With what would be Leo Tolstoy’s 182nd birthday approaching, War and Peace, his most famous novel, is still widely read and appreciated. A masterpiece of Russian literature, War and Peace is known for its rich detail, historical recreation, and deep characterization. But the real story of War and Peace is the inner struggle of Tolstoy’s fictional counterpart, Pierre Bezukhov. Bezukhov, like Tolstoy, finds himself a wealthy man, a count, with large land holdings and the whole world at his disposal. But Pierre, also like Tolstoy, is not satisfied with this largesse and is constantly searching for something more. In addition to being a thrilling ride through the War of 1812, War and Peace is a document of Bezukhov’s inner war and what peace, if any, he finds throughout.
Bezukhov is immediately depicted as someone out of place. He roams through the circles of high society because his father is a Count and he is expected to. But he is awkward, opinionated, disrespectful, and ultimately criminal. One of the first incidents involving Bezukhov is when he, his low-born idol Dolokhov, and the hapless though charming Anatole Kuragin tie a policeman to a bear and throw them in the river. Bezukhov, unlike his two party friends, is not naturally mischievous. One gets the feeling that he is just as out of place getting drunk and having a good time as he is dressing up and attending a ball. This is because Bezukhov’s awkwardness isn’t a result of any external influence, but an awkwardness of self-awareness. He isn’t comfortable in his own skin.
Bezukhov’s self-awareness is the awareness that something is wrong or missing, without the awareness of what it is or how to go about correcting it. In the first part of the novel, trusting his passions more than his instincts, Bezukhov finds himself in a loveless, though socially appropriate marriage with Helene Kuragin, the sister of his friend Anatole. But Bezukhov soon finds that he is unable to truly “possess” his wife and becomes increasingly more jealous. He eventually challenges Dolokhov, Helene’s suspected lover, to a duel and to his own great surprise, wins. But this victory is empty for Bezukhov. It does nothing to increase his hold over his wife or stem his rage at being cuckolded. He feels empty and as such seeks out meaning wherever it may be found.
His next step is a turn to the Masons. He sees in the person of his Mason mentor a spiritual guide and he sees the Masons as an organization with the answers. But this of course is not the case and he is again left without any real answers or meaning and turns himself wildly around again, looking for something else to grab onto. He decides that fate has destined him to encounter Napoleon head on and ultimately destroy him, for the good of Russia. But his plans here do not work out either and he is forced to abandon them and search for his identity elsewhere when he is captured in Moscow.
Pierre’s captivity in Moscow and his march as a prisoner is a beautifully written, though horrifying passage, where he witnesses men reduced to sheer animality and is led to the firing squad where the man next to him is shot dead and he, inexplicably, is left alive. He is dragged out of Moscow where he befriends the ‘wise peasant’ Platon Karataev, who represents Tolstoy’s ideal of simple happiness and wisdom. But Platon dies en route and Pierre is finally freed by a Russian raiding party.
Pierre’s encounter with death, much like that of his obverse, Andrei Bolkonsky, changes his worldview. From this point on Pierre pursues what he has known he wanted all along—the love of Natasha Rostov, which, at the end of the book, he achieves. However, things aren’t over for Bezukhov. In the end there is an intimation of his involvement with a revolutionary group—a setup for an unwritten sequel about the Decembrists.
Bezukhov’s story is but one thread in Tolstoy’s many layered novel, but it is an important one. Tolstoy was well aware that man’s battleground is always more internal than external. In Bezukhov, Tolstoy embodied the individual’s struggle with his or herself and its unending nature. Bezukhov does achieve some degree of happiness, after much searching and suffering, but his happiness is not total, cannot be total. For Tolstoy, human spirituality was a constant struggle, a struggle that eventually led him down the path of total asceticism. The later Tolstoy was a prophet to his people, a religious leader, a man of wisdom, who had all but written off the fictional writing of his youth. But it’s clear that even in this early writing (it’s hard to believe War and Peace is his early work) Tolstoy’s mind was furtively going through the problem of satisfaction and the many red herrings it must encounter before finding its true, though not complete, manifestation.
Dostoevsky, Tolstoy’s inheritor of the Russian literary tradition, continued this line of questioning in his own novels, reaching his culmination in the complex The Brothers Karamazov, which though distinctly more modern than War and Peace, clearly retreads much of the same thematic territory. Tolstoy set his individual struggles against the compelling, lush backdrop of world history. Dostoevsky would take the final step in removing this drapery and focusing the reader squarely on the existential problems of everyday people. But without Tolstoy there would be no Dostoevsky, as such.
War and Peace is a famously long book, but it is immensely readable. Tolstoy had already mastered the art of storytelling when he wrote War and Peace and constantly shows off his chops as a virtuoso writer in every chapter. Further, Tolstoy’s perspective on this portion of history is invaluable. He details the personalities and ticks of Kutuzov and Napoleon and even indulges in some psychoanalysis of these towering figures, ultimately downplaying their importance in the outcome of great events. Nonetheless, he precisely describes the battles and maneuvers, the strategies, and the razor thin strand by which wars are won or lost. More importantly though, under the veneer of excellent writing and interesting characters and plot, there are serious existential issues addressed by the main characters as they try to figure out how to live—or die—with each other and themselves. Had Pierre Bezukhov, on his long road of the soul, been able to read War and Peace, it could have helped him understand the myriad forces raging inside his mind. Fortunately, we have what he did not.
Mark Brendle is a writer living in Oregon. His short fiction is available on the web at http://brendlewords.blogspot.com