For my final paper for Russian Literature, I read War and Peace and decided to write about one of the main characters, Pierre Bezukhov, who is an unlikely hero. Large, fat, and bespectacled, he stumbles into fashionable society and shocks people with his unconventional political views. He is both physically and socially awkward, and does not fit the conventional characteristics of a hero. Yet in War in Peace, Leo Tolstoy makes Pierre one of the main protagonists for precisely this reason. Pierre shows through his development in the novel that what is important is not necessarily external actions, but one’s inner attitude. Thus, by the end of the novel, Pierre does not change externally—he doesn’t become less absent-minded or lose weight—he does undergo a complete spiritual transformation due to the many misadventures and sufferings that he undergoes.
We first meet Pierre at a St. Petersburg soirée in 1805. Tolstoy describes him as being “a massive, fat young man” and the illegitimate son of a rich nobleman, Count Bezukhov. Anna Pavlovna Scherer, a lady-in-waiting to the dowager empress and the hostess, immediately feels discomfort at Pierre’s arrival, not on account of his physical girth but because of his “intelligent and at the same time shy, observant, and natural gaze which distinguished him from everyone else in that drawing room.” Pierre, being raised abroad in Paris, is an outsider ignorant of the unwritten rules of society, making him somewhat of a wild card. Anna Pavlovna’s fears are confirmed when Pierre has a lively political conversation with the French viscount who was the guest of honor. Pierre defends Napoleon’s execution of the duc d’Enghien, saying that it was “a necessity of state,” and even praises the French Revolution, which did him no favors with the other party guests, who pepper him with questions. Pierre answered them all with a simple, childish smile, which showed that even with his radical views, he really was harmless.
Pierre acts as a foil to his best friend Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who matches Pierre’s youthful exuberance and idealism with cynicism. Prince Andrei, tired of society life and of his marriage to the beautiful Lise, is entering the army to fight against Napoleon. “Never, never marry, my friend,” he tells Pierre, “Marry when you’re old and good for nothing…Otherwise all that’s good and lofty in you will be lost.” Andrei wants to leave his wife and society for the sake of greatness, but Pierre begins to become tangled up in worldly affairs, since he might inherit his father’s immense fortune.
Despite becoming potentially one of the richest men in Russia, Pierre is quite clueless. He carouses with another friend, Anatole Kuragin, and gets himself banished to Moscow. When he visits his dying father while he receives Holy Unction, he acts out of place, like everything is somewhat alien to him. Tolstoy expertly shows Pierre’s feeling of detachment from his father and everything surrounding him by calling all the clergy participating in the rite “clerical persons.” Although he was raised in Paris and had no real connection with his father, Pierre felt societal expectations pressuring him into awkwardly acting out the part of a dutiful son at his father’s deathbed.
Pierre is surrounded by people who claim they have his best interests in mind, but have their own ulterior motives. Prince Vassily, Anatole’s father, wants to covertly change Count Bezukhov’s will so he could inherit the lion’s share of the wealth. Princess Anna Mikhailovna Drubetskoy, a family friend of the Bezukhovs, wants Pierre to inherit everything so she and her son Boris could benefit. Prince Vassily’s machinations fail, and Count Bezukhov dies making Pierre (whom the tsar conveniently recognized as legitimate) the new count and inheritor of a vast fortune.
|Hélène and Pierre|
As for Pierre, he remains subject to the whims of other people as well as to his own passions—he is stuck in the mire of the world. St. Theophan the Recluse describes the world as full of people who go around in circles, questioning, seeking pleasure, and being subject to their own whims: “There is an entire world full of people…whose every way in all of this has led to a system, placed everyone under its laws, and made these laws a necessity for everyone who belongs to this sphere.” Thus, Pierre gets caught up with the beguiling but empty-headed Hélène Kuragin, Prince Vassily’s daughter. Pierre finds her physically attractive but is full of doubt because she doesn’t seem like the brightest lampada in the chapel. Yet all of society, and especially the Kuragins, seem to conspire to put them together, until finally, after a party, Prince Vassily marches in on the two of them and acts as if Pierre and Hélène are already engaged in a tragicomic scene. Left alone, Pierre says to her, “Je vous aime,” and they kiss. Yet he soon comes to regret this Je vous aime. When Hélène starts to be unfaithful to Pierre things start to take a turn for the worse for him. Trapped in a loveless marriage and surrounded by people who only want his money, it does not take too much to make Pierre snap…
To be continued.