And so we return to the aristocratic social circles of Russian high society, as we go back to revisit the now-fabulously-wealthy Pierre.

The interesting thing is that Pierre’s character is so naive that money seems to have done nothing to him.  He’s still just as confused as ever – and kind of bumbling along from one thing to another.  It should be mentioned at this point, that I don’t think this is just a random character attribute that Tolstoy gives him.

Pierre, in fact, seems to represent the very epitome of Tolstoy’s approach to history.  We’ve already seen throughout Book 2, that Tolstoy downplays the role that “great men” have in making history.  Generals may have made plans and given orders, but we’ve seen that it is the thousands of small decisions by individuals that actually change the course of a battle.

So the question is, then – if that’s the case, and you can’t really change the flow of history from the top down – is it better just to go along with the flow and let things happen?  What do you think, thoughtful reader?

Tolstoy plays with this idea throughout the book – I can’t remember from last time I read it, whether he ever comes right out and says that it’s better to just let things happen around you – because that would be a bit stupid.  But Tolstoy is fascinated with the idea that history just seems to happen, regardless of people’s own wishes or desires.

So he plays around with it in a way that only a novel-writer can: he creates a character like Pierre.  Pierre, at least in everything we’ve seen him do so far (and in today’s chapter) just lets events carry him along.  Okay, so Prince Vassily is cheating him out of his money?  He’s not sure.  He just lets it happen.  His architect says he should do up his house?  He’s not sure.  He just lets it happen.  Everyone drops hints that he should marry Helene Kuragin?  He’s not sure.  He – well, actually, he does fight this one a little bit.  By the end of the chapter, he’s debating in his head whether that would be a good idea – the first time we’ve seen him stop and take a think about it.

But then again, as Tolstoy points out, with the incident of the snuffbox – Helene has cleavage.

Is that a dumb thing to base a marriage on?  Common sense would say yes, but I’m sure we’ve all seen relationships (especially among young people) that have started on just that shallow a basis nowadays.

Anyway, the point of all that is that Pierre, because he is portrayed as naive, is happy to go along with the flow – and so Tolstoy can use this character as a kind of experiment.  “What would happen,” he sorts of asks us, “if a man just let things happen to him, rather than vainly trying to change things?”

After all, Pierre did nothing in Book 1- and he made a major fortune out of it.   Not bad for doing nothing, is it?

What do you think?  Better to let life run its course?  Or jump in and seriously grab history by the horns?

We shall return to this question throughout this year of War and Peace . . . Till tomorrow.

7 thoughts on “One-Year War and Peace 3.1 – Pierre’s New Life

  1. Mmmm … interesting question. I guess the whole issue of free will vs determinism is one of the most fundamental questions of all philosophy – how much of what happens around us and to us is pre-determined or, at least, determined by forces beyond our control? I think Tolstoy makes it pretty clear, throughout the book, that he thinks that free will is a bit of an illusion – but I don’t think he means by that that we should all just sit back and let it happen … which you can’t really do, anyway, because even choosing to do nothing is a choice.

    One of my favourite lines in War and Peace, and the one quoted at the beginning of the Bondarchuk movie, is actually a quote from Pierre himself – “since depraved people join together and create a force, honest people need only do the same. It’s as simple as that”. So that’s far from an endorsement of inaction. I think Tolstoy’s point is basically that we delude ourselves if we think we, or anyone in particluar, is shaping history – it’s how the little things all come together that ultimately creates history. And because we, each and every one of us, are part of that mass of little things, we can make choices about whether we will work together for good or evil. And that’s a view of history and philosophy that I can agree with.

    But, having said all of that, I do lov the way Pierre just kind of bumbles along, especially in this chapter – and yet, even so, when he becomes aware, on the one hand of everyone else’s apparent assumptions that he and Helene will make a couple and, on the other hand, of her raw sexuality, and on yet another hand, of his lack of real espect for her as a human being, he seems to be overwhelmed by the realisation that, for once, he really will have to make a decision. And, of course, we see later on that that decision, like every other, will have its myriad of consequences.

    Hope everyone is having a blast of a weekend.

  2. Yeah, I’m not entirely sure myself what Tolstoy’s eventual point is – it probably is the one you quoted. (Or at least that’s the point the movie used.)

    But, nonetheless, I think he is fascinated with the idea of just letting everything happen. So, in the last book, we had Prince Bagration running around the battlefield, giving no orders, and just running with whatever was going on. And nearly all the time, Pierre treats most things as fate or unchangeable.

    So I think it’s safe to say that doing nothing and letting life happen is an idea that Tolstoy likes to play with.

  3. Yes … well, at very least, we know Tolstoy believes that life is a lot bigger than what this or that person does – and I think you’re right in that the whole concept is one that he loves to play with. It’s certainly something the re-emerges, in different guises, quite often, as I recall it. And Bagration exemplified it in a wy quite different to Pierre – Pierre seems happy to let everything just go its own way, whereas Bagration, as I saw him, liked to believe that he was the one at the steering wheel (or whatever the 19th century equivalent should be), even though he wasn’t at all.

    In any event, the whole issue of how much we choose, and how much we think we choose, and how and by what or by whom history is propelled forwards will, I guess, be very much a part of our discussions here in the last couple of weeks of June 2009!!

  4. Pierre is now a rich count, but nothing really changes with him. He’s still a ‘go-with-the-flow’ kinda’ guy. And what do I (as the ‘thoughtful reader’ think of that? Matt’s question . . . )

    Well, unless you have anything really original to suggest, it’s best to keep quiet and do just that – go-with-the-flow – do what you’re told and do your best with it. If you’re especially talented at figuring out things – perhaps seeing strategies and ways of defending your country, and beating the enemy, then certain – stand right up and say so!

    That’s what I have to say; nothing more than that.


    As for Pierre being ‘not sure’ about Prince Vasily’s cheating him of money, I’d go further to say (at this point in the story) that Pierre doesn’t even so much as suspect he’s doing so. I doubt Pierre even knows how much money he’s got.

    Of course, the cleavage could play a major part in his decision – he knows he’s expected to get married to ‘somebody’ . . . he’s not going to get away that easily – it might as well be to somebody with cleavage.

    But did he really make a decision? It seems to me he hadn’t uttered a word about marriage to Helene . . . they were just sitting there – him looking as dumb as her (she) – then Vasily comes bumbling in to congratulate them. Vasily decided for them, it seems to me – neither Pierre nor Helene had the nerve to correct him, to say ‘hey! We haven’t talked this over yet, fella’!’

    Pierre ‘went-with-the-flow’. Even though his thoughts of marriage were just ‘thoughts’, he didn’t actually ask her. Everybody else expressed the couple’s desires for them – they just didn’t contradict them, so their silence was taken for a ‘yes’.

    But that’s for another chapter, isn’t it? I’ll save my notes for then.


  5. Oh, the heck with it – I’ll go on . . .

    No – I don’t see that he (or she) actually uttered a desire to marry, one to the other – there was a moment when he ‘realized’, after getting all excited with the view of the cleavage and her nearness – but I don’t find anywhere in the chapter where he actually says ‘Helene, I’d like to marry you’, nor do I find her saying anything similar.

    He’s doesn’t really have the wherewithal to make decisions anyway, so in his case? Yes – it’s best to go-with-the-flow – if Vasily doesn’t get him, somebody else will, but he couldn’t care less anyway. As long as he keeps getting to look down Helene’s cleavage and going to all those swell soirees and dinners.

    As for Helene . . . did she really want to marry? I have a feeling her father (Vasily) just walked into the parlor and said ‘get yourself a nice dress, kid – you’re gettin’ married.

    When I compare her chutzpa to that of little Princess Mary, who has the guts to come right out say – I’m not getting married to anyone – I truly think if Helene had walked in on Pierre, getting it on with a ‘companion’ of the family, she would have gone ahead and married him anyway, just for the money and because her father wished it.

    I liked these two characters when I first read through Book 1, but in this book, they’ve both disappointed me.

  6. Hi! It’s me again! That crazy old woman from Canada – the one that’s obsessively keeping a character count . . .

    The end of book 2 saw me with a count of 292 – let’s see what Book 3 will add to that one.

  7. I still feel more or less the same about Pierre and Helene . . . I have read to the end of Book 7, and they have failed to impress me. I’m not saying they’re ‘weak’ characters – they are, exactly as I imagine the author planned them to be – one is ‘shallow’ and has nothing more on her mind but society and how she looks. The other, Pierre, is easily led by people – not only by Vasily, but later on in the book, by others.

    He doesn’t seem to think for himself, this young man.

    At the end of this first chapter, Pierre is feeling uncomfortable at being coerced into hooking up with Helene.


    I will be adding these to my character count of 292 . . .

    Chief Steward –

    He had to sign papers, to present himself at government offices, the purpose of which was not clear to him, to question his chief steward, to visit his estate near Moscow, and to receive many people who formerly did not even wish to know of his existence but would now have been offended and grieved had he chosen not to see them.

    Diplomatist – a diplomatist fresh from Berlin with the very latest details of the Emperor Alexander’s visit to Potsdam, and of how the two august friends had pledged themselves in an indissoluble alliance to uphold the cause of justice against the enemy of the human race.

    Valet – Vasily’s valet . . . And my valet can go in your carriage.

    Vinesse – “That is probably the work of Vinesse,” said Pierre, mentioning a celebrated miniaturist, and he leaned over the table to take the snuffbox while trying to hear what was being said at the other table.

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