Prince Andrei’s reserve regiment is stationed behind Semyonovskoe. In the afternoon, the regiment is moved into the line of fire, and it loses a third of its men without firing a shot. The men sit for hours on the ground, absorbing themselves in small tasks, trying to ignore it as more and more wounded are carried past. They grow ever more exhausted and demoralized. Even Prince Andrei has nothing to do but pace. He realizes he can’t even rouse his men’s spirits. Each of them, like him, is fully absorbed in ignoring the reality of death all around them.
Back on the battlefield, Prince Andrei, having chosen to remain with the regiment instead of accepting a safer staff position, is in the thick of battle with his men. Contrary to what one might expect, this sometimes involves agonized waiting more than frenzied action.
At one point, a shell lands two paces from Prince Andrei. As he stands frozen, he looks with “new, envious eyes” at the meadow surrounding him, feeling his love for life and his reluctance to die. At the same time, he remembers that his men are watching. Suddenly the shell explodes, and Andrei is hurled sideways. Blood pools next to him. Muzhiks run over to move him, and despite Andrei’s moans, they manage to load him onto a stretcher. Seeing his wound, an officer says, “That’s the end!”
In the instant before the shell explosion and sustaining an apparently deadly wound, Prince Andrei experiences an intense awareness of the beauty of nature around him—something he’s experienced in battle before. Tolstoy uses such hyperaware moments to show how consciousness of life is often sharpest when one’s life is threatened.
Prince Andrei is carried to the vast dressing station in the woods. While he waits to be treated, he listens to a sergeant with a bandaged head rapturously telling the story of General Murat’s capture. Like the other listeners, Andrei feels comforted by the story, yet he wonders what difference it makes now. He reflects that there’s something about life that he still doesn’t understand.
The news about General Murat encourages Russian morale, yet Andrei senses there are bigger questions at stake than who’s winning the war.
When Prince Andrei is carried into a tent, those waiting grumble at the preferential treatment. Prince Andrei feels overwhelmed by the bloody sights in the tent, the memory of the “cannon fodder” in the pond weeks ago, and his own pain. He can’t stop himself from watching as men near him undergo agonizing amputations. When the doctor prods Andrei’s stomach wound, he falls unconscious. When he revives, his shattered hip and his stomach wound have been treated and dressed. He feels a deep, childlike sense of peace.
After the battle of Smolensk, Andrei had a momentary, profound awareness that his comrades’ bodies were being thrown away in battle like so much “cannon fodder.” The sights in the medical tent make this apprehension even more acute.
When Prince Andrei hears another man sobbing, he wants to weep in sympathy. The man’s leg has been amputated. When the doctor steps away from the man, Andrei is shocked to recognize Anatole Kuragin. It takes him a moment to remember his connection with the man. Eventually, a clear memory of young, innocent Natasha surfaces in his mind, filling him with love. He even feels tender pity and compassion for Anatole, his enemy. Andrei realizes this is the kind of Christian love Princess Marya prayed for Andrei to feel; it’s the lingering mystery of life he’d been wondering about. He knows he’s come to understand it too late.
When Andrei sees Anatole suffering, he no longer feels anger towards his enemy, whom he’d once stalked across Europe in hopes of provoking a duel. In that instant, the best of both Natasha’s and Princess Marya’s influences come together, stirring up love and pity where there’d once been hate. Prince Andrei realizes the meaning of life: love for others, even enemies.
Normally, Napoleon enjoys surveying the field after battle in order to test his mettle. Today, however, he can’t stand it. He just cowers out of sight, feeling responsible for the action yet powerless to stop it. When an adjutant reports that, even though batteries are firing from the heights, the Russians keep coming, Napoleon orders them to keep firing. In doing so, he fulfills the “inhuman role” to which he’s assigned. In fact, to the end of his life, Napoleon is unable to understand goodness—that would require him to renounce the cruelties for which he’s renowned.
Napoleon feels repelled by what he’s helped bring about at Borodino. At the same time, Tolstoy suggests that Napoleon’s culpability is complicated. In one sense, he’s merely played the role that’s been given to him, but in another sense, he’s answerable for his inherent cruelty. People have free will, but at the same time, they’re small parts of a much bigger plan.
Yet, in his memoirs written on St. Helena, Napoleon later recalled the Russian war as a sensible and “pacific” one, fought in the interests of a good cause. He claims that if he had been able to found a comprehensive European system, the entire continent could have become one people. He would have resigned as dictator and fought no more wars. In claiming these things, Napoleon remains convinced that he acted for the people’s good. This justification allows him to distance himself from the horror of the acts committed.
Like any historian, Napoleon later portrays his own actions in the best possible light, claiming that he never sought war, and that he fought only for the sake of ultimate peace. Tolstoy argues that people’s moral compass gets broken by war, and such self-justifications reflect that.
The fields belonging to the Davydov family, worked by peasants over centuries, are now blood-soaked and covered with bodies. The atmosphere smells of saltpeter and blood. A gentle rain starts. Slowly, the battle fizzles out. Both sides are decimated and exhausted. To an outsider, it might look as though either side could destroy their enemy with one last effort; yet, in reality, neither side can muster the strength for that.
Tolstoy links the Borodino battlefield to its role in Russian history, from being a life-sustaining estate for centuries to becoming, in the space of a day, one of the deadliest spots in the country’s history. The battle is basically a draw. The French claim victory, yet their little remaining strength pushes them deeper into Russia, which ultimately destroys them.
For their part, the French have spent the last 15 years believing in Napoleon’s invincibility. In retrospect, some historians claimed that, if only Napoleon had sent his old guard into battle, he could have dislodged the Russians from the road to Moscow, obtaining his overall objective. Yet, even if he had ordered this, it could not have been—the French army was simply too dispirited. Whereas the Russians gained a sense of moral superiority at Borodino, the French were totally demoralized for the first time.
Borodino has mixed results for both sides. If the French can be said to have “won,” it was at the cost of the illusion of invincibility and the destruction of morale. If the Russians were exhausted and forced to retreat beyond Moscow, their morale was nevertheless strengthened by their strong defense and the damage they inflicted on the enemy.