As Prince Andrei lay dying beside Natasha and his sister, Princess Marya, he reflects inward, “Love? What is love?” Love is the theme of all great literature, from Homer and Dante to Milton, Herbert, and Tennyson. It is the theme of all great philosophy, from Plato to Augustine to Schelling.
Love has been tied with literature from the beginning. The oldest work of extent literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, wrestles with love. The works of Homer run replete with the theme of love. The Bible obsessively concerns itself with love; the high point being the poetic works, namely the Psalms, and the wisdom literature, especially Sirach and the Song of Songs.
Given that the birth of literature is tied to lyric verse, and that the great works of ancient literature—being chiefly lyric poetry—were sung, it is unsurprising that the greatest works of literature have love as their central focus. Love, and the struggle for love, runs replete through the great poetry of the ages. “[F]or smiles from reason flow/To brute denied, and are of love the food/Love, not the lowest end of human life,” wrote Milton in Paradise Lost. George Herbert, in the conclusion of his poetic tome, The Temple, wrote, “Love took my hand, and smiling did reply Who made the eyes but I? Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame Go where it doth deserve. And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame? My dear, then I will serve. You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat: So I did sit and eat.” And perhaps most famously from Alfred Tennyson, “’Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved all . . . That God, which ever lives and loves/One God, one law, one element/And one far-off divine event/To which the whole creation moves.”
Tolstoy’s epic deals with love as its chief feature. To ask what its nature is, is to journey to the heart of something—the heart of the matter. The quest for wisdom and understanding, which often seems to drive the story and the characters, is tied to the struggle for love. For the highest wisdom is love and the greatest heroic struggle is to find and consummate love.
Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey began the long tradition of Western heroic literature. As such, it is unsurprising that Tolstoy’s epic should be “called Russia’s Iliad and Odyssey” and regularly compared to Homer’s classics. There is journey, battle, and filial homecoming. The sense of battle and struggle to find love and meaning throughout the text led C.S. Lewis to describe Tolstoy’s work as “the greatest war book ever written.” In some ways, Tolstoy’s novel is the culmination of over two millennia of development in the Western heroic literary tradition.
War and Peace, in Russian, can also mean “war and the world.” The double significance is certainly visible even without a knowledge of Russian. World encompasses everything. And War and Peace certainly encompasses next to everything. Family. Scheming. Death. Courtship. Politics. Patriotism. Youth. Age. Everything associated with “the world” is front and center at various points of the story. By the story’s end, however, all the struggles in the world eventually subside and culminate in the love through the marriages of Natasha Rostov with Pierre Bezukhov and Marya Bolkansky with Nikolai Rostov when they learn to let go of their worldly and empty ambitions and give the gift of themselves to one another as free gifts of each other to the beloved.
From Achilles to Christ: Andrei’s War
Prince Andrei Bolkansky is one of the main characters of Tolstoy’s grand work and is, to my estimation, the dialectical contrast to Pierre. When Andrei is introduced at Anna Pavlovna’s party, he is a dashing man of ambition and success. He has a beautiful wife who is pregnant. He is to be General Mikhail Kutuzov’s aide-de-camp for the upcoming 1805 campaign. He is described as the image of earthly success, “He was a very handsome young man, of medium height, with firm, clear-cut features.” Moreover, the highest members of Russian society are aware of Andrei’s meteoric rise and some even think he’ll one day become aide-de-camp to the Tsar.
Andrei is introduced as the embodied ideal image of Russian high society, and this theme of an embodied image is something that Tolstoy plays with through Andrei as the story unfolds. Well-mannered and articulate, handsome and patriotic—Andrei stands in stark contrast to his bumbling and stumbling Jacobin adoring friend, Pierre, who although the illegitimate son of a high society count is an outcast of the Russian aristocracy by blood and by politics. Where Andrei knows when to hold his tongue, Pierre cannot help but leap into the conversation to the shock and chagrin of others. Andrei has everything going for him. Indeed, Pierre sees in Andrei the “model of perfection” because “Andrei possessed in the highest degree just the very equalities [he] lacked, and which might be best described as strength of will. Pierre was always astonished at Prince Andrei’s calm manner of treating everybody, his extraordinary memory, his extensive reading…but above all at his capacity for work and study.”
Despite external appearances Andrei is an alienated man. The homelife, despite recognizing his wife as an “excellent woman,” does not fill his rapturous desires. Andrei wants, wills, excitement. That is what Pierre couldn’t understand as to why Andrei was so eager for war in 1805. The family life weighs one down, shackles a man to life of complacency, and drains the “freedom” for adventure and the thrills that come with it. In one of the many conversations Andrei and Pierre share, Andrei informs him, “Never, never marry, my dear fellow! That’s my advice: never marry will you can say to yourself that you have done all you are capable of and until you have ceased to love the woman of your choice and have seen plainly as she is…Marry when you are old and good for nothing—or all that is good and noble in you will be lost.”
Although Andrei is, externally, the image of success, he is—in actuality, in the interior sense—a broken and empty man. The Andrei introduced in the opening pages of War and Peace is not a whole man. He is, in the Homeric tale, Achilles wanting the excitement and so-called glory and nobility offered in war rather than the contentment and simple life of marriage and family. Posed between war and homestead, like Achilles, Andrei chooses war and abandons his pregnant wife. The image of Achilles bears itself in early Andrei for all to see, for Achilles also abandoned his family to fight in the Trojan War. Andrei, like Achilles at Troy, is at the helm leading the Russian army into the heart of Europe to confront the murderous villain Napoleon Bonaparte. Or at least he envisions himself in that role.
As the Russian army advances into central Europe Andrei has dreams of his “Toulon moment” where he will lead the Russian army to victory against their French adversary. Napoleon is, simultaneously, villain and hero to Andrei. Napoleon is the great Other, the oppositional foe that he, as a Russian, must defeat. Yet, Napoleon embodies and exudes everything that Andrei yearns for: a supposed brilliance, cunning, and heroic greatness.
There are various ironies about Andrei when he is out on campaign as opposed to enjoying the simple life of high society. In peaceful high society he stands out among the other aristocrats with a successful career, a beautiful wife, and is himself the ideal image of handsomeness. In the military ranks, however, he is alienated from himself and seeks to be anyone but himself. He doesn’t stand out among the other officers of which he is a faceless blur to all superiors besides Kutuzov. Rather than be Prince Andrei he wishes to be Napoleon, “As soon as [Andrei] learned that the Russian army was in such a hopeless situation it occurred to him that it was he who was destined to lead it out of this position; that here was the Toulon that would lift him from the ranks of the obscure officers and offer him the first step to glory.”
Andrei’s expectations for war glory commences in his first taste of battle at Schöngrabern. Although a relatively small encounter, when the dogs of war are loosed across the battlefield Andrei cannot help but to imagine of his nihilistic dreams. “It has begun,” Andrei thinks watching the cannon fire. “Here it is . . . But where and how will my Toulon present itself.” While Schöngrabern did not turn out to be any Toulon for Andrei, the taste of battle was exciting and heroic for the young prince. He gleefully reports the salvific actions of Captain Tushin’s artillery battery to Prince Bagration as the principal reason for why the Russians were able to hold off the French advance and retire in good order.
After Bagration’s column, which Andrei was present with, reunites with Kutuzov, a palpability over the coming battle with Napoleon spreads over the camp. Tolstoy, in his genius, presents the dialectic of war perfectly. In the war scenes, Tolstoy starts by presenting the perfect battle strategies and beautiful parade marches of an orderly sense of conflict which suddenly vanish into chaos and confusion at the commencement of battle. It is in this tug-of-war of order and meaning, of chaos and confusion, that Andrei finds himself. On the eve of the Battle of Austerlitz, Andrei once again imagines his perfect Toulon moment which will win him the renown and glory. “[Andrei]’s imagination pictured the battle, its loss, the concentration of fighting at one point, and the hesitation of all the commanders. And then that happy moment, that Toulon for which he had so long waited, presents itself to him at last…so he takes a regiment, a division…leads his division to the decisive point, and gains the victory alone.”
The Battle of Austerlitz is a disaster for the Russians and Austrians. Andrei is wounded when nihilistically replaying his dream. Having grabbed a standard and urging his comrades forward, he is struck from the back by a French bayonet and falls to the ground looking up to the heavens. It is at this moment that Andrei experiences the beginning of his transformative pilgrimage. The chaos of battle and his dreams of glory disappear:
“Above him there was now nothing but the sky—the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty with grey clouds gliding slowly across it. ‘How quiet, peaceful, and solemn, not at all as I ran,’ thought Prince Andrei—‘not as we ran, shouting, and fighting, not at all as the gunner and the Frenchman with frightened and angry faces struggled for the mop: 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.’”
Andrei’s revelatory moment at Austerlitz was an unmistakable and archetypal encounter with what Edmund Burke called “the Sublime.” It was more than just mere beauty which Andrei encountered as he gazed up to the sky—a theme that will be replayed several times by Tolstoy over the course of the book. He encountered, with awe-inspiring wonder, the Sublime which overwhelms the individual to the point of death. In that moment Andrei recognized the nakedness of his vanity and, ensnared by the Sublime, lost himself in a state of tranquility while a horrendously brutal battle raged around him. He found, however brief and pain-induced, the joy and contentment he was recklessly pursuing on the battlefield and through the medium of earthly “glory.” In that moment Andrei did, in a sense, die in his encounter with the terrorizing beauty of the Sublime to be reborn anew.
From heroic man to maimed child moaning from his wounds, Andrei has—in fitting Tolstoyan irony—his encounter with his hero. Napoleon, that supposed great man of Absolute Spirit, is on the heights inspecting the dead right where Andrei fell wounded. But Andrei’s encounter with the lofty and infinite sky has changed his perception of Napoleon. Andrei “knew it was Napoleon—his hero—but at that moment Napoleon seemed to him such a small and insignificant creature compared with what was passing now between himself and that lofty infinite sky with the clouds flying over it.” Napoleon, that significant and looming creature, is now insignificant as the dissolution of Andrei’s idol worship has set in following his experience of battle.
Tolstoy also gives clues as to the problem that Andrei was facing—both internally and externally. Wounded, Andrei “was glad that people were standing near him, and only wished that they would help him and bring him back to life, which seemed to him so beautiful now that he had today learned to understand differently.” Physically ill and needing attention from others, Andrei is bodily moved to relationships. Spiritually ill, or, now having “learned to understand differently,” Andrei’s need for others is reflective of his beginning transformation from self-centered image-maker to relational animal made in the image of love and forgiveness. Andrei’s physical ailment was related to his spiritual illness which pushed him to the precipice of vainglorious idolatry which put the self above all to the point of exclusion and renunciation of others. After all, Andrei left his pregnant wife and unborn child to achieve his Toulon moment, to etch his name in eternity as Achilles did.
This movement away from selfish and vain glory-seeker to a man who learns to love and forgives others does not consummate itself on the bloody slopes of the Pratzen Heights. Instead, it takes many more struggles—many more wars, so to speak—before Andrei achieves this total transformation and divinization. When Pierre visits Andrei at Bald Hills after being separated for nearly two years, Andrei has become a recluse hermit fighting a new internal struggle about what the experiences of Austerlitz meant.
When Pierre visits Andrei he is shocked to see the “change in him.” There is a double implication in the change Pierre sees. One, of course, is physical. The second change, and perhaps the more profound of the two, is Andrei’s interior character. Andrei has become a hermit-like monk dwelling in “prolonged concentration on some one thought.” Tolstoy makes explicitly clear that in this new meeting of Andrei and Pierre it is as if they are both meeting each other anew for the first time—for both a changed men from when they last met. They spoke to each other, Tolstoy writes, “like people who do not know each other intimately.”
The defining moment of Pierre’s visit for Andrei comes in their discussion over the meaning of life. When Pierre discusses living and loving others, Andrei is thrown into a dour disposition of reproach. Tolstoy plays with the contrast between the two so well in the unfolding dialogue. Pierre is convinced that he lived for himself, but now has found new meaning—true meaning—an earthly and spiritual joy, in loving and serving others. Andrei reproaches Pierre ever so gently and argues the opposite. He lived for others in his vain pursuit of glory, but now lives for himself and is happy. “I experienced the reverse,” Andrei informs Pierre. “I lived for glory.—And after all what is glory? The same love of others, a desire to do something for them, a desire for their approval.—So I lived for others, and not almost but quite, ruined my life. And I have become calmer since I began to live only for myself.”
Tolstoyan irony runs deep in this critical moment of the story. Andrei is not yet aware that he lived for himself prior to Austerlitz and still lives for himself after Austerlitz. The difference is that he no longer pursues a self-glorifying vanity project which he wrongly attributes to his wanting approval from others. In 1805, Andrei was the embodiment of that earthly creature who is moved by “the love of self . . . glories in itself . . . [and] seeks glory from men.”
As the conversation continues, this realization comes to the fore for the gentle reader: From new men who did not know each other, Andrei and Pierre grow ever more intimate as they look into each other’s eyes as they each speak. The eyes are the window to the soul, and looking a person in the eye is a signification of intimacy and trust, of friendship and love. Eyes play a major role in Tolstoy’s story, most explicitly seen in Natasha, but here it is given to Andrei and Pierre. As Pierre continually beseeches him, like a missionary of God sent to a wayward soul struggling to find God on his own but cannot do so on his own power—much like Augustine’s depiction of himself prior to his conversion in Milan in Confessions—the conversion of Andrei begins when he looks up at the sky again, the same sky he looked up to when on his back at Austerlitz. “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,” Pierre tells Andrei before, “point[ing] to the sky.” As Andrei listened to Pierre, “he gazed with his eyes fixed on the red reflection of the sun gleaming on the blue waters. There was a perfect stillness.”
Andrei’s movement away from vain glory-seeking began as he peered up to the lofty sky on the Pratzen Heights. But it took a sacramented person, a sort of missionary, an angel—Pierre—to make the annunciation to Andrei that the replacing of the self requires love and service to others. As Pierre departs, Tolstoy informs us that, “[Andrei’s] meeting with Pierre formed an epoch in [his] life. Thought outwardly he continued to live the same old way, inwardly he began a new life.” Andrei’s meeting with Pierre at Bald Hills in 1807 is the directional reorientation of himself to Christ, others, and love itself. Struggling to find that directional guidance needed after having his empty vanity crushed at Austerlitz, it took Pierre to set Andrei on the course of the straight and true—though this course, this “new life,” which Andrei is now on, will be equally difficult. Andrei’s transformation, however, represents a great Tolstoyan achievement; the rebirth of Andrei away from the war-hungry and glory-seeking Achilles to a gentler, compassionate, and loving Christ.
Given the overlap of characters and their arcs, I do not wish to write about Andrei’s well-known romance with Natasha. As such, I wish to move to the completion of Andrei’s war from transitioning away from an image of Achilles to an image-bearer of Christ. Though it is important to state that his possible joyful and serendipitous life with Natasha was ruined by Anatole Kuragin, whom Andrei personally seeks out to kill in the months leading up to the Battle of Borodino, it is the eradication of this possible end life for Andrei which makes his transformation complete.
Andrei’s transformative war is fittingly completed during a battle. For it is at the culling fields of Borodino that Andrei’s transformation from Achilles to Christ is consummated. On the eve of the battle, when Pierre visits him once more, Andrei’s discussion with Pierre about the rules of war and the orders of battle is filled with the cynical venom of a man lost in the whirlwind. Shunning the false “magnanimity” of war, Andrei informs Pierre his new outlook of war and peace as, “Take no prisoners, but kill and be killed!” Andrei’s statement, coupled with the reality of hunting for Anatole whilst trying to perform his duties as an officer, makes his moment of forgiveness on the bloody battlefield of Borodino even more incredible to witness.
After having been wounded as his regiment marches from their reserve positions to a new place on the battlefield, he is taken to a field hospital where the screaming cries of the wounded pierce the air. As he is given a place to rest, he hears the whimpering of a familiar connection. Andrei has been placed right next to “the miserable, sobbing, enfeebled” Anatole who has just had his leg amputated.
Given what has happened to Andrei because of Anatole, any lesser man would have been justified in taking revenge against the man who ruined his prospects of felicity and marriage. But rather than take revenge or embody his take no prisoners attitude he told Pierre, Andrei is overcome with love. “Prince Andrei could no longer restrain himself, and wept tender loving tears for his fellow men, for himself, and for his own and their errors.” Andrei’s war is completed at that moment, that moment when his heart sinks for his fellow brothers and sisters as he utters the unforgettable words of Christ-like forgiveness, “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 Marya 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!”
It is here that Andrei completely gives himself over to God and Christ, becoming a literal image and mouthpiece of God in paraphrasing the Sermon on the Mount and having his ruptured relationships restored. The movement to forgiveness leading to love becomes the recurring theme at the end of Tolstoy’s work, and Andrei embodies this reality better than anyone in the story. When Natasha meets him again, among the wounded being evacuated, she begs his forgiveness. Andrei, looking into Natasha’s lively eyes—and eyes have been a major image throughout scenes of love and relationships throughout the book as hitherto stated—tells her that he has already forgiven her.
Fittingly, Andrei’s death is one of peace. It was the peace he found in becoming an image-bearer of the loving and forgiving Christ who loves and forgives those who do not know what they do. Moments before his death, surrounded by Natasha and Marya, the two woman who loved him, he ponders the meaning of love as he is surrounded in love. “Love is God,” Andrei tells himself, “and to die means that I, a particle of love, shall return to the general and eternal source.”
The Pilgrim’s Progress: Pierre’s War
Pierre might be the most universal character of Tolstoy’s work. This is not to diminish Nikolai’s place who has many universal moments that the reader can identify with, but there is something about Pierre that draws most, if not all, readers to his predicament. From being an outcast, to speaking out of turn, to be opinionated, to pondering life’s mystery, to experiencing the thrill of lawlessness (in battle), to settling down into family life, Pierre’s arc is one that most people go through during their lifetime which is why he is so relatable.
In many ways, Pierre is the opposite of Andrei. He is, at the opening, the illegitimate son of a prominent aristocrat which means he straddles a muddled sphere in Russian society. He is neither fully accepted by the aristocracy nor a serf, and with Russia lacking a bourgeois middle-class his intermediate state of being isn’t in a non-existent middle-class like it could be in other countries. Where Andrei is successful, handsome, and has a family, Pierre is something of a travelling buffoon, not the most handsome of gentlemen (especially in comparison to Andrei), and is alone. As such, Pierre spends his time in love with ideas and political abstractions rather than concrete human relationships. In many ways, Pierre is like the young Saint Augustine who was in love with the idea of love but unsure how to actualize, or concretize, love in his life. At Anna Pavlovna’s party he is a Jacobin humanitarian incapable, like the Jacobins themselves, of helping those he claims to love and has never met nor spends time with. In the excitement of conversation beckoning, with the other attendees critical of Napoleon, Pierre jumps with joy to defend the French ruler, “Napoleon is great because he rose superior to the Revolution, suppressed its abuses, preserved all that was good in it—equality of citizenship, freedom of speech and the press—and only for that reason did he obtain power.”
It becomes clear that while Andrei and Pierre are contrasts with each other, inside, they are very much the same. Like Andrei, Pierre is alienated and estranged. From Russian high society; from his family as an illegitimate son; from Helene, his first wife; and, indeed, from himself, the world, and God. Throughout the story, Pierre struggles to find a home. Tolstoy brilliantly realizes this in that many of the scenes with Pierre he is away from home, out on a journey like a pilgrim, roaming from place to place in search for that home he never had.
The struggle in the world that Pierre fights is the struggle to make present, in incarnate form, the intoxicating love for abstract ideas that he has at the beginning of the story—and through this realization of love in the world rather than the realm of ideas Pierre can find that home he is desperately yearning for. The Russian attendees at Anna Pavlovna’s party are down to earth; they see the embodied reality of the Terror, the Revolution, and Napoleon’s conquest to expand the Revolution to the rest of Europe, but Pierre is altogether aloof from this reality. “What? Revolution and regicide a grand thing?” Anna Pavlovna, retorts to Pierre in contempt and shock. “I am not speaking of regicide, I am speaking about ideas,” Pierre boldly answers her.
Pierre’s estrangement from the world, and himself, goes as far as him imagining himself to be Napoleon. Again, the parallelism with Andrei is intermixed. Where Andrei wanted to instantiate Napoleon’s greatness in himself prior to his transformative experience at Austerlitz, Pierre literally fantasizes himself as the Emperor of France and dictator of much of Europe. “But before Pierre—who at that moment imagined himself to be Napoleon in person to have just effected the dangerous cross of the Pas-de-Calais and captured London—could pronounce Pitt’s sentence, he saw a well-built and handsome young officer entering his room.” When Pierre and Boris converse, Pierre openly admits to the Russian officer that he is rooting for the French emperor to win.
But Pierre’s plight and estrangement from the world reaches a threshold with the death of his father, Kiril Bezukhov. His family members, if you could call them that—Prince Vasili and Princess Katerina—are scheming to keep him out of the will of his dying father. Kiril’s will, with all the authority it carries and from his own decree, shall legitimize Pierre and pass down the family inheritance to him. The scheming of Vasili and Katerina failed. Pierre is legitimized.
The legitimization of Pierre propels him into a new world. The Russian aristocracy suddenly takes interest in him—not because of who Pierre is but because of the wealth and titles that he carries. At the same time, Pierre’s legitimization came at the expense of his filial relationships. Vasili and Katerina, who were always distant to him, disappear in their anger. His father, who loved him, but also kept his distance from him for maintaining his reputation as a count while alive, is altogether gone. Pierre might have found new wealth and rights, but he is alone in a world ruptured by war.
With new wealth came new temptations. Princess Helene, the beautiful but scheming femme fatale in the epic, seduces Pierre to advance her social standing and wealth. Helene wields her beauty as a seductive form of control; a lust to dominate through her charm and feminine mystique which clouds Pierre’s better judgement. In a room alone with her, Pierre falls under Helene’s smile and soothsaying charms which magnify her bodily beauty. ‘So you have never before noticed how beautiful I am?’ Helene seemed to say.’” There is ambiguity here; “seemed to say” suggests that she may or may not have been speaking. Everything has become a blur to Pierre. Was she speaking to him in voice or in bodily invitation and gesture? Then Helene pounced on him with her body-language opening to Pierre and inviting him to be with her like the muses of Homeric antiquity. ‘You had not noticed that I am a woman? Yes, I am a woman who may belong to anyone—to you too, said her glance.’” Falling for her objectified beauty and mystique, “Pierre felt that Helene not only could, but must, be his wife, and that it could not be otherwise.”
Pierre’s fall for the temptations of Helene marks his pivot to struggle for filial homecoming which dominates the rest of his character development. His relationship with Helene quickly disintegrates when she berates him that she will never allow herself to bear his children. Her open infidelity, in carrying on a sexual relationship with Dolokhov, only serves to further strain the relationship that they never had to begin with.
With his marriage falling apart, and an utter feeling of meaninglessness engulfing him like a storm, Pierre falls into company with freemasons. Pierre’s turn to freemasonry is the need for an anchor, a pivot, a solid foundation for life to build from. Until now he has been rudderless and crashing about on the violent seas of strife and emotional rapture. He has long sought a meaningful life; first in the world of political ideas and then in (a failed) marriage. Nothing has brought him peaceful rest.
Freemasonry was the perfect synthesis for Pierre’s wayfaring soul when he encounters the masonic stranger and is brought into the fellowship. It combined the two things that he had, up to now, sought meaning in: politics and family. Moreover, it wasn’t a mere love for the idea of politics or family, but an actual instantiated reality of politics and family, though at the periphery of Pierre’s life, which caused him to seek meaning in both. As a mason, Pierre could finally do good and help others as he dreamt the Jacobins and Napoleon were trying to do. The masons also served as the brotherhood, fraternity, and family that Pierre never had. The relational reality of the pursuit of truth and human nature is captured by the reality that to become a mason one needs to nominate you and in the stranger’s reply to meeting Pierre for the first time, “No one can attain to truth by himself.”
It is a subtle moment in the story, which is not fully realized until the book’s conclusion, but Pierre’s turn to masonry is also his turning to God whom he had been estranged with earlier. Pierre spoke the language of piety and invoked Christ earlier to suit his political agenda at Anna Pavlovna’s party, but privately he was an atheist. While the intricacies of freemasonry initially inflamed Pierre’s appetite for knowledge and meaning, the most important change in Pierre through his encounter with freemasonry was his turning to God. For all his youth, virality, and wealth, Pierre is lost in a forest of darkness cloudier and murkier than when we first met him. The masonic stranger is an angelic messenger turning Pierre around; and Pierre, with newfound vigor in masonry, becomes that messenger to Andrei when they meet at Bald Hills in 1807.
The masons bring to Pierre’s attention the problem with seeking a meaningful life purely out of carnality and the riches of the world. His swelling heart is enticed by the stranger’s brief explanation of wisdom and truth in a very Augustinian moment of rapturous desire. “You are young, you are rich, you are clever, you are well educated. And what have you done with all these good gifts? Are you content with yourself and with your life?” Pierre’s standing in high society, his education, and his wealth, has amounted to nothing but estranged wanderings like a pilgrim in endless desert sand. Furthermore, the language of pilgrimage is alluded to in Pierre’s journey into the brotherhood, “The meeting was at an end, and on reaching home Pierre felt as if the had returned from a long journey on which he had spent dozens of years, had become completely changed, and had quite left behind his former habits and way of life.”
The complexity of masonry, however, doesn’t satisfy Pierre. The esoteric philosophy, the fellowship among brothers, and the quasi-theological and political nature of the fraternity only serve to alienate Pierre yet again. But the emphasis on relationships and the turning to God which was a prerequisite for membership linger in Pierre’s burning heart. The masons, to this end, served as intermediaries to reorient Pierre to what he will eventually struggle to actualize in his life to have meaning: family. For family, through marriage, brings relationships, God (through the sacrament of marriage), and the joys of embodied and incarnational living, to life. From this perspective, the third time is the charm as his failed marriage with Helene and failed life as a brother with the masons prefigure Pierre’s eventual successful marriage and family life with Natasha.
Pierre struggles with a wandering alienation in the moments leading up to the Battle of Borodino following his disillusionment with the masons. Despite that disillusionment, he still ponders upon the mysteries of the masonic teachings and tries to convince himself of the meaning of the events and his place in the drama of the apocalypse. Pierre’s alienation leads him into the classic descensus ad inferos as he stumbles onto the fields of the horrific battle; it is only through this descent into hellfire that he can be reborn and brought back to life.
There is a certain poetic irony, and justice, in Pierre’s homecoming. He was introduced as a man who loved pure theory, soaring above the clouds as if a superior man to the rest of the Russian aristocracy because of his theoretical high-mindedness that detached him from the world of personable relationships which he himself was estranged from due to the circumstances of his birth. In joining the masons, as already discussed, he momentarily received a synthetic experience of practicable personable relationships coupled with esoteric theory. But his disillusion with the masons was simultaneously a rupture with the faux relationality of the order and false theory offered by them. In a worse position now than before, he has crashed from the world of abstract theory into the world of violent materiality and battle. It took this pulling away the carpet of high-minded theory to cause Pierre to land back in the world of relationships—along with the help of Natasha whom he soothed and comforted following Anatole’s predatory advances on her.
This crash landing back into the world of relationships and descent into the maelstrom of Borodino begins with his chance, or preordained, encounter with Dolokhov. Dolokhov rushes to Pierre following a procession of the Holy Mother to ask for Pierre’s forgiveness of their past encounters. “With tears in his eyes Dolokhov embraced Pierre and kissed him.” At long last Pierre experiences a personable moment with his former enemy, and, like Christ, he is able to forgive and show mercy to the man whom his unfaithful wife had illicitly carried on a sexual relationship with. There is further poetic closure that it is Dolokhov who will save him from French captivity during Napoleon’s retreat.
Following the Battle of Borodino, Pierre wanders aimlessly back into Moscow as the city burns. He is subsequently captured by the French as a prisoner despite moments of personal heroism and sacrifice: His saving of the French officer and the endangered girl in the fire. Pierre, however, had to be broken in a sort of Babylonian captivity of his own—he had to be brought low, back down from the stratosphere of abstract idealism into the world of concrete relationships and the body. As Tolstoy writes of Pierre’s transformative pilgrimage:
“In burnt and devastated Moscow Pierre experienced almost the extreme limits of privation of man can endure; but thanks to his physical strength and health, of which he had till then been unconscious, and thanks especially to the fact that the privations came so gradually that it was impossible to say when they began, he endured his position not only lightly but joyfully. And just at this time when he obtained the tranquility and ease of mind he had formerly striven in vain to reach. He had long sought in different ways tranquility of mind, that inner harmony, which had so impressed him in the soldiers at the battle of Borodino. He had sought it in philanthropy, in Freemasonry, in the dissipations of town life, in wine, in heroic feats of self-sacrifice, and in romantic love for Natasha; he had sought it by reasoning—and all these quests and experiments had failed him. And now without thinking about it, he had found that peace and inner harmony only through the horror of death, through privation, and through what he recognized in Karataev.”
Pierre’s having been brought low to the point of privation and his journey through hell and back is the culminating lynchpin in his transformation to arriving at the shore of meaningful life he had always sought. It is only through being imprisoned that Pierre could the value of embodied life in the world and find that tranquility he had longed for. “Life is everything,” Pierre tells himself. “Life is God. Everything changes and moves and that movement is God. And while there is life there is joy in consciousness of the divine. To love life is to love God. Harder and more blessed than all else is to love this life in one’s sufferings.”
The struggle and sojourning story of Pierre is the story of the pilgrim’s progress. It is the perilous pilgrimage to something beyond the self; something that binds heaven and earth, man and woman, human and dirt, together in splendid radiance and the grand waltz of life. It is the struggle to consummate love in the world, love others in the world, love the world, and love all the gifts before us—whether of flesh and blood or the inanimate objects which, taken in totality, constitute the wondrous beauty of the whole. The struggle to “love life” rather than be alienated from it was consummated in Pierre’s marriage with Natasha because the love of life, Tolstoy tells us through the union of Pierre and Natasha, is marriage.
Therefore, it is Pierre’s marriage with Natasha, and her wholesomeness in married life, that the love of life which Pierre always sought after was made incarnate. The glow in both of their eyes, the tickling in their tongues, and the beatific charms in beholding one another, was a long and arduous struggle for both; but especially for Pierre whose entire journey brings him to this union. Tolstoy’s genius with Pierre’s struggles manifest itself in Pierre’s arc over the course of the story; from his radical Jacobinism and failed marriage, to his descent into hell and his ascension to embodied life sealed through the sacrament of marriage with Natasha and the birth of their children, Pierre’s perilous journey was wandering east of Eden to finally finding that new Eden by story’s end.
Blossoming to Life: Natasha’s War
It goes without saying that the greatest achievement in War and Peace is the character of Natasha and her maturation into beauty and embodying a soulful life. It is, at times, a painful struggle—especially in her falling prey to the schemes of Anatole Kuragin which destroys the planned marriage between her and Andrei. It is, at other times, a pleasant and heart-warming growth as she matures from that black-eyed little girl into a blossoming and fertile mother at story’s end. From start to finish, the little seed that was Natasha withered away and grew into a wholesome and magnificent flower; one flush with fertility and life-giving power in a way that Helene’s exquisite body and breasts, but empty soul, never could.
There are two key features to Natasha that Tolstoy repeatedly emphasizes throughout the story: Her voice and her eyes. Like the word of God, Natasha’s voice has the power to awaken souls and bring them to life; on two occasions her voice sings out and lifts Nikolai and Andrei out of their suicidal and nihilistic stupors to a new appreciation of, and for, life. As Andrew Kaufman writes, “Nikolai…has his moment of doubt and wants to put a gun to his head. But in that very instant, when he has been shaken to the core, he is lucky enough to hear Natasha sing, reminding him that sublime happiness and meaning are still available to him here and now, in the midst of his broken world.” Furthermore, Tolstoy also recourses to Natasha’s eyes to bring out her liveliness. Eyes and voice, of course, emanate from the face; it is the face that is the seat of human subjectivity and not the objectified body below it, “The face shines in the world of objects with a light that is not of this world – the light of subjectivity.” As such, Natasha is revealed to us through the course of the story as the most personable, subjective, and lively of all the characters.
When we are introduced to Natasha her mouth and eyes are the first features Tolstoy describes, “This black-eyed, wide-mouthed girl, not pretty but full of life, with childish bare shoulders which after her run heaved and shook her bodice, with black curls tossed backward, thin bare arms, little legs in lace-frilled drawers, and feet in low slippers—was just as that charming age when a girl is no longer a child, though the child is not yet a young woman.” There is a tremendous degree of foreshadowing going on in Tolstoy’s introductory description of Natasha, and this foreshadowing establishes the genius of Tolstoy’s incredible story especially as it relates to the future maturation of Natasha through the unfolding of the story. Additionally, her introduction and contrast with Helene—whom she is intentionally dialectically paired against—couldn’t be starker.
Helene is introduced as the maid of honor at Anna Pavlovna’s party. One cannot miss her voluptuous and enticing body which wins the eyes and hearts of the crowd. However, Helene is never described as being “full of life.” More to the point, the focus of Helene’s womanhood is her body and not her soul; her womanhood is found in her breasts and shoulders rather than her face. Natasha’s womanhood, or growth into womanhood, is found in her face—her subjectivity—which is doubly signified and represented through her voice of life and soulful eyes. Despite Helene’s unquestionable beauty, she is a lifeless object in contrast to Natasha’s pulsating and soulful being:
“The Princess Helene smiled. She rose with the same unchanging smile with which she had first entered the room—the smile of a perfectly beautiful woman. With a slight rustle of her white dress trimmed with moss and ivy, with a gleam of white shoulders, glossy hair and sparkling diamonds, she passed between the men who made way for her, not looking at any of them but smiling on all, as if graciously allowing teach the privilege of admiring her beautiful figure and shapely shoulders, back, and bosom.”
Helene’s “unchanging smile” is the same “smile . . . for everybody.” Helene is everywhere described in the image and language of carnal beauty which Natasha lacks, but Helene is never described as containing life, “[Natasha] kept looking round in turn at the rows of pomaded heads in the stalls and then at the semi-nude women in the boxes, especially at Helene in the next box, who—apparently quite unclothed—sat with a quiet and tranquil smile.” Helene’s deadly charms and consuming appetite for scheming is nothing compared to Natasha’s life-giving piety which brings to her “the possibility of a new, clean life, and happiness.” Helene may be a “beautiful woman,” but Tolstoy portrays Natasha as the true embodiment of feminine struggle and receptivity leading to motherhood which completes Natasha’s embodiment of a life-filled and life-giving spirit. Natasha, struggle through hardship and temptations as she may—even lapsing into sin—has a soul of repentance which provides her with a quickening spirit. Helene, by contrast, has no spirit of repentance and her drive for self-advancement leads to her eventual death like all those who live for themselves and are ruled by the flesh.
Natasha’s voice and eyes, as mentioned, are her two defining features which are focused on by Tolstoy throughout her maturation into a life-bearing mother. Just as God’s voice recalls to life in the biblical and Christian tradition, so too does Natasha’s voice recall to life Nikolai. Just as God’s voice draws humans to it, so too does Natasha’s voice draw Andrei to her in love. Just as God’s voice is the sound of vitality, so too does Natasha’s voice triumphantly sound her resurrection before the presence of Pierre.
After having been swindled into serious debt by Dolokhov, Nikolai contemplates suicide because of his inability to pay off the debts and his shame to inform his father of his lack of virtue in matters relating to financial control and management. Returning home in a feeling of abject despair, depression, and loneliness, Nikolai is saved by the angelic voice of his sister singing in the room nearby. “In her voice there was a virginal freshness, an unconsciousness of her own powers, and an yet untrained velvety softness, which so mingled with her lack of art in singing that it seemed as if nothing in that voice could be altered without spoiling it.” Natasha’s life-giving voice is the only thing that saves Nikolai at that moment.
Like the words of the Lord spoken by Old Testament prophets, Natasha’s voice pierces into the center of Nikolai’s dark depression and fills that empty void with a newness of life which is altogether a transcendent experience for him. Completely immersed in her heavenly singing, Nikolai’s recalling to life leads him to becoming her cheerleader as she shifts pitches and octaves. “Now then, Natasha, now then, dearest! Now then, darling! How will she take that si? She’s taken it! Thank God.” Not only had Nikolai become hopeful in Natasha’s singing success, he too became a participator in the song of life, “without noticing that he was singing, to strengthen the si he sang a second, a third below the high note.” This scene is one of particular beauty, an undeniable triumph of Tolstoy’s literary ability and construction.
Following his conversation with Pierre, Andrei soon finds himself in the same house as Natasha and Sonya. He hears two female voices—again as if angels singing from on high, “Two girlish voices sang a musical passage—the end of some song.” Moving from song to playful laughter, Andrei says, “For her I might as well not exist.” But as Natasha keeps singing and laughing, a new life that was originally lit by Pierre is suddenly fueled by the voice of life emanating from Natasha, “In his soul there suddenly arose such an unexpected turmoil of youthful thoughts and hopes, contrary to the whole tenor of his life, that unable to explain his condition to himself he lay down and fell asleep at once.” As Andrei sleeps, he dreams of Natasha and her magnificent voice which eventually calls him to her during their grand waltz, “He stepped forward in the direction Pierre indicated. The despairing, dejected expression of Natasha’s face caught his eye. He recognized her, guessed her feelings, saw that it was her first ball, remembered her conversation at the window, and with an expression of pleasure on his face, approached Countess Rostova.”
After being deceived and tempted by the Kuragins, Natasha’s fall from innocence is quintessential of the recapitulation of the Christian drama of the Fall. Natasha’s young innocence is shattered in being deceived by Anatole Kuragin and the prospective marriage with Andrei falls apart as a consequence. She falls into a doldrum. Though Sonya tries to comfort her, Natasha is not truly recovered until she talks to Pierre about love and forgiveness. With Pierre by her side, she implores him to plead with Andrei to forgive her, “tell him…to for…forgive me.” Love, struggle, and forgiveness—quintessential themes—are now interconnected with Natasha and Andrei, and Andrei does indeed forgive Natasha when they meet again.
But this intermixing of love and forgiveness between Natasha and Andrei is sealed in her singing before Pierre which, as a matter of fact, also brings Pierre closer to her and will consummate the love Natasha originally sought in Andrei. Having come to visit the Rostovs, Pierre finds Natasha singing alone, and it is important to realize that her singing again:
“The first person he saw in the house was Natasha. Even before he saw her, while taking off his cloak, he heard her. She was practicing sol-fa exercises in the music-room. He knew that she had not sung since her illness, and so the sound of her voice surprised and delighted him. He opened the door softly and saw her, in the lilac dress she had worn at church, walking about the room singing. She had her back to him when he opened the door, but when, turning quickly, she saw his broad, surprised face, she blushed and came rapidly to him.”
Natasha has recovered to life. She is singing again. She is blushing again. She is wholesome again. She is the matured image of that little girl who was introduced to use as being filled with love ready to consummate her matured life and love—preferably to Andrei at this point if given the chance. Though, as we know, it is eventually sealed with Pierre.
Apart from singing, Natasha’s eyes are also a major focus of Tolstoy’s description of Natasha. Her eyes factor more prominently in the story than any other character. As hitherto mentioned, she is introduced as that black-eyed girl full of life.
Natasha’s happy face, and her life-filled eyes, are images that continuously recur throughout the book. When Andrei asks Natasha to waltz, the “tremulous expression on Natasha’s face, prepared either for despair or rapture, suddenly brightened into a happy, grateful, childlike smile…her face beamed with ecstatic happiness.” When Andrei asks Natasha if she loves him, he looked straight into her eyes while holding her hands—in that the mystical experience Andrei felt a pity for her childlike constitution which demanded his watchful protection. Andrei becomes a man, filled now with a spirit of protectiveness, when Natasha declares her upmost love for him. Initiation and receptivity have merged together in the hope for fatherhood and motherhood. Most of her encounters, especially with Andrei and Pierre, have her eyes or joyous smile and face front and center for all to behold.
After reconciling with Andrei before his death and now preparing for marriage with Pierre, Natasha’s smile reappears and her “attentive eyes” lock with Pierre’s and reveal the innermost secrets of her soul to his. Indeed, the joyful and loving scenes between Natasha and Pierre focuses solely on their face and eyes. “From the moment they were alone and Natasha came up to him with wide-open happy eyes and quickly seizing his head pressed it to her bosom saying: ‘Now you are all mine!’” The final scene of Natasha is her joyful smile, her glittering eyes, her whole body filled with life.
In Natasha’s maturation from little girl to wholesome women who had become a mother, the peace sought by Pierre and Natasha is sealed in their incarnate living with one another. It is in their participatory love, like the participatory love of the Trinity, that the meaning of life is found and consummated. As she tells Pierre with a blushful smile emanating with life, “I love you awfully…Awfully, awfully!”
Although War and Peace is nestled in real history: The War of 1805, the War of 1807, and the War of 1812, the real war in Tolstoy’s epic is life itself. “Life, meanwhile—real life, with its essential interests of health and sickness, toil and rest, and its intellectual interests in thought, science, poetry, music, love, friendship, hatred, and passions—went on as usual, independently of and apart from political friendship or enmity with Napoleon Bonaparte and from all the schemes of reconstruction.” Real life was the center of the real war in War and Peace. The physical battles of the Napoleonic campaigns only serve to magnify the flesh and blood struggles of relationships which dominate the book and its characters in the persons of Natasha, Pierre, Andrei, Nikolai, Sonya, Helene, Marya, and others.
Andrew Kaufman is right to implore us to give War and Peace a chance. It is, at first glance, and even first read, an intimidating book. But it is well worth it to journey through it. It is a story of adventure, love, and struggle. It is a story of contrasts and foils. It is a story of cruelty, vindictiveness, and forgiveness. It is a story of heroism and tragedy. It is a story of two becoming one. The war for peace is the war for love. Tolstoy captures this dynamism so brilliantly in his story C.S. Lewis goes as far as describing War and Peace as the “greatest book ever written.”
Tolstoy’s ability to craft his masterpiece with this dialectical advancement and enhancement in mind testifies to his, and the work’s, genius. For a book set in the Napoleonic Wars there is comparatively little dedicated to the spectacular battles of Austerlitz, Eylau, Friedland, and Borodino. The shadow of Napoleon and the wars against France loom all over the story, but the ghost of Napoleon and the “great battles” and “great men” who pop up and just as quickly vanish pale in comparison to the struggles of Andrei, Pierre, Natasha, Nikolai, Marya, Sonya, Helene, and others. The real war is in the world; and that world is one of flesh and blood relations. At the story’s end Tolstoy reveals to us the simplicity of wisdom. Meaningful life in love is right before us. Do we have the eyes to see and ears to hear?
Notes Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans Louis and Aylmer Maude (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), IV.i.xvi., p. 1058. Citation is Book, part, and chapter, with the page notation from this specific copy.
 John Milton, Paradise Lost, ix.239-241.
 George Herbert, “Love (III).”
 Alfred Tennyson, “In Memoriam,” xxvii.15-16, Epilogue.141-144.
 Steven B. Smith, “The Iliad: An Affair of Honor,” Yale Review 104, no. 4 (7 October 2016): p. 11.
 Amy Mandelker, “Introduction,” in Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans. Louis and Aylmer Maude (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. xx.
 C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: Harper Collins, 2001; 1949), p. 51.
 Tolstoy, War and Peace, I.i.iii., p. 15.
 Ibid., I.i.vi., p. 27.
 Ibid., p. 31.
 Ibid., p. 30.
 I do not wish to dwell too extensively on Napoleon for the sake of brevity, other than to say there are two “great” generals in the novel: Napoleon and Kutuzov. Like so many of the more principal characters, Napoleon and Kutuzov are dialectical contrasts with one another. I would like to point out that the adjectives of Napoleon change over the course of the story. He is labelled murderer and villain in the beginning. He is not acknowledged as emperor but as mischievous and villainous upstart. After the Peace of 1807 (Tilsit), Napoleon is acknowledged with the titles of emperor and royalty. Following the 1812 invasion, he is once again described as a murderous villain and anti-Christ. Napoleon is everywhere egomaniacal and inhumane—save for that brief moment inspecting the dead on the fields of Borodino. Kutuzov is everywhere gracious, human, and kind by contrast. Kutuzov was no Napoleon in the sense of nihilistic grandeur. But as Tolstoy builds the contrast between them, it is clear by the conclusion of the book that Kutuzov was a greater man than Napoleon ever was because Kutuzov was the more human and, therefore, humane of the “great men” depicted over the course of War and Peace.
 The Siege of Toulon, 1793, was Napoleon’s first victory. It was, as such, a defining moment in his meteoric rise to glory. The fantasizing about having a “Toulon” moment is about replicating Napoleon’s rise to glory in a similar manner.
 Tolstoy, I.ii.xii., p. 173.
 Ibid., I.ii.xvii., p. 190.
 Ibid., I.ii.xxi., p. 212.
 Ibid., I.iii.xii., p. 281.
 Ibid., I.iii.xvi., p. 299.
 Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. David Womersley (New York: Penguin Books, 2004; 1998), II.vii.
 Ibid., II.i.
 Tolstoy, I.iii.xix., p. 310.
 Ibid., II.ii.xi., p. 408.
 Ibid., p. 409.
 Ibid., p. 410.
 Ibid., p. 411.
 Augustine, City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (New York: Modern Library, 2000; 1950), XIV.xxviii.
 Tolstoy, II.ii.xii., p. 416.
 Ibid., p. 417.
 Ibid., III.ii.xv., p. 833.
 Ibid., III.ii.xxxvii., p. 874.
 Ibid. III.iii.xxxii., p. 990.
 Ibid., IV.i.xvi., p. 1058.
 Ibid., I.i.iv, p. 21; see also, Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008; 1991), III.i.
 Tolstoy, I.i.iv., p. 21.
 Ibid., I.i.xiii., p. 57. The officer who stepped into the room was Boris Drubetskaya.
 I.iii.i., p. 219
 The fact that Pierre’s first marriage with Helene is a failure—a failure because there was no real love in either—is important for the reader not to forget in the development of Pierre’s journey. It is not, then, that marriage isn’t the answer to Pierre’s estranged heart and soul, but it is that the proper marriage and the right ordering of affections with a subject (rather than an object) is what needs to be consummated in the marriage.
 Tolstoy, II.ii.ii., p. 375.
 Ibid., I.i.iv., p. 22.
 Ibid., II.ii.ii., p. 377.
 Ibid., II.ii.v., p. 387.
 Ibid., III.ii.xxiii., p. 823.
 Ibid., IV.ii.xii., p. 1089.
 Ibid., IV.iii.xv., p. 1145.
 Andrew Kaufman, Give War and Peace a Chance (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014), p. 56.
 Roger Scruton, The Face of God (New York: Continuum, 2012), p. 49.
 Tolstoy, War and Peace, I.i.viii., p. 41.
 Ibid., I.i.iii., p. 12.
 Ibid., II.iii.ix., p. 471.
 Ibid., II.v.ix., p. 602.
 Ibid., III.i.xvii., p. 707.
 Ibid., II.i.xv., p. 367.
 Ibid., II.iii.iii., p. 451.
 Ibid., II.iii.xvii., p. 493.
 Ibid., II.v.xxii., p. 643.
 Ibid., III.i.xx., p. 716.
 Ibid., I.i.x., p. 46.
 Ibid., II.iii.xvii., p. 492.
 Ibid., II.iii.xxiii., p. 512.
 Ibid., IV.iv.xvi., p. 1198.
 Ibid., Epilogue, i.xvi., p. 1264.
 Ibid., p. 1268.
 Ibid., p. 1267.
 Ibid., II.iii.i., p.447.
 Refer back to supra note 7.