Analysis: Books Twelve–Thirteen

The spiritual connection developing between Nicholas and Princess Mary in these chapters mirrors the deeply moving bond between Natasha and Andrew when they are reunited. In both cases Tolstoy emphasizes a profound spiritual union between a man and a woman that may have an erotic element, but that goes far beyond mere romantic love. Nicholas is unquestionably attracted to Mary, but his attraction is different from all his earlier dalliances with women, including his love for Sonya. With Mary, he feels more than simple pleasure or happiness, as he is struck by her moral earnestness and spiritual devotion. Similarly, Natasha’s connection with Andrew, though once merely a romantic crush, now consists of a deeper caring and devotion, as she looks after her dying former fiancé. For both Rostov siblings, involvement with the spiritually serious Bolkonski family proves to be an emotional education. Both Nicholas and Natasha move beyond their earlier pursuits of romantic happiness and enter a more spiritually committed state.

Pierre’s identity crisis as he wanders through occupied Moscow is a major turning point in the development of his character, and an important symbolic event in the novel overall. Pierre’s identity has always been a bit uncertain, even from the beginning when he is introduced as a bastard child without any ensured inheritance. Educated abroad, Pierre feels like an outsider: he has awkward ways, his sincerity distinguishes him from the polished fakes of the Russian upper classes, and even his body looks different. This sense of being an outcast reaches its culmination when Pierre, watching Moscow burn, asks who he is. This uncertain identity, however, is also a source of power for Pierre. His refusal to tell his French captors his name comes across as an act of heroism rather than of cowardice, and his nameless status earns him notoriety in the prison camp. Being nameless forces him to focus inwardly on questions of inner happiness, and indeed Pierre finds himself happier in prison than ever before—just as the prison dog, called by several different names, is happy being unidentified. Identity is social and external, while happiness is internal only.

Pierre, one of the novel’s more innocent characters, simply cannot understand the cruelty he witnesses. Taken as prisoner before the French marshal, he feels a momentary awareness of common human brotherhood with the man, and is reassured that this feeling will prove stronger than the dictates of war. But Pierre is wrong, as the Frenchman quickly regains his belief that the French and Russians are enemies, ordering Pierre to be executed. The execution of the five prisoners, which Pierre witnesses in a state of trauma, is utterly unexplainable and unjustifiable to his simple heart. The killing is objectionable even to the French executioners, who appear ashamed of their actions, especially the one of them who swoons when it is over.

Platon Karataev is one of the most celebrated characters in War and Peace. His qualities have been trumpeted not only by earlier Soviet critics who saw in him the best of the Russian peasant virtues, but also by foreigners who have seen him as a figure of unparalleled vitality. Platon’s fame is surprising, as he appears in only a dozen pages of this vast novel. But he appears at a critical moment, during Pierre’s lapse into misery, confusion, and existential anguish in prison. Platon shows up as a beacon of hope simply because he needs so little to be happy, demonstrating to Pierre that happiness is separate from all external factors, including health and freedom. Platon bustles busily around the prison, talking to the dog, sewing a shirt for a French officer, and quoting Russian proverbs at key moments. His first name is the Russian name for Plato, the Greek philosopher who counseled us to look beyond the material world to a realm of greater peace and certainty. Platon, though an illiterate man who has probably never heard of Plato, illustrates the philosopher’s life-affirming teachings.