War and Peace

War and Peace

by

Leo Tolstoy

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War and Peace: Volume 3, Part 3: Chapters 5–9 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
“Every Russian […] on the basis of the feeling that is inside us” could have predicted what came next. As the enemy approached, townspeople and villagers remained calm. The rich abandoned their property, while the poor remained behind, destroying what they could. Rastopchin publishes posters proclaiming that it’s shameful to flee Moscow. Though people don’t like being considered cowards, they flee simply because they refuse to live under French rule. Rastopchin, wanting to be a patriotic hero, issues and retracts various orders relating to the abandonment and defense of Moscow, but his antics make no difference to the population at large.
Rather than heeding government orders, Russians respond instinctively to the looming invasion of Moscow. Though nobody wishes to abandon their homes to the French, they stay or flee depending on their means—another example of how social standing can determine one’s experience of war.
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Meanwhile, in Petersburg, Hélène is in a tough albeit familiar position—juggling two different lovers, a foreign prince and a Petersburg dignitary. The prince asks her to marry him, and she considers this, claiming never to have slept with Pierre. So her lover goes to the Jesuits for advice, and soon a priest visits her regularly, preparing her for conversion to Catholicism
The action now focuses on Hélène, who is taking her usual adulterous entanglements to new levels—actually changing religions so that she can get a divorce without losing her social status. (If the Catholic Church views her marriage to Pierre as unconsummated and therefore invalid, she’ll be free to marry the prince.)
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Hélène knows that the case of her marriage can be dealt with more easily in the religious realm than in the secular one. So she starts laying the groundwork for its acceptance within society. She provokes the old dignitary into proposing marriage, too, and lets the rumor of both proposals circulate in society, showing no embarrassment about them. Because of the way Hélène frames the dilemma—not as a question of divorce (which would have met with disapproval) but of the problem of whom to marry—people go along with it. They know that if they objected, they would appear foolish. The only one who doesn’t care how she looks is Marya Dmitrievna Akhrosimov, who denounces Hélène’s behavior in crude terms. Prince Vassily just tells Hélène to follow her heart.
Hélène’s scheme to divorce Pierre is transparently cynical and calculating. Her position in society is what gives her life ultimate meaning, and everything else—marriage, religion—is a tool for maintaining it. She also plays on other people’s fear of losing social status, brazenly pretending there’s nothing scandalous about her actions and knowing that people who matter will play along.
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One of the few people to argue against the legality of Hélène’s remarriage is her mother, Princess Kuragin. The princess consults with a Russian priest and brings Hélène a biblical argument against remarriage after divorce. Hélène blithely rejects the argument, and when the young prince arrives, Princess Kuragin’s doubts dissolve; it all seems simple to her now. By August, Hélène writes Pierre a letter telling him about her conversion to Catholicism and her decision to remarry. She asks him for a divorce. The letter arrives at Pierre’s house while he’s on the battlefield at Borodino.
Even those who object to Hélène’s remarriage on conventionally religious grounds show that their moral disapproval doesn’t run very deep; in aristocratic society, a marriage to a prince is too valuable to pass up. Ironically, Pierre, who’s the main obstacle to Hélène’s actions, has moved on from such superficial concerns—while all this is happening, he’s dodging death on the warfront.
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After running down the hill from the Raevsky battery at the battle of Borodino, all Pierre wants to do is return to normal life and fall asleep in his own bed. After walking two miles along the Mozhaisk high road, Pierre lays down. He stays there past nightfall, occasionally startling at the imagined sound of cannonballs overhead. Eventually, three soldiers build a fire next to him and start eating supper. They ask Pierre about himself, and he feels he needs to reduce his social standing in order to seem more approachable. So he pretends to be a militia officer who’s lost all his men in the battle. Accepting this, the soldiers offer him food and walk him back to town. Pierre’s groom finds him there, but as there’s no space at the inn, he falls asleep in his carriage.
Pierre felt an urge to contribute more to the war effort than his wealth, but now that he’s seen war up close, it’s not clear that he’s found the opportunity he sought. There’s still a basic insecurity in Pierre’s interactions with others—a sense that he doesn’t quite belong (hence his reluctance to tell the soldiers the truth about himself—he seems ashamed of both his high social status and total lack of military standing). The lack of a place to sleep only reinforces that feeling.
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Pierre struggles to sleep because he keeps hearing the noises of war in his mind. He marvels at the steadfast calm of the ordinary soldiers and wishes he could share their “common life.” He thinks of the duel with Dolokhov, his Masonic initiation, and dinners at the English club. At one point, he dreams of his Masonic benefactor speaking wisdom, but he wakes up before he can grasp the words. He remembers stray lines, like “War is the most difficult subjection of man’s freedom to […] God,” and the idea that everything belongs to the one who doesn’t fear death. Somehow, the key to this is to “hitch together” all his thoughts. Suddenly Pierre wakes to his groom insistently calling that it’s time to hitch up. Pierre fears that he was moments away from understanding something, which he’s now lost forever.
Pierre sees that the soldiers have something he doesn’t—a firm sense of shared purpose. Despite efforts in many different arenas, he’s never found something comparable in his own life. His dreams reflect his discomfort—there’s a sense that he still needs to learn how to submit to something greater than himself, and that dread of dying still haunts him. But whatever the answers, Pierre won't find the answers here at Borodino.
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