“Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes. But I warn you, if you don’t tell me that this means war, 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....”
These words from the St. Petersburg society hostess Anna Pavlovna Scherer brilliantly open War and Peace in Book One, Chapter 1, establishing a dual focus on the wartime idea of Napoleonic aggression and the peacetime idea of conversation at a high-society party. These lines immediately attune us to the fact that war and peace are constantly interwoven in the novel, as military maneuvers go hand in hand with socializing. Anna Pavlovna is surprisingly well informed about current events, a far cry from the somewhat insulated mindset we might expect from such a socialite. The Italian principalities of Genoa and Lucca are far from St. Petersburg, yet Anna Pavlovna has a global view of their importance, just as a minister of war might have. Her toughness in addressing the prince, with threatening phrases such as “I warn you” and “I will have nothing more to do with you,” shows that she is ready to act like a general—a trait we also see in her dictatorial way of running her party. Moreover, Anna Pavlovna shows a diplomat’s sensitivity to the political subtleties of language, as when she calls Napoleon by his Italian name, Buonaparte, rather than his French name, Bonaparte, thereby delicately insulting Napoleon’s non-French background.
Yet if Anna Pavlovna introduces the prospect of war into the novel, she also reveals how arbitrary and absurd people’s understanding of war often is, both on and off the battlefield. Her declaration that Napoleon is the Antichrist comes across as exaggerated and ridiculous, especially in light of later developments, when we see Tolstoy’s portrait of the French emperor as a silly, vainglorious, and deluded little man. Napoleon may be dangerous, but he is hardly the principal of evil incarnate. Similarly, Anna Pavlovna’s threats to the prince are social games, not intended seriously or taken seriously. As such, we feel that most talk of war in higher state circles may be similarly blustery and hollow. Anna Pavlovna may only be feigning an interest in the war to appear current and informed. We do not detect much real emotion in what she says, even though the war may well threaten her own country’s well being. Moreover, Anna Pavlovna makes no effort to argue against the prince’s supposed defense of Napoleon by appealing to reason or evidence. Instead, she does so merely through a trivial threat that she will no longer speak to the prince if he holds to his opinions. Reason and clear judgment appear to have little validity in discussions about war, as Tolstoy repeatedly shows throughout the novel.