Among the novel’s aristocratic characters, human relationships—like marriages and friendships—are often tools for gaining and maintaining a desirable social position. In other words, social standing and wealth are ends in themselves, and the rest of life serves those ends, causing people to sacrifice their own desires, and ultimately their happiness, for the sake of money and status. In particular, aristocratic characters—like Pierre Bezukhov and Sonya Rostov—postpone happiness or miss it altogether because they’re stuck in a society that views them in terms of their financial value. Only those who live outside this system altogether—like idealized peasant Platon Karataev—are truly happy, because they have no wealth to offer, so society doesn’t see them as valuable. Tolstoy criticizes the Russian aristocracy’s obsession with social position and wealth, arguing that it stifles individual happiness and leads people to use others as means to an end. Only those who manage to circumvent or ignore this system enjoy real freedom.
Among the higher aristocracy, people frantically try to manipulate and outmaneuver one another to achieve a better social position. Pierre’s value to society fluctuates with his change in fortunes. “Pierre, on unexpectedly becoming a rich man and Count Bezukhov” has to “receive a host of persons who formerly did not even care to know of his existence, but who now would be hurt and chagrined if he did not wish to see them.” Before he inherited his father’s wealth, Pierre was a socially awkward nobody, but now he’s sought after and expected to cater to society’s whims. Though he doesn’t care about this new inherited wealth, the money puts Pierre in a position to be manipulated by social climbers like Prince Vassily Kuragin and Anna Mikhailovna Drubetskoy, who use him to advance their own interests. Because he capitulates to this, Pierre is immediately miserable in the sham marriage Prince Vassily maneuvers him into with Vassily’s debauched daughter, Hélène Kuragin.
But poorer nobles do not necessarily fare better—in fact, many of them are especially constrained because they lack the means either to manipulate others or resist being used. The Rostov family is the primary example. Though Count Rostov is a nobleman, his debts limit his children’s choices: “The count walked about in his affairs as in an enormous net, trying not to believe that he was entangled […] [Countess Rostov] felt that [a wealthy bride] was their last hope and that if Nikolai refused the match she had found for him, they would have to say good-bye forever to the possibility of mending their affairs.” Nikolai isn’t rich enough to marry just anyone he wants, yet he’s not poor enough to disregard aristocratic expectations entirely. And if anyone’s in a worse position, it’s Nikolai’s second cousin Sonya; the two enjoy a short-lived romance, but their affection can only be expressed at a costume party—that is, in a fantasy—because, as a charity-dependent orphan, Sonya is an unthinkable match. Nikolai and Sonya’s relationship makes more sense in outlandish costumes than in the context of society, which shows how impossibly constrained their choices are.
By contrast, the novel depicts peasants as unconstrained by expectations of society and wealth. Platon Karataev, who possesses nothing and is impervious to social expectations, is one of the novel’s only truly free and happy characters. Even as a prisoner, he leads a contented life: “He sang songs not as singers do who know they are being listened to, but as birds do, apparently because it was necessary for him to utter those sounds, as it is necessary to stretch one’s arms or legs; […] for Pierre he remained forever […] the unfathomable, round, and eternal embodiment of the spirit of simplicity and truth.” Platon is likened to a bird who lives happily by instinct, not to perform or conform to anyone else’s standards. Pierre sees Platon as the epitome of freedom because of this, a man unfettered by society in spite of, even because of, the fact that he isn’t seen as “valuable.”
In the end, despite lifelong jockeying for position, families who (like the Kuragins) are most obsessed with society fade from the story. More tellingly, despite the constraints they’ve faced, both Rostovs and Pierre marry well out of love, not primarily for money, and are happier pursuing family life, farming, and social ideals on a local scale. In other words, people who identify themselves less with wealth and position end up uniting and building a solid foundation for their own happiness’s sake.