What do we Live For?: The Character of Pierre in War and Peace

I find myself both repulsed and intrigued by Tolstoy’s character of Pierre in War and Peace. He is the pampered, illegitimate son of Count Bezukhov and when the old count dies Pierre inherits his vast fortune. What disgusts me about Pierre is his weak and feckless nature. He allows his friends to draw him into also sorts of unnecessary trouble, he is manipulated by Prince Vasili into marrying his beautiful yet shallow daughter, Helene, and he is repeatedly duped by his steward about the state of his business affairs. The plot that revolves around his cunning and manipulative wife, Helene, is especially difficult to read. He knows the better choice in all of these matters, but can’t help but let himself be influenced and even exploited by all of these people. Pierre’s character stands in sharp contrast to Prince Andrei and Count Rostov, whose military ambitions I have written about in my previous post. But just when one thinks that one can bear no more of Pierre’s story, Tolstoy puts profound thoughts into the head of this most pathetic character. The trouble with Pierre’s wife causes him to reevaluate his entire existence. I will share a few of Pierre’s thoughts as he flees Moscow and the torment which his wife has inflicted on him:

No matter what he thought about, he always returned to these same questions which he could not solve and yet could not cease to ask himself. It was as if the thread of the chief screw which held his life together were stripped, so that the screw could not get in our out, but went of turning uselessly in the same place.

‘What is bad? What is good? What should we love and what hate? What do we live for? And what am I? What is life, and what is death? What Power governs all?’

‘Can anything in the world make her or me less a prey to evil and death?—death which ends all and must come today or tomorrow—at any rate in an instant as compared with eternity.’ And again he twisted the screw with the stripped thread, and again it turned uselessly in the same place.

I look forward to seeing if Pierre really learns his lesson and grows or if he is, at his core, the same feckless man no matter the circumstances. I don’t know if I have ever enjoyed a work of fiction so much. I will be happily immersed in reading War and Peace this weekend. (I might take a few hours off, though, on Sunday night to cheer on the Philadelphia Eagles.)


Filed under Classics, Russian Literature

12 responses to “What do we Live For?: The Character of Pierre in War and Peace

  1. AnnieJ

    Oh, be of braver heart Melissa: You will find that Pierre becomes more and more wonderful as time moves on — and loveable as well… Just you wait…

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pierre is one of my few really beloved fictional characters. He carries the book really. Be patient with him. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I too am a Pierre-lover – despite his weaknesses (which I admit are very frustrating at times!) War and Peace really is marvellous, isn’t it? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love Pierre. Or, maybe I just love Paul Dano as Pierre in the recent adaptation, hard to tell 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ali

    Okay, I’ve got to finish The Leopard this weekend so I can start War and Peace! You’ve convinced me I must start it next!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I loved War and Peace. Thanks for the wonderful posts


  7. I’m really enjoying your War and Peace posts. It’s many years since I read it but I can still recall how immersive it was, like all of Tolstoy’s work. I still feel he is, in some ways, the only grown up writer.

    Liked by 1 person

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