When the French occupy Moscow, they’re in a brilliant position. To hold onto this position, all Napoleon must do is make sure his army is adequately provisioned and doesn’t loot. Yet that “genius of geniuses” fails to do this. In fact, he chooses the most destructive path—staying put in Moscow, allowing his troops to loot, and failing to initiate battle with Kutuzov. If Napoleon’s goal had been to destroy his own army, he couldn’t have chosen a better path. Yet his goal was always to do the best for himself and his army, and his actions in Moscow were no less astounding than his actions in Egypt, Austria, or Prussia.
Tolstoy mockingly refers to Napoleon as a genius. Though he doesn’t have a high opinion of Napoleon in particular, his larger point is that in war, so-called “genius” isn’t what’s really essential anyway—it’s more important to follow well-honed instincts and lead effectively. Further, Napoleon’s actions here were neither better nor worse than at any other point in his wars.
As soon as he arrives in Moscow, Napoleon orders Murat to find Kutuzov, fortifies the Kremlin, and draws up a plan for his Russia campaign. He sends diplomats to Alexander in Petersburg. He orders arsonists punished and burns down Rastopchin’s houses. He also sets up a constitution and city council for Moscow. He issues a statement to Moscow’s citizens telling them that if they obey their new authorities, their misfortunes will be at an end. He issues another proclamation ordering workers and artisans to return to the city and providing free markets for the peasants to sell their wares. He visits almshouses and orphanages and constantly issues orders against looting.
In Moscow, Napoleon makes lots of plans. On paper, it looks like Napoleon did everything necessary to establish order and restore normal life in the city. He even goes above and beyond, trying to present himself as a benevolent ruler. Tolstoy quotes Napoleon’s proclamations from the book A Description of the Fatherland War of 1812, published in 1839. Both of Napoleon’s proclamations were written in bad Russian.
Nothing goes as Napoleon plans. His army loses track of the Russian army. Alexander refuses to receive his diplomats. The administration Napoleon sets up doesn’t stop looting from happening, and only benefits its own members. Peasants catch and kill the commissaries who visit them with Napoleon’s orders. Napoleon’s most ineffective measure is his attempt to stop looting—violent gangs of soldiers continue robbing with impunity. Finally, when the Russians seize supply trains and win the battle of Tarutino, the French in Moscow begin to panic. They finally begin leaving Moscow with long baggage trains of stolen loot. The French army is like a wounded animal hastening toward its own end.
The problem is that things seldom go as planned. Napoleon’s ideas make sense, but history is full of unexpected variables—most of all, human nature. Napoleon fails to predict that he won’t be welcomed with open arms and that his own administrators and soldiers care more about their own interests than promoting their emperor’s glory. Moreover, Tolstoy has often made the point that the individual actions of the members of the army are more decisive than formal plans, and the French army has no morale left.
These days Pierre wears tattered peasant’s clothing, is thinner, and sports an overgrown beard. He is calm and composed. On this particular morning, October 6th, he gazes at his dirty, bare feet, which remind him pleasantly of everything he’s survived. It’s a bright autumn morning. A French corporal chats with Pierre in a friendly way about the impending departure from Moscow. Pierre has garnered the approval of this corporal and another captain, because of his French education and his ability to mediate between the prisoners and the French when clashes occur.
Pierre looks nothing like his usual self, yet he’s happier than ever. For once, his oddity gives him an advantage—he can communicate with and even befriend the French. Focusing on day-to-day survival suits him better than his usual fretting about bigger questions.
A French soldier comes by the prisoners’ shed and pays Platon for a shirt Platon has sewn for him. The soldier asks Platon to give back the leftover fabric, but Platon, pretending not to understand, refuses. Finally Pierre translates, and Platon reluctantly hands over the scraps—he’d hoped to use them to make foot cloths for the prisoners. The French soldier thinks for a moment and, blushing, gives the scraps back for Platon to keep. Platon tells Pierre that people think the French are “heathenish, but they’ve got souls, too.”
The French soldier shows an unexpected moment of humanity, though it’s over something as minor as fabric scraps. Platon’s comment about the French is an example of his ability to accept and love whomever happens to be in front of him, regardless of background.
It’s been four weeks since Pierre was taken prisoner, and he’s insisted on staying in the soldiers’ shed, though he was offered a transfer to the officers’. Under these privations, Pierre realizes how strong he really is, and he endures them joyfully. In his experiences and in knowing Karataev, he finally discovers the inner harmony and peace with himself that he’d sought in other places all his life. Witnessing the execution seems to have put his old thoughts and feelings into proper perspective. He no longer thinks about politics or the war, much less killing Napoleon. He doesn’t worry about his marriage to Hélène, either.
When in difficult circumstances, Pierre is finally able to set aside his lifelong questions about the meaning of life and take each day as it comes, finding peace and beauty that way. Instead of striving for the right fit in society or in the war, he accepts the role that’s been thrust upon him. Ironically, the degrading circumstances allow his integrity to shine through.
Now that Pierre has nothing, he imagines that the greatest happiness in life is having one’s basic needs met and choosing one’s occupation. He forgets that the very satisfaction of those needs tends to destroy happiness, and that the freedom granted him by his wealth and social status had made it impossible for him to choose an occupation. He dreams of being free again; yet, for the rest of his life, he speaks of his month in prison as the happiest, freest time in his life. The awkwardness and simplicity that made Pierre ill-suited for society make him a hero to his fellow prisoners.
Pierre still longs for his old life, not realizing that it was really the circumstances of his old life that burdened him. Because he was used to having his needs satisfied all the time, he struggled with excessive indulgence, and because he was wealthy enough to do whatever he liked, he struggled to settle down to anything. Ironically, being stripped of those things makes Pierre truly happy for the first time.
On the morning of October 7th, the prisoners are dressed to move out. Pierre comforts a sick soldier and approaches the friendly corporal to see what can be done for the man, but the corporal slams the door of the shed. Pierre feels once again the impersonal force that causes soldiers to kill even when they don’t want to; he now knows it’s useless to resist that force. He joins the crowd of prisoners as they’re marched at the front of the army; they all stare in horror at Moscow’s charred remains.
Though Pierre has befriended his jailers, this isn’t enough to overcome the “impersonal force” of a soldier carrying out orders—especially orders soldiers carry out against their own will. Such inexplicable scenarios, like the French soldiers who executed the prisoners, can actually be the most senseless and inhumane.
Pierre’s group of prisoners gets stuck for several hours at an intersection, surrounded by the endless tramp and shouting of the traveling army. Pierre struggles to absorb the overwhelming impressions of people, horses, carriages, and wagons weighted down with loot, and the occasional fistfights all around him. Finally his group gets into the convoy on the Kaluga road and marches until sunset. As they all collapse in a field at twilight, they realize that they don’t know where they’re going and that the journey will be difficult.
After being imprisoned for weeks, Pierre finds the chaos of occupied Moscow overwhelming. Pierre and his fellow prisoners are taken along on the desperate, exhausted French retreat from Russia, but neither they nor their captors know where the journey will end up.
The French officers now treat the prisoners worse than ever, giving them their dinner ration in horsemeat. They announce that stragglers will be shot. Pierre feels frightened of this impersonal, hostile force, yet he also feels a strong force of life stirring in his soul. That evening he sits down on the ground and thinks over what’s happened. Suddenly he bursts into merry laughter at the mere fact that he, of all people, has been taken prisoner. He looks into the starry sky and thinks, “And all this is mine […] and all this is me!” Yet the French caught all this and boarded it up in prison! With a smile, he returns to his comrades and goes to sleep.
At this point in the war, the French just want to get out of Russia as fast as they can. They resent having to provide for Russian captives and have no incentive to treat them well. Knowing what he does about the behavior of soldiers under duress, Pierre is fearful, and yet he’s able to find humor in the situation—showing the new joy and simplicity he’s uncovered while imprisoned. The sky reminds him of eternity and the fact that a soul, like the sky, can’t be held captive.