War and Peace
Analysis of Major Characters
Pierre, whom many critics regard as a reflection of Tolstoy himself, attracts our sympathy in his status as an outsider to the Russian upper classes. His simplicity and emotional directness contrast with the artificiality of fakes such as the Kuragins. Though the attendees at Anna Pavlovna’s party consider Pierre uncouth and awkward, this very awkwardness emphasizes his natural unpretentiousness. We see his love of fun in his expulsion from St. Petersburg for excessive partying, and his generosity in his bank-breaking largesse toward friends and acquaintances following his inheritance. Pierre, though intelligent, is not dominated by reason, as his friend Andrew is. Pierre’s emotional spurts occasionally get him into trouble, as when his sexual passions make him prey to the self-serving and beautiful Helene. His madcap escape into the city of Moscow and his subsequent obsessive belief that he is destined to be Napoleon’s assassin show his submission to irrational impulses. Yet there is also a great nobility in Pierre’s emotions, and his search for meaning in his life becomes a central theme of the novel. We feel that his final marriage to Natasha represents the culmination of a life of moral and spiritual questioning.
Andrew, though as noble a soul as Pierre, differs from his friend in important ways that make him a very distinct character, and that illustrate Tolstoy’s philosophy of life. Andrew has a highly intelligent and analytical mind, as we see in the profitable way he runs his estate. He is devoted to his country, returning to active duty even after nearly being killed at Austerlitz, and spending months helping Speranski write a new civil code for Russia. Andrew, though often detached, is emotionally honest and willing to examine mysteries in himself, as we see in his frank admission early in the novel that he is dissatisfied with marriage to his virtuous and lovely wife, Lise. But Andrew’s flaw is a spiritual one: his detachment is an intellectual advantage, but an emotional handicap. Andrew is free from Pierre’s disabling search for the meaning of life, but he is also unable to forge deep and lasting connections with others, and unwilling to forgive their misdeeds. When Andrew is first introduced, Pierre touches his arm; Andrew instinctively flinches, disliking the contact. This physical reaction reflects Andrew’s inability to be touched by others throughout his life. Ultimately, he is a lonely individual whom even the love of Natasha cannot save.
Natasha is one of Tolstoy’s grandest creations, a representation of joyful vitality and the ability to experience life fully and boldly. The antithesis of Helene Kuragina, her eventual husband’s first wife, Natasha is as lively and spontaneous as Helene is stony and scheming. From infancy to adulthood, Natasha charms everyone who meets her, from the guests of the Rostovs who witness her unintelligible comments about her doll, to Andrew Bolkonski, Anatole Kuragin, and finally Pierre Bezukhov. Yet, despite her charms, Natasha never comes across as a show-off or a flirt angling for men’s attentions. Whether running in the fields in a yellow dress, singing on her balcony at Otradnoe, or simply sitting in an opera box, Natasha inspires desire simply by being herself, by existing in her own unique way. Her simplicity sometimes makes her naïve, however, as when she misunderstands her momentary passion for Anatole and makes absurd plans to elope with him. But Natasha repents her error with a sincerity that elicits forgiveness even from the wronged Andrew on his deathbed. Natasha’s spiritual development is not as philosophical or bookish as Pierre’s, but it is just as profound. She changes radically by the end of the novel, growing wise in a way that makes her Pierre’s spiritual equal.
The commander of the Russian forces against Napoleon, Kutuzov is old, fat, and one-eyed—hardly the archetypal image of military leadership. Yet Kutuzov is a brilliant strategist as well as a practiced philosopher of human nature, and Tolstoy’s respect for him is greater than for any other government functionary among the French or Russians—greater even than his respect for the somewhat oblivious Tsar Alexander. Kutuzov is humble and spiritual, in sharp contrast to the vain and self-absorbed Napoleon with his cold use of logic. After the Battle of Borodino, Kutuzov stops at a church procession and kneels in gratitude to a holy icon, demonstrating a humility of which Napoleon certainly would be incapable. Kutuzov is motivated by personal belief rather than the desire for acceptance, which makes his final fall from grace only a minor tragedy for him. Whereas Napoleon is always convinced of being absolutely right, Kutuzov is more realistic and wary about the state of things. He hesitates to declare a Russian victory at Borodino despite the obvious advantages of doing so, partly because the experiences of his long career have proved that reality is always more complex than one initially thinks. Such awareness of the mysteries of existence win Kutuzov our—and Tolstoy’s—approval.
Though Platon Karataev makes only a brief appearance in a few chapters of this immense novel, he has won an admiration from readers and critics that has endured from the publication of War and Peace through the Soviet period and up to the present day. One of the few peasants in the novel to whom Tolstoy gives deep, individualized characterization, Platon represents the author’s ideal of the simple, life-affirming philosophy of the Russian peasantry (Platon is the Russian name for Plato, the Greek philosopher). Platon lives in the moment, forgetful of the past and oblivious of the future, to the extent that he cannot even remember what he said a few minutes earlier. His affinity with animals, like the little dog accompanying the Russian political prisoners, suggests that he too lives by instinct rather than by reason. He spouts Russian proverbs that resound with wisdom. Overall, this characterization of an extraordinarily happy human being contrasts sharply with Pierre, who has been depressed and confused for dozens of chapters when he meets Platon. Platon thus appears as a kind of answer to Pierre’s long spiritual questionings, living proof that the human search for contentment can be a successful one.
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