“I warn you . . . if you still try to defend the infamies and horrors perpetrated by that Antichrist—I really believe he is Antichrist—I will have nothing more to do with you. . . .”
At a society party in St. Petersburg in 1805, Anna Pavlovna Scherer speaks to her old friend Prince Vasili Kuragin about the threat Napoleon presents to Russia. Anna, calling Napoleon the Antichrist, declares that Russia alone must save Europe. The prospect of war dominates the conversations at the party. But Anna also raises more personal issues, expressing esteem for Vasili’s children—especially the beautiful Helene—with the exception of Anatole, a rogue. Vasili asks Anna to arrange a meeting between his son Anatole and Mary Bolkonskaya, the lonely daughter of Prince Bolkonski, a rich, reclusive, retired military commander.
Meanwhile, Helene Kuragina arrives at the party, as does Lise, Bolkonski’s daughter-in-law, who is married to his military officer son, Andrew. Next to arrive is Pierre, the unpolished and ungainly son of Count Bezukhov, educated abroad and only recently returned to Russia. The ugly Hippolyte Kuragin, Helene’s brother, is also present.
Pierre . . . watched [Andrew] with glad, affectionate eyes. . . . Andrew frowned again, expressing his annoyance with whoever was touching his arm.
Andrew Bolkonski arrives at the party. Vasili Kuragin promises a promotion to Boris, the only son of a well-connected but impoverished old acquaintance, Princess Anna Mikhaylovna Drubetskaya. Pierre voices approval of the French Revolution. After the soiree, Pierre visits Andrew at his house, where they discuss the idea of perpetual peace advanced by one of Anna’s guests. Pierre believes in this possibility of peace, but he thinks that such peace must be spiritual rather than political. Andrew advises Pierre not to marry, saying that marriage wastes a man’s sense of purpose and resolve—the same resolve demonstrated by Napoleon.
Later, Pierre visits his friend Anatole at his house near the barracks, where the drunken officers are carousing with a trained bear, and Anatole’s friend Dolokhov is proving that he can drink a bottle of rum while precariously perched on the window ledge.
This black-eyed, wide-mouthed girl, not pretty but full of life . . . ran to hide her flushed face in the lace of her mother’s mantilla—not paying the least attention to her severe remark—and began to laugh.
Anna Mikhaylovna has gone to Moscow, to the home of her wealthy relatives, the Rostovs. Both the Rostov mother and youngest daughter are celebrating their name day (the feast day of the Christian saint after whom the women are named). The guests discuss Pierre’s uncouth lifestyle.
The thirteen-year-old Rostov daughter, Natasha, appears, carrying her doll. She is accompanied by other children, including her brother Nicholas; his friend Boris, Anna Mikhaylovna’s son; and Sonya, Count Rostov’s niece—all of whom live in the Rostov household. Nicholas states that he is joining the army out of a sense of vocation rather than a wish to accompany Boris, who has been made an officer. Natasha mischievously hides in order to watch a tearful exchange between Nicholas and Sonya, in which Nicholas begs forgiveness for flirting with Julie Karagina, one of the guests. When Boris appears, Natasha seeks a kiss from him and extracts a half-joking promise of marriage in four years. Countess Rostova makes her daughter Vera leave the room, so that she and Anna Mikhaylovna may discuss financial worries. Anna Mikhaylovna hopes that Boris’s godfather, the ailing Count Cyril Bezukhov, will help Boris.
Anna Mikhaylovna and Boris visit his dying godfather, Cyril Bezukhov. They are greeted by Vasili Kuragin, who, due to Pierre’s illegitimacy, is the current heir to the Bezukhov fortune. Vasili fears that Anna Mikhaylovna will be a rival fortune-seeker. Boris goes upstairs to see Pierre, who has been expelled from St. Petersburg for riotous conduct, and the two men discuss their lives and financial situations. Meanwhile, Countess Rostova asks her husband for money for Boris’s military uniform.
The Rostovs entertain dinner guests, including an officer, Berg, and a woman, Marya Dmitrievna Akhrosimova, known for her bluntness. Marya Dmitrievna gives a name day present to Natasha, who is one of the very few people not afraid of Marya. Over dinner, the idealistic Nicholas blurts out that Russia must conquer or die. After dinner, Natasha seeks out Sonya to join the guests for music and finds Sonya crying from despair that her love for her cousin Nicholas will never be sanctified with marriage. Natasha reassures Sonya.
Meanwhile, Count Bezukhov has had a sixth stroke, with no hope of recovery. Vasili Kuragin informs another potential heir, the Princess Catherine Semenovna, that the count has written a letter asking the tsar to legitimize his bastard son, Pierre, making him full and direct heir to his large fortune. Vasili and Catherine try to destroy the letter, but Anna Mikhaylovna prevents them. Pierre shyly visits his father’s room and sees the dying man, but leaves when his father dozes. The count dies.
At Bald Hills, Prince Nicholas Bolkonski’s estate outside Moscow, the prince lives in seclusion with his daughter, Mary, and her companion, Mademoiselle Bourienne. After a difficult geometry lesson, Mary reads a letter from her friend Julie Karagina, who misses Mary and is sad that Nicholas Rostov has left to join the war. Julie also informs Mary of Pierre’s inheritance. Mary writes back, counseling Julie to remember Christian patience and forgiveness.
Mary’s brother, Andrew Bolkonski, arrives at Bald Hills with his wife, Lise. Andrew tells Mary that he will be leaving for the war soon. Over dinner, the family and a guest, Michael Ivanovich, discuss the war. The old Prince Bolkonski is contemptuous of Napoleon, while Andrew asserts the French emperor’s grandeur. Mary is astonished at her brother’s failure to revere their father, and finds him much changed. Andrew admits to his father and his sister that he is unhappy in his marriage to Lise. Prince Nicholas sends his son off to war with a letter to General Kutuzov requesting favors for Andrew. Andrew bids farewell to his family and leaves.
Tolstoy introduces us to the deep and complex relationship between the two words of his novel’s title—war and peace—from the opening scene at Anna Pavlovna’s party. We see immediately that even the seemingly peacetime activity of partying is actually quite warlike. Anna runs her soirée with a precise strategy, much like a general, knowing exactly when to attack and when to withdraw. Her words to Vasili are described as an attack, and Vasili calls himself her slave. Though these phrases may be only metaphors, they nonetheless refer to a power structure in Russian high society that is as steely and directed as a war machine. Indeed, we soon see how much strategy Vasili uses to secure fortunes for his shiftless children Anatole and Helene, and how Helene herself is a ruthless gold-digger behind her marble beauty.
It is clear that the people in the society of War and Peace are on the attack, out for conquest. Moreover, we sense that those characters who are too naïve to recognize this warlike dynamic—as Pierre soon proves to be—will be defeated and plundered. Marya Dmitrievna even describes little Natasha as a “Cossack” warrior, using an admiring tone that suggests that the world of the novel is a place in which being called a warrior is a compliment. The idea that humans are fighting for their survival, holding off the enemy however they can, is a dominant motif throughout War and Peace, and one that Tolstoy examines from several angles. While the author never approves of extreme tactics, such as the cold-blooded ruthlessness of Helene Kuragina, it is arguable that he views love—and all of life, for that matter—as a battlefield upon which some sort of fighting is always necessary.
Tolstoy’s exploration of war in this novel also raises complicated issues about what it means to identify with one’s nation. The threat of a French war against Russia reveals the irony of a cultural situation in which, even in peacetime, the French-speaking Russian aristocrats already seem at war with the common, native Russian-speaking population. The division among nations during the Napoleonic wars also points to a division within Russia itself even before war begins. We hear, for example, that Hippolyte Kuragin speaks Russian like a foreigner. We wonder what the war against France might mean to this Russian who speaks only French. The cultural divide within the Russian nation in peacetime could, perhaps, simply become more noticeable in wartime, making the Napoleonic war an internal as well as an external threat.