. As circumstances brought Andrew and Natásha closer and closer together, his interest with army reforms and with committee head Speránski receded. Andrew became disillusioned with the army, but his love for Natásha resulted in a marriage proposal. Andrew’s father, however, not pleased with the engagement, forced a one-year waiting period and separation.
Perhaps life cannot avoid suffering. As one might imagine, while Andrew convalesced in various cities from his reopened war injury, young Natásha, towards the end of her one-year wait, confronted doubts. Andrew did not help matters with his infrequent correspondence. In this vulnerable state, Natásha became unsure and strayed in her heart – and almost in physical fact with Anatole Kurágin. Saved by Sonya and friends from an attempted suicide, Natásha experienced incredible guilt and became quite ill. Because of her guilt, she also informed Prince Andrew’s family of her rejection of him.
Upon his return Prince Andrew, of course, learns of everything and changes moods again. He actually becomes quite like his father, very disagreeable and unpleasant. Pierre becomes the go-between, delivering messages between Andrew and Natásha. Essentially Andrew accepts Natásha’s rejection, and Pierre realizes that Andrew has once again fallen into his all too familiar state where he needs “to get excited and to have arguments about extraneous matters in order to stifle thoughts that were too oppressive and too intimate” (I.Eight.806).
Leaving Andrew in much the same the state of mind we found him in at the beginning of the novel, and turning to Pierre’s travails, we find his experiences somewhat parallel Andrew’s highs and lows. Interestingly, the first intelligible words we hear from Pierre – his very first murmurings were unintelligible – criticized the Abbé Morio for putting forth an imaginative yet unfeasible and fanciful plan for perpetual peace. This certainly hints at Pierre’s analytical capabilities and knowledge of Russian current events. It also hints of a certain naïveté and lack of social skills.
Still, everybody likes Pierre, and they certainly like him after his father dies, when Pierre comes into his inheritance. This sudden wealth and popularity, however, only increases Pierre’s confusion about what to do with his life. According to Tolstoy, Pierre felt himself “so beset and preoccupied that only in bed was he able to be by himself” (I.Three.264). He became so popular and so set upon by flatterers and fortune hunters that Pierre began “sincerely to believe in his own exceptional kindness and extraordinary intelligence” (I.Three.264). He also undiscerningly gave away his money and even fell into the manipulative marriage plan of Prince Vasíli. Before Pierre knew it, he had “proposed to” and married Prince Vasíli’s beautiful daughter Hélène.
Like Andrew’s marriage, Pierre’s marriage caused him problems. Pierre’s confusion over his love for Hélène before the marriage only compounded itself later. His insecurity also manifested itself, although probably justifiably. At a social gathering at The English Club, Pierre’s distaste for the man sitting across from him, Dólokhov, the man most of society spoke of as having compromised Hélène, resulted after a few drinks in a challenge to a duel. Not only did Pierre become despondent at and after the duel, but at the moment of his challenge, his feelings for his wife absolutely soured:
At the very instant he did this and uttered those words, Pierre felt that the question of his wife’s guilt which had been tormenting him the whole day, was finally and indubitably answered in the affirmative. He hated her and was for ever sundered from her. (I.Four.412)
Pierre threatened his wife, decided to separate, and handed over to her a sizeable chunk of his property and estates. He then left for Petersburg, deciding to take on his sufferings alone.
Just as outside influences got him into his current state of complete indifference, another outside influence conveniently presented himself to Pierre – mere coincidence? – and effected at least an external change in Pierre’s attitude. This outside influence was a man, a Freemason, named Bazdéev, and before Pierre knew it he went through the initiation rites and accepted the tenets of freemasonry. Pierre preached the teachings of freemasonry, but his weak-willed nature could not keep him from his old bachelor ways. As a freemason, Pierre unsuccessfully attempted to help his serfs, but also as a freemason Pierre effectively brought Andrew around again during their river crossing mentioned earlier.
Still, Pierre’s enthusiasm for freemasonry waned. As he progressed up the Freemason leadership ladder, he became more and more discouraged with his experiences, or as Tolstoy put it, “doubts on which he tried not to dwell arose in his soul” (I.Six.578). Sensing that Russian Masonry was the problem, Pierre went abroad for initiation into higher secrets. Upon his return, he spoke to his Masonic brothers about what he learned. His renewed enthusiasm hints at later activities of Pierre concerning Napoleon, army support, and Russian government. His speech called for founding “a form of government holding a universal sway, which should be diffused over the whole world without destroying the bonds of citizenship” (I.Six.581). While his brothers showed outward enthusiasm for Pierre’s words, no significant change in activity emerged. He discovered at this meeting that “the endless variety of men’s minds . . . prevents a truth from ever presenting itself identically to two persons” (I.Six.581). Pierre became more discouraged.
At this point, Pierre makes a trip to Moscow to visit his benefactor Bazdéev. Once again, an outside influence rejuvenates him, if only externally. Pierre writes in his journal that Bazdéev “told me his view of the matter, which at once lit up for me my whole past, and the future path I should follow” (I.Six.583). Yet when Pierre returns to Petersburg and takes up again with his wife and high society, Borís Drubetskóy’s presence with Hélène and Hélène’s empty and stupid personality conspire to destroy “the unconsciousness and freedom of his movements” (I.Six.587).
Pierre soon sinks even further, especially after Prince Andrew asks him to be Natásha’s confident as they perform his father’s year-long forced separation while engaged.
After Prince Andrew’s engagement to Natásha, Pierre without any apparent cause suddenly felt it impossible to go on living as before. Firmly convinced as he was of the truths revealed to him by his benefactor, and happy as he had been in perfecting his inner man, to which he had devoted himself with such ardour – all the zest of such a life vanished after the engagement of Andrew and Natásha and the death of Joseph Alexéevich [Bazdéev], the news of which reached him almost at the same time. Only the skeleton of life remained. (I.Eight.725)
Even if we do not sincerely appreciate Pierre’s efforts at perfecting his inner soul, we can appreciate the complex effect Natásha had on men, for even Pierre had fallen in love with her, much earlier than Andrew actually. Pierre met Natásha at the Rostóv’s home when she was just a girl of fourteen; even then her funny liveliness, laughing, blushing, and dancing effected him he knew not how. With his loss of self and absence of aim, Pierre begins clubbing and going back to his bachelor ways again.
As we might expect, though, Pierre’s view of life takes another turn for the better. This occurs when Natásha rejects Andrew. Pierre’s feelings for Natásha resurface. When love enters the equation of life, perhaps Denísov informs us best, as he did so early in the novel. “You see, my friend, we sleep when we don’t love. We are children of the dust . . . but one falls in love and one is a God, one is pure as on the first day of creation” (I.Two.167).
As the French begin the Campaign of 1812, Pierre experiences the “enormous and brilliant comet of 1812.” Without fear and moved to tears, Pierre senses “that this comet fully responded to what was passing in his own softened and uplifted soul, now blossoming into a new life” (I.Eight.811). With Pierre experiencing a renewal and Andrew, where we left him, once again experiencing a weariness of life, Tolstoy brings these two men together for one last meeting before each man encounters his ultimate revelation.
As seems natural for Andrew when feeling weary of life, he rejoins the service. Pierre, on his upswing, uses numerology to discern his personal connection to Napoleon, the Antichrist. Eventually, Pierre fixes his role more specifically as savior of the world, the man destined to kill the beast or to die trying. On the way to this aim, Pierre elects to visit a battlefield, and the battle up next in Tolstoy’s epic is Borodinó. Andrew happens to be preparing for that battle and they run into each other.
Initially upon seeing Pierre, Andrew recalled “all the painful moments of his last visit to Moscow” (II.Ten.230). Pierre sensed the usual reluctance to talk that Prince Andrew habitually gave off at the beginning of their meetings. This time Pierre even sensed hostility. As usual, though, Pierre’s conversation animated Andrew, even excited him. They departed with the sense that Russia would win tomorrow’s battle and that the key would be the “feeling” in each soldier, not strengths or positions or the equipment of each army. And Pierre departed with the knowledge that he would never see Andrew again.
Andrew received his mortal wound at Borodinó, though he clung to life in and out of consciousness for weeks. He experiences his first notion of divine love in a field hospital lying next to Anatole Kurágin, the scoundrel who ruined his engagement and probable marriage to Natásha. After his operation, after his sufferings temporarily ceased, Andrew “enjoyed a blissful feeling such as he had not experienced for a long time.” It included all “the best and happiest moments of his life – especially his early childhood” (II.Ten.286). After seeing Anatole, Andrew remembers Natásha.
And suddenly a new unexpected memory from that realm of pure and loving childhood presented itself to him. He remembered Natásha as he had seen her for the first time at the ball in 1810. . . . He remembered everything, and ecstatic pity and love for that man overflowed his happy heart. . . . Compassion, love of our brothers, for those who love us and for those who hate us, love of our enemies, yes, that love which God preached on earth and which Princess Mary taught me and I did not understand – that is what made me sorry to part with life, that is what remained for me had I lived. But now it is too late. I know it! (II.Ten.287)
Andrew experienced tears and love for his fellow men and for himself, despite errors, judgments, and former feelings of hatred.
This experience of divine love presented itself to Andrew again, weeks later under the care of Natásha, as he wrestled with his desire to live.
During the hours of solitude . . . he unconsciously detached himself from earthly life. To love everything and everybody and always to sacrifice oneself for love, meant not to love anyone, not to live this earthly life. And the more imbued he became with that principle of love, the more he renounced life and the more he completely destroyed that dreadful barrier which – in the absence of such love – stands between life and death. (II.Twelve.518)
But Andrew needed to come further. When Natásha began to take care of him in Mytíshchi, earthly love crept back into Andrew’s heart, trying to bind him again to ephemeral life. As his illness followed its course, though, Andrew experienced the open door of death one evening as he lay resting, slightly feverish.
He dreamt . . . He was seized by an agonizing fear. And that fear was the fear of death. It stood behind the door. . .
Once again it pushed from outside. His last superhuman efforts were vain and both halves of the door noiselessly opened. It entered, and it was death, and Prince Andrew died.
But at the instant he died, Prince Andrew remembered that he was asleep, and at the very instant he died, having made an effort, he awoke.
“Yes, it was death! I died – and woke up. Yes, death is an awakening!” (II.Twelve.518-19)
Andrew then felt liberated, but could not explain it further to Princess Mary or Natásha. He could only think that “Love hinders death. Love is life.” Andrew wanted to return his particle existence back to the eternal source. Mary and Natásha could never understand how everything they value means nothing. So Andrew died.
Pierre, on the other hand, lived. His ultimate revelation occurred while a prisoner of the French. When condemned (but unknowingly saved), Pierre witnessed the executions of five other prisoners – executions by soldiers Pierre sensed did not wish to kill.
. . . it was as if the mainspring of his life, on which everything depended and which made everything appear alive, had suddenly been wrenched out and everything had collapsed into a heap of meaningless rubbish. Though he did not acknowledge it to himself, his faith in the right ordering of the universe, in humanity, in his own soul and in God, had been destroyed. . . . He felt that it was not in his power to regain faith in the meaning of life. (II.Twelve.496)
Pierre suffered annihilation. His clean slate then experienced a new beginning, a rebirth of sorts. While confined to prison, he meets a character who helps awaken in him an awareness of the simplicity of happiness. Finally, he genuinely seems to internalize these lessons as he reflects on them during his remaining time in prison and during his evacuation from Moscow as a prisoner – time during which he “experienced almost the extreme limits of privation a man can endure” (II.Thirteen.558).
The absence of suffering, the satisfaction of one’s needs and consequent freedom in the choice of one’s occupation, that is of one’s way of life, now seemed to Pierre to be indubitably man’s highest happiness. . . . The satisfaction of one’s needs – good food, cleanliness and freedom – now that he was deprived of all this, seemed to Pierre to constitute perfect happiness; and the choice of occupation, that is, of his way of life – now that that choice was so restricted – seemed to him such an easy matter that he forgot that a superfluity of the comforts of life destroys all joy in satisfying one’s needs, while great freedom in the choice of occupation – such freedom as his wealth, his education and his social position had given him in his own life – is just what makes the choice of occupation insolubly difficult, and destroys the desire and possibility of having an occupation. (II.Thirteen.559)
Pierre cemented this notion because he apparently experienced it with his whole being this time rather than just through his intellect. He also learned what Tolstoy calls a “consolatory truth.” He learned “that nothing in this world is terrible. . . . that as there is no condition in which man can be happy and entirely free, so there is no condition in which he need be unhappy and lack freedom” (II.Thirteen.625). In Pierre’s subsequent marriage to Natásha and his new worldly endeavors, these truths may seem to some readers loosely applied. Pierre admits that his mentor Platón “would not have approved” of his new aim to influence government, but to Natásha Pierre reflects that “What he would have approved of is our family life” (First Epilogue.784).
Each man ultimately experienced exactly the revelation that answered his questions or met his needs. Andrew’s weariness of life and enviousness of his sister’s answer to life that made her seem, at least in his presence, the epitome of faith and love, led him to experience divine love both as the ultimate reality and as the answer that legitimized his escape from life. Pierre longed for an identity that would provide him a home, both a physical home and a home for his soul. Deep down, he knew he was completely Russian. His comfort in Moscow, (the queen bee of the Russian hive), his counters to the French officer at Bazdéev’s home, and his complete longing for Natásha, her ability to calm and ground him from the first time he met her, hinted that he already knew what constituted home. However, his abundance of wealth and opportunity, and his lack of willpower, made his life too complicated to figure out these things. He needed to be annihilated. He needed to be stripped bare. His brush with death and his experience of complete loss of control and loss of all of life’s even most essential amenities provided him the opportunity to truly reflect on who he was and on what constituted happiness. Platón provided him an inner conscience, a voice that told him what was required for him to be completely Russian and completely happy. Upon gaining his freedom, Pierre proceeded to order his life around those objects that completed him. Who better than Natásha could provide love and family? Once he was completely happy with life, what better aim than to remake Russian society and government. After all, Pierre was the man who was going to kill Napoleon, the beast, and whose speeches – the earliest directed toward Abbé Morio at Anna Pávlona’s party, then later toward patriots in his beloved Moscow – always aimed to get at the details of why some scheme would or would not work or exactly what knowledge people needed in order to proceed rationally toward an appropriate, common goal. Pierre admired the reasoning powers of Andrew. Pierre acknowledged his own addiction to philosophical life. All he needed to do was rid himself of his naïveté and develop a strength of will to avoid distractions from his goals. In being reduced to the bare essentials, in being denied the opportunity for complete control, Pierre realized the “relativity” of happiness. From there, he began rebuilding his life anew. We depart War and Peace seeing Pierre in this new life.
So, both men acquired the ultimate realization they desired. Andrew died happily in accordance with his realization. Pierre lived happily in accordance with his. We sense that their realizations, though different, both contained kernels of truth. However, do they satisfy? That is, can we as readers and as reflective souls end our reading of War and Peace with a certain knowledge of the meaning of life and equally, or perhaps more fundamentally, with an instruction manual on how to live our lives? Do Prince Andrew and Pierre provide the only two options? Perhaps other War and Peace characters offer other alternatives. Would an examination of Nicholas or Princess Mary enlighten our quest? What about Natásha? Too many characters. Too many alternatives. I’m tired. I’m weary. These questions remain for another day (and most likely for more Graduate Institute seminars).
Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude. Norwalk CT: Easton P,