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The narrator tells us that the historical accounts of
Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia are oversimplified
and false. Napoleon did not rationally calculate the risk of invading
Russia, but went in unaware of the dangers of a Russian winter.
By the same token, Tsar Alexander did not lure the French into the
Russian heartland, but on the contrary wished to keep them out.
History has been written after the fact to lend a rational and intentional
character to what originally were almost random events.
At Bald Hills, Mary endures her father’s blame for his
quarrel with Andrew. She has only a vague understanding of the wars,
and fears for her brother’s life. Her father still insists that
Russia is safe, ignoring news that the French have already crossed
Russian borders, and dismissing Andrew’s letter warning that their
position at Bald Hills is dangerous. Increasingly grouchy and senile,
the old prince occupies himself with his garden, construction on
his estate, and his will and testament. Meanwhile, the prince’s
servant Alpatych goes to the city of Smolensk to ask the governor
about the risks of staying at Bald Hills. Gunfire is heard near
Smolensk, indicating that the French are very close. The governor’s
official report claims that Smolensk is safe, but, off the record,
the governor recommends that the Bolkonskis go to Moscow. On the
streets, people flee in terror, and the townspeople set Smolensk
on fire to thwart the invaders.
By chance, Alpatych encounters Andrew, who writes a letter
to Bald Hills telling his father and sister that it is urgent they
flee to Moscow immediately. Andrew leads his regiment in retreat
in the midst of a drought, his worldview altered by the abandonment
and burning of Smolensk. He visits Bald Hills, now abandoned. The ruined
fields and empty house deeply move him, and the sight of his soldiers
bathing naked in a dirty pond—as cannon fodder—depresses and disgusts
In St. Petersburg, Helene’s and Anna Pavlovna’s salons
continue almost unaffected by Napoleon’s invasion, with each salon
holding a different opinion of the war. When Kutuzov is made commander in
chief to heighten Russian military unity, he earns great praise, whereas
earlier he had been criticized.
Napoleon, meanwhile, prepares to march upon Moscow. The narrator
writes that historians overestimate the rationality behind Napoleon’s
decision to march and his cunning use of a Cossack informer, Lavrushka,
who, in reality, was a drunken looter.
The old prince and Mary are not in Moscow, but rather
at Andrew’s estate at Bogucharovo, where the prince has been taken after
a paralytic attack. He is too ill to travel, but Mary fears for
his safety as the French approach. Tearfully, the prince finally
expresses gratitude to his daughter for her lifetime of devotion
to him. A local official arrives to tell Mary that she must leave,
and she returns to the bedroom to find her father has died. Meanwhile,
Bagration writes to the Minister of War to present the debacle in
Smolensk in the best possible light. Alpatych tries unsuccessfully
to force the local Bogucharovo peasants to relocate to Moscow.
After her father’s funeral, Mary lies in her bedroom until
Mademoiselle Bourienne suggests that they ask the invading French
forces for protection. But there are no horses to take her away,
and the peasants are starving. Mary offers the peasants the grain
stored at Bogucharovo and urges them to leave with her. They refuse
her offer, however, thinking she wants to trick them back into serfdom.
Nicholas and two comrades ride to Bogucharovo by chance,
not knowing it is a Bolkonski residence. Nicholas finds Mary stranded there,
as the peasants refused to let her leave. He quickly brings order
to the rioting peasants. On her way to Moscow, Mary thinks of Nicholas
as her savior and wonders if she loves him. Nicholas too thinks
of marrying her, a wealthy heiress and attractive as well.
Andrew, summoned to serve General Kutuzov, meets Denisov, now
a lieutenant colonel, and reminisces privately about Natasha, whom
Denisov had courted. Kutuzov arrives, fatter than ever. Andrew greets
Kutuzov and tells him of Prince Bolkonski’s death. Denisov presents
to Kutuzov his plan for breaking the French lines of communication.
Andrew observes Kutuzov’s bored, faintly contemptuous seen-it-all
attitude toward the officers reporting to him. At his lodging, Kutuzov
interrupts his reading of a French novel to speak cordially with
Andrew about the late old Prince Bolkonski and to voice frustration
with military advisors. Andrew declines to serve the general at
As the French approach Moscow, the behavior of the Muscovites becomes
more frivolous. Violently anti-French publications are read throughout
the city, and aristocrats try hard not to lapse into their habit
of speaking French. Julie Drubetskaya, Boris’s wife, prepares to
flee. Pierre risks bankruptcy to finance his own regiment, but does
not himself prepare to fight. Julie teases Pierre that he is defending
Natasha’s reputation for personal reasons, and also tells him that
Mary is in town. Pierre is alarmed to realize that the French really
will invade Moscow. Seeing a French cook being flogged as a spy,
Pierre feels that he must leave the city. The thought of sacrificing his
belongings for his country thrills him.
The Russian and French troops clash at the Battle of Borodino. The
Russian forces are considerably weakened, though the narrator argues
that Borodino can be viewed as a Russian spiritual victory. The
narrator tells us that Russian historians have found a way to attribute
the victory to Kutuzov’s military genius, but these historians are
wrong. According to the narrator, there is nothing strategic about
the choice of Borodino as battle site; like everything else in history,
Borodino is the product of happenstance.
Leaving Moscow, Pierre comes upon a convoy of wounded
soldiers. An army doctor tells him they have less than a third of
the wagons they need to cart away the wounded from the next day’s battle.
At Borodino, Pierre sees the French and the Russian encampments
and watches a church procession in which Kutuzov kneels before a
holy icon. Pierre encounters Boris Drubetskoy and also Dolokhov,
who has weaseled his way into an important position. Dolokhov approaches
Pierre and asks his forgiveness for past wrongs. Andrew, meanwhile,
is miserable and disillusioned. He muses on his disillusionment
with his ideals: he has lost faith in love and honor, in his father’s
trust in his homeland, and in Natasha’s loyalty.
Pierre visits Andrew, who explains to him the folly of
the military commanders and the unpredictability of war. Cynical
about war in a general sense, Andrew still foresees a Russian victory
at Borodino the next day. That night, he thinks of Natasha with
In Napoleon’s quarters, the French emperor is finishing
his toilette and preparing for the battle on the Russian front.
He receives a portrait of his son as a gift. He sends an inspirational
proclamation to the troops, and then inspects the battle site, sending
out meticulously detailed instructions as to the deployment of troops.
The narrator says that none of these orders were ultimately followed
during the battle. Mocking the theory that Napoleon did not win
at Borodino because he had a cold, the narrator again muses that
history is made by ordinary men following their own will.
The next morning, Pierre awakens to the sounds of battle. Enchanted
by the beauty of the scene, he rides into the midst of the fighting
to observe, unaware that he is at the heart of the battlefield. Pierre
shows no fear, and the officers allow him to stay. When something
explodes next to him, however, he becomes terrified. Pierre returns
to the battery to find that the French have captured it and that
his recent acquaintances have been killed.
Napoleon, meanwhile, is surveying the battle, but neither
he nor his officers really understand what is happening. His officers
request reinforcements, and he grows troubled. Finally, news that
the French are not doing well reaches Napoleon. He sees the strange new
effects of military failure on the faces of his troops. On the other side,
Kutuzov decides against a retreat, and the message spreads throughout
the Russian troops, inspiring them.
Andrew’s regiment is still under heavy fire. He tries
to encourage his troops, but he is wounded by an exploding shell
and carried off in dazed confusion to the army hospital, conscious
that there is something in life that he does not understand. In
the military surgery unit, Andrew witnesses an amputation being
performed next to him, and he recognizes the patient to be Anatole
Kuragin. Andrew feels that compassion is the greatest human emotion.
Napoleon fails to feel any compunction when he muses on
his defeat and all the lives lost. He rationalizes Borodino as merely
an unfortunate miscalculation. Meanwhile, it rains on the field
of corpses, and the soldiers are tired of killing. The narrator
again muses on the irony that a bedraggled Russian army—one that
lost a full half of its men—could be considered spiritually triumphant
over the unstoppable French war machine. He concludes that the French were
opposed by a spirit greater than their own.
The fact that the French army invades as far as Bald Hills,
the Bolkonski estate, is symbolic of the end of the old prince’s
seclusion from the modern world. A holdover from the bygone days
of the previous tsar, resisting newfangled notions about modern
statecraft and society, the old prince attempts to keep both himself
and his daughter hidden away from the march of history. The eternal
truths of geometry mean more to him than social progress or historical change.
However, the prince’s growing irritability during the war years
shows that he is not at peace with himself. With Napoleon’s entry
into Smolensk, the prince’s naïve faith in old-fashioned times comes
to a painful end. In this regard, his death is a symbol of the end
of the Russian old regime: Russia will never be the same after Napoleon.
Tolstoy hints that the aristocracy will lose some of its old entitlements,
as we see when Princess Mary is stranded at Bald Hills because her
peasants refuse to harness her horses. Similarly, the nobleman Pierre,
visiting the battlefield of Borodino as the bullets whiz past, appears
absurdly out of place among the practical commoners who are accomplishing
the bulk of the victory. We feel that the new Russia will be less
aristocratic and more down to earth.
Tolstoy’s final analysis of the Russian victory at Borodino amounts
to a conclusion that a “greater spirit” than that of the French
proves triumphant. The final conqueror of France has turned out
to be neither brilliant Russian military strategy nor the unparalleled
heroism of the Russian soldiers, but rather a mystical awareness
of a Russian spiritual superiority. Tolstoy emphasizes that there
is no rational explanation for why the French are not triumphant
at Borodino. French troops significantly outnumber the Russians,
yet somehow the ultimate spiritual victory is Russia’s. Napoleon’s
self-serving rationalizations and shallow self-confidence have helped
him conquer half of Europe, but they are no match for the grand
spiritual example Kutuzov sets when he humbly kneels before a religious
icon during a church procession. Napoleon believes in his own brilliance,
but Kutuzov believes in something greater than himself. This belief
is the same sense of belonging to the larger universe that Andrew
contemplates when he stares at the sky at Austerlitz and that Pierre
feels in his Masonic experiments. Tolstoy implies that, ultimately,
it is humility rather than reason that emerges triumphant, whether
on the battlefield or in the trials of everyday life.
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