In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy clearly values characteristics such as spontaneity, honesty, vitality, and liveliness. He makes this obvious to the reader through narratives that indicate that he values forms of naturalness over forms of artificiality. In the novel, Tolstoy’s exoteric message is that a devotion to divine love, or a love for all things that exist, is the best way to live. However, in comparing two important characters, Platon Karataev and Natasha Rostova, his esoteric message seems to be that most people cannot be completely devoted to divine love, as those who understand, or who come to understand, divine love almost always do so at their peril or at their end.
Platon, a middle aged, Russian soldier taken prisoner in a French controlled Moscow, is eventually shot by two French soldiers, because he is sick and weak, and can’t keep up with the rest of the prisoners. Tolstoy holds Platon up as ideal for his honesty, his balance of masculinity and femininity, and his traditional Russian peasant manner which evokes vitality and earthliness. Natasha, a young Russian woman, is also very natural, and this is apparent from the moment she is introduced in the novel; bursting into a room, knocking over some items and startling some people (Tolstoy 68). Tolstoy wants the reader to admire her lack of inhibition and disregard of social customs and norms. However, unlike Platon, Natasha finds that her genuineness is called into question when she falls for Anatol, a handsome character who projects fakeness, and superficiality. After learning that her fiance, Prince Andrei, was injured in battle, Natasha repents for considering an elopement with Anatol. After Prince Andrei’s death from his war wounds, she marries and grows old with another character, Pierre who is neither as superficial as Anatol or as ultimately enlightened as Prince Andrei. Initially, it seems as if Tolstoy casts harsh judgment on Natasha for succumbing to the temptations of earthly, romantic relationships, but when comparing a character like Natasha to one like Platon, as well as others like them, it becomes clear that while Tolstoy believes Platon’s character to be more ideal, he understands that most people cannot attain that ideal, and is ultimately forgiving. A comparison of these two characters highlights Tolstoy’s otherwise esoteric message, that a complete devotion to divine love is optimal but not expected, given the price those that attain it, sometimes end up paying. Tolstoy values characteristics and themes of naturalness, such as spontaneity, vitality, and rejection of social customs. He finds the opposite traits of artificiality and rigid conformism, to be characteristics of a superficial person.
War and Peace opens with a scene set in a soiree hosted by Anna Pavlovna. The gathering is clearly dominated by social customs and norms of upper class people who are overly absorbed in the royal system, which Tolstoy obviously dislikes. Every guest performed the ceremony of greeting this unknown, uninteresting, and unnecessary aunt. Anna Pavlovna followed these greetings with solemn, melancholy attention, silently approving them. Ma tante repeated exactly the same phrases to each of them concerning his health, her own, and that of Her Majesty, who, thank God, was better today. (Tolstoy 34)Tolstoy’s disdain for the upper class social ritual of meeting Anna Pavlovna’s aunt is evident in his narrative description of the Aunt as “unknown, uninteresting, and unnecessary”. He also makes it clear how repetitive, and generic the ritual is, and that it is similarly meaningless to the Aunt. What Tolstoy does find worthwhile and meaningful, is a character’s genuineness and liveliness. When describing Natasha, it becomes clear that she exhibits this trait of liveliness:The visitor’s daughter was already smoothing down her dress and looking at her mother inquiringly when suddenly from the next room were heard the footsteps of boys and girls running to the door, the crash of a chair knocked over, and then a girl of thirteen, hiding something in the folds of her short muslin skirt, darted in and stopped short in the middle of the room… The little girl, not pretty but half full of life, with her black eyes and wide mouth, her childish shoulders from which the bodice had slipped in her rapid flight, black curls tossed back, slender bare arms… (Tolstoy 68, 69). Both Tolstoy’s meticulous description of Natasha’s appearance, which describes her as not conventionally pretty, but still clearly attractive, as well as her sudden, spontaneous burst into the room, that he describes as “full of life”, seem to indicate that Natasha demonstrates qualities valued by Tolstoy, even at first introduction.
Characters that show complete devotion or full understanding of Tolstoy’s ideological notion of divine love end up dying. Both Platon and Prince Andrei are an example of this theme. Platon who is admirably described by Tolstoy as kind or spontaneous, tries to assure a frightened Pierre who has been thrown in a prison cell: ‘You’ve seen a lot of trouble, sir, eh?’ said the little man suddenly. And there was such simplicity and kindliness in that sing-song voice that Pierre tried to reply, but his jaw trembled and he felt tears rising to his eyes. ‘Eh, don’t fret, dear man,’ he said in the gentle, caressing, singsong voice in which old Russian peasant women talk. (Tolstoy 1157)In addition to his comforting voice, Tolstoy emphasizes Platon’s affinity for animals, as well as his representation of traditional, hard working down to earth Russian culture and spirit, that Tolstoy associates with naturalness in the novel. Yet, despite these admirable traits, Platon still dies at the hands of French soldiers in Moscow (Tolstoy 1271). Initially, it seems tenuous to say that Platon’s death was somehow caused by his characteristic spiritual understanding of the connection of himself to the world, but the nature of Prince Andrei’s death begins to demonstrate Tolstoy’s message. As a character, Prince Andrei has ignored earlier opportunities to be self-reflective; and only really has a revelation as he sits on his deathbed:‘Love? What is love?’ he thought. ‘Love hinders death. Love is life. All, all that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists only because I love. All is connected by love alone. Love is God, and to die means that I, a particle of love, shall return to the universal and eternal source’. (Tolstoy 1175)Initially, this dialogue seems out of place. The words seem like delirious ramblings from a near death Prince Andrei. However, Prince Andrei is talking about divine love, meaning a love for all and everything, rather than a love for the material, and the particular. He uses the word ‘love’ many times, but this love encompases the notion that there is a universal and eternal source. Tolstoy seems to indicate that as Prince Andrei is about to die, or is close to death, he finally understands something deeper about the universal truth of ‘divine love’ and recognizes a higher power.
The death of Prince Andrei makes it more clear that Tolstoy believes death to be associated with a final comprehensive understanding of life. Platon indirectly is led to his death by his sweet, gentle nature and an understanding of the divine love, while Prince Andrei realizes it on his deathbed, too late to apply his newfound knowledge to his relationship with Natasha and to his life generally. While there is not a direct causal relationship between their natures and their deaths, Tolstoy seems to conclude that those who abide by a sincere divine love will ultimately die because of it or only understand it fully at their deaths. Some will never come to understand or appreciate it. While Tolstoy’s most enlightened characters meet a fatal end, he demonstrates a forgiveness towards Natasha, a character who seems to have the qualities of genuineness and spontaneity admired by Tolstoy but who reaches more and more towards an earthly understanding of love rather than a universal divine love by the end of the novel. Natasha’s descent begins with the opera scene, where she is seduced by Anatol, and gives into the social decorum of the opera. …turned their attention in eager expectation to the stage. Natasha too fixed her eyes on the stage… a door leading to the parterre on the sides nearest the Rostovs’ box creaked and the masculine footsteps of a belated arrival were heard… Natasha, following the direction of the Countess’s eyes, saw an extraordinarily handsome adjutant approaching their box with a self-assured yet courteous bearing (Tolstoy 677, 678).As the reader later finds out, this military officer is Anatol Kuragin, who Natasha later considers eloping with. Not only is she demonstrating earthly love by her fixation on Anatol, but she also begins to enjoy the facade that is the opera, where every action is quite literally planned beforehand, and all the emotions seen on stage are artificial, merely a creation of someone else. In this way, Anatol too mirrors the artificiality of the opera, distancing Natasha from Tolstoy’s ideals. However, as the reader learns later in the novel, Natasha ends up marrying Pierre, and growing into an “old Russian woman,” someone who, while not having achieved the same level of enlightenment as Platon and Prince Andrei, can still be admired for her authenticity.
Tolstoy delivers a well thought out, mature message in his attempts to understand life and the world around him. He shows the reader that he values liveliness, Russian tradition and culture, spontaneity, authenticity, vitality, and a rejection of social decorum. He also highlights the importance of divine love, or an appreciation for everything, as well as highlighting a dislike for earthly love, or a fixation on the individual, the particular, or the material things in life. However, while Tolstoy considers these traits to be ideal in a person, he concedes that a complete devotion to them is connected to death, whether it be the cause of the ideals, or a product of them. Because of this, he understands the actions of those who do not attain the status of his ideal person, and does not judge them harshly. This is what seems to be Tolstoy’s innate message in War and Peace, as viewed through a comparison of Natasha and Platon.
Tolstoy, Lev. War and Peace. New York: Penguin Books, 1968. Print.