After a long, hard journey with many halts along the way, I finally finished Leo Tolstoy’s gargantuan depiction of the Napoleonic wars: War and Peace. The book, at over a thousand pages, is not for the faint of heart or the easily distracted. After reading a particularly tedious description of the war portion of the novel, I ended up casting the book aside for over a year. It took watching this video of Dickens vs. Tolstoy https://youtu.be/gLXpYJDdEUI?t=4249 to remind me of why I started reading the book in the first place: to see the complicated lives of Natasha Rostova and Pierre Buzokhov unfold. And they unfold in a lovely, completely satisfying way.
It seems only fitting that a novel of this size would get a review of equally ponderous length. So read at your leisure. (The rest of this post features spoilers for a 200+ year-old book, so if you want to remain spoiler-free, click out now.)
I will admit to using Sparknotes to help me keep track of the characters during the first several books of the lengthy tome, and I also made use of their summaries for each section to make sure I got the gist of Tolstoy’s message. One thing that struck me as odd was the website’s claim that it was “surprising” that Natasha and Pierre ended up together. Perhaps this is due to my having watched the poor adaptation of War and Peace with Audrey Hepburn many years ago, which, despite its many omissions to the story, did keep the love of Pierre and Natasha front and center. While reading, it seemed fairly obvious to me that Tolstoy was setting up these two as endgame. There were subtle hints throughout the novel that they were destined for each other, such as in Book Six, chapter XIII when Natasha describes Pierre as “Red and Blue,” and later Sonya says she sees a man in Red and Blue in Natasha’s future. Or when the only woman in the entire novel who brings Pierre out of his existential ponderings is Natasha (See book Eight, chapter X and countless other spots).
That’s not to say that Natasha doesn’t fall in love with other people throughout the novel. In fact, I think a huge theme of the story is finding a spiritual love that transcends the more basic desires of puppy love, lust, and superficial love. Tolstoy gives us readers examples of each of these forms of love, all the while pointing to the ultimate form of romantic fulfillment: spiritual love. The genius of Tolstoy is he never tells you his opinion, nor does he make you hate any of the forms of love. He only shows you how a couple who are connected not only physically but spiritually are much more in-sync than any other type of romantic couple.
Tolstoy starts the novel by giving us examples of puppy love. In Book One, we are introduced to the Rostov family, including to 12-year-old Natasha. She has an irrepressible joy for life and stubbornness that will come back to haunt her later. Like most girls her age, she is smitten with a boy, her cousin Boris. In chapter XIII, they awkwardly confess their love for each other, and Boris declares they will be married in four years time. Natasha counts out the years on her fingers to discover she will be sixteen when this occurs. Oh joy! Tolstoy further shows the childishness of the situation by having Natasha enter the room with her favorite doll, and in a moment of confusion, she begs her crush to kiss her doll before kissing him herself. The juxtaposition between her doll and discussion of marriage illustrates that although Natasha might be very much in earnest in her feelings, she is much too young to be entering into matrimony.
Several years later, she admits to her mother that she doesn’t love Boris, but she still wants to be married (Book Six, chapter XIII). At this time she wants her husband to be her brother Nicholas’s friend Denisov, but her mother wisely tells her to wait for a more suitable match. Denisov is told “no,” by the parents and takes off, wounded. By the end of the book we see he wouldn’t have been a good fit for Natasha at all, as he is upset by the fact she has “let herself go,” after being married to Pierre (Epilogue, Chapter XI). Pierre, on the other hand, still loves his wife ardently.
It is around the same time of Natasha’s confession of wanting to be married that she meets Count Andre for the first time. Earlier in Book 6, Andrew had viewed Natasha from afar, admiring her joi de vie and regaining some of his own spark for life (Chapters I and II). They are formerly introduced at Natasha’s first ball and are instantly attracted to each other; Andrew even determines he is going to marry her right then and there without knowing a thing about her (Chapter XVI). Tolstoy never tells the reader not to like this couple, and he makes it very clear that Natasha and Andre are smitten with each other. But, from my point of view, their relationship is troubled from the very start.
First off, Andre and Natasha are both in love with the idea of being in love. Andre even considers this as he listens to Natasha sing: “The chief reason was a sudden, vivid sense of the terrible contrast between something infinitely great and illimitable within him and that limited and material something that he, and even she, was. This contrast weighed on and yet cheered him while she sang” (Book Six, chapter XIX). They found each other at a time when they were both opened to the idea of matrimony and immediately and impulsively threw all of their desires for being in a relationship at each other with no consideration of the outcome.
But my main reason for not believing this is a successful relationship is that they never get to know one another, as any couple ought to do before getting married. On Andrew’s second visit to the Rostov house and his third time seeing Natasha, Tolstoy tells us, “Natásha grew pale, in a panic of expectation, when she remained alone with him for a moment. Prince Andrew surprised her by his timidity. She felt that he wanted to say something to her but could not bring himself to do so” (Book Six, Chapter XXII). In Chapter XXIV, after becoming engaged, they still can’t find anything to talk about: “Often when all sitting together everyone kept silent. Sometimes the others would get up and go away and the couple, left alone, still remained silent. They rarely spoke of their future life. Prince Andrew was afraid and ashamed to speak of it…”
These two have conjured such a perfect image of the other person that they are afraid to say anything, lest their beloved thinks they’re stupid. This is not a healthy relationship. Natasha is always timid and uncertain of herself around him, not at all the normally exuberant girl she is (the girl who, incidentally, has NO problems talking to Pierre). Natasha even confesses as much to her mother in Chapter XXII: “’Only I feel afraid in his presence. I am always afraid when I’m with him. What does that mean? Does it mean that it’s the real thing?'”
No, Natasha, that is not the real thing. If you can’t form two coherent thoughts together with a guy you’re attracted to, the marriage isn’t going to go far. This becomes abundantly clear when Andrew cannot forgive Natasha for recklessly planning to elope with another man during their engagement. He can’t fathom that the same girl he placed on a pedestal months ago would have her head turned by another man (Book Eight, Chapter XXI).
We readers might also struggle to understand why Natasha lets such a good catch like Andrew Bolonski go in favor of the cad Anatole Kuragin. But to understand Natasha’s brazen decision, we have to realize she has been exposed to something decent girls wouldn’t have known anything about in 19th century Russia: carnal desire. Natasha, naive in the ways of the world, equates the sensual feelings she has in Anatole’s presence as love. She can’t understand why else a man would undress her with her eyes unless he wants to marry her (Book Eight, chapter X). When she starts to feel passions arising in herself due to Anatole’s amorous attentions, she reasons this has to be love: “But she also loved Anatole, of that there was no doubt. ‘Else how could all this have happened?’ thought she. ‘If, after that, I could return his smile when saying good-by, if I was able to let it come to that, it means that I loved him from the first. It means that he is kind, noble, and splendid, and I could not help loving him…'” While Tolstoy shows sex within the confines of marriage as good and noble, he makes it abundantly clear that sensual desires outside of marriage lead to the destruction of relationships and ultimately despair.
Pierre causes a plethora of issues for himself when he marries a woman (incidentally Helene Kuragina, Anatole’s wicked sister) based purely on lustful desires for her. In Book I Chapter XXVIII, Helene throws herself at him in a compromising manner, thus convincing Pierre that the only thing he can do to slake his lust is to marry her. After the marriage, Helene reveals her true colors by using her husband’s fortune to sleep around (Book Four). Miserable, Pierre eventually separates from his wife (Book Four, chapter VI), his opinion of women completely shattered until he meets Natasha. Tolstoy illustrates that a marriage without friendship or the coming together of mind and soul is never going to last. Lust is temporary and can always wear away with time. Love, particularly spiritual love, is eternal.
Tolstoy finally shows us what a successful relationship looks like when it is built not only on desire–the merging of bodies, but on friendship–the merging of minds and spirits. Pierre and Natasha start as family friends when the Rostovs welcome him into their home despite his illegitimacy (Book I). From there, Pierre becomes a mentor to the young Natasha, even introducing her to her future fiance Andrew (Book Six, Chapter XVI). Natasha views Pierre as a respectable, decent man, while Pierre is impressed with her vitality and later jealous of her relationship with his friend Bolonski (though he doesn’t know why).
Pierre doesn’t realize his feelings for Natasha until after she ruins her relationship with Andre. Drowning in her despair, Natasha refuses to see anyone but Pierre. In Chapter XII of Book Eight, he comes to see her to let her know Andre will not take her back, but he assures her he is her friend and will do everything in his power to help her. He even impulsively tells her that he would propose to her if he was available and worthy of her love. From that day on, he frequents the Rostov household and is the only one who can cheer up Natasha.
Pierre, meanwhile, is the only man who Natasha confides in. Unlike with Andrew, she has no problems opening up to him and spilling her soul. While it takes her until the end of the book to realize the extent of her feelings (unlike Pierre, who realizes it in Book IX and nobly takes a leave of absence from the house until his wife dies), when she does understand she loves Pierre, we’re told, “To her own surprise a power of life and hope of happiness rose to the surface and demanded satisfaction. From that evening she seemed to have forgotten all that had happened to her. She no longer complained of her position, did not say a word about the past, and no longer feared to make happy plans for the future” (Book Fifteen, Chapter XX).
Tolstoy shows us that this joy is not short-lived. Several years in the future, Pierre and Natasha are happily married with four children. Natasha is completely fulfilled in her role as wife and mother, and we’re told that “she had from the first moment [of the marriage] given herself up entirely—that is, with her whole soul, leaving no corner of it hidden from him. She felt that her unity with her husband was not maintained by the poetic feelings that had attracted him to her, but by something else—indefinite but firm as the bond between her own body and soul” (Epilogue, Chapter X).
Body and soul. The protagonists of War and Peace might have taken a few wrong turns on their journey of romance, but in the end, they succeed only when they find someone with whom they can share their soul. Pierre and Natasha’s love might not be as passionate as Anatole and her or as instantaneous as Andre and her, but it is built from a foundation of truly knowing a person and loving them for who they are, scars and all. In this aspect alone, Tolstoy’s work is a masterpiece–a giant send-up to the type of love we all aspire to find.