The Sum of These Infinitesimals: Some Concluding Thoughts about War and Peace

At the beginning of Book Three of War and Peace, Tolstoy writes about the laws of historical movement: “Only by taking an infinitesimally small unit for observation (the differential of history, that is, the individual tendencies of men) and attaining to the art of integrating them (that is, finding the sum of these infinitesimals) can we hope to arrive at the laws of history.”  Throughout his many commentaries on history in War and Peace, the author rejects the idea that it was a single great man, like Napoleon or Alexander I, that caused the French invasion of Russia and the army’s resulting destruction.  The entire second epilogue, for instance,  is dedicated to Tolstoy’s thoughts on the study of history as he explores concepts like liberty, grandeur, power and religion and how they come to bear on the examination of past events; it is a shame that many don’t read this section and that it is not included in certain editions of the English translations.  As I reflect on the work as a whole, two of Tolstoy’s themes keep coming to mind: war and love.  He examines both of these subjects on a grand scale but it is equally important for him to focus his text on the lives of individuals, getting down to the level of the “infinitesimals.”

The male protagonists in War and Peace, Prince Andrei, Nicholas Rostov, and Pierre, go through  significant transformations in their thinking about warfare after they experience it firsthand.  Early in the story, Prince Andrei and Nicholas both, as I discussed in a previous post, display a great deal of bravado and desire to go to war to attain fame and honor.  Their horrific experiences on the battlefield, however, cause both men to lose their naïve and callow views of battle.  They come to the realization that individual glory is not important but that they are part of a much larger and important whole.  But it’s really Pierre, a pampered and privileged count, whose view of life and war change most dramatically because of his experiences of watching men fight and die.   Pierre doesn’t join the army as a soldier like Andrei or Nicholas, but his desire to experience the events of a battlefield  and his ensuing hardships as a result of his curiosity force him to have a dramatic existential shift in his worldviews.  When placed under situations of extreme duress, Pierre shows himself to be a good, decent man and even a hero.

The most surprising theme for me that I encountered in War and Peace is that of love; one encounters examples of many different types of love throughout Tolstoy’s epic—romantic love, erotic love, conjugal love, patriotic love, familial love and even love of one’s enemy.  Due to traumatic events they suffer while serving in the Russian army, Prince Andrei and Nicholas also come to the conclusion that human connections and love are more important than anything in life, including glory.  (Achilles would have been horrified by both of them.)  Nicholas, when he meets the woman that he will eventually marry has an epiphany; even though she is rather plain, it is her gracious and beautiful soul that attracts him.   Prince Andrei becomes, I think, a softened and much more likeable character when he is overcome with love for a woman.  I was glad to see that, in the end, this woman (I don’t want to give her name away) grows to make herself worthy of his love.

The beginning parts of War and Peace are difficult to read because of Pierre’s confused notions of love.  He awkwardly speaks to his fiancée the  moment they become engaged, “‘Je vous amie‘! he said, remembering what has to be said at such moments: but his words felt so weak that he felt ashamed of himself.”  It is not so much love Pierre feels but lust.  In the epilogue of War and Peace, Tolstoy presents us with a very different Pierre who has settled into a tranquil and happy domestic life during his second marriage.  Tolstoy’s epic ends on a positive note for his characters as far as love is concerned but his view of conjugal love is realistic, attainable by anyone.  These final scenes are captivating and unexpected in their depiction of a couple engaging in mundane, everyday, family activities; Tolstoy provides a realistic view of love in which mutual kindness, a deep love and unconditional acceptance are attained.

I have that empty, restless feeling one has when one finishes a truly great book.  I am still not quite sure what reading I will settle into next; nothing seems to have captured my attention since I have completed Tolstoy’s masterpiece.

9 Comments

Filed under Classics, Russian Literature

9 responses to “The Sum of These Infinitesimals: Some Concluding Thoughts about War and Peace

  1. I am glad you found Pierre redeemed himself! 🙂 The emotional journey his character makes is one of my favourite parts of the novel. If you’re like me you’ll have a book hangover from this for quite a while – it’s very hard to know where to go next…

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  2. Ali

    I have so enjoyed your posts on War and Peace, Melissa. I most definitely am going to get to this novel this year. You have convinced me! I felt the way you felt upon finishing War and Peace when I finished The Death of the Heart last year. For some reason, that book really engrossed me in so many ways. I also felt like that after finishing Middlemarch. It’s always so hard to start something after you finish a truly great book.

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  3. buriedinprint

    What Ali said. And, also, i think it’s even more dramatic when it’s not only a great book but one which has consumed your reading hours for as long a time as War and Peace does. It changes the shape of your days for a spell. Still, there is always rereading to think of, for the future!

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  4. All right, if you actually like the second epilogue, you are the novel’s ideal reader.

    One possibility for reading, now that I think of it, is to read about W&P. Some criticism.

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  5. Severn Meadows

    If you haven’t read it, I would suggest as a wonderful next book, Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 publ. 1972/1974. (I’ve read recently that the later editions have been much changed from the original edition). The last time I read it, I did straight after War and Peace (having bought the wonderful Vintage Classics hardback edition – 8th November 2007, translated by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear.)

    You feel in the world of Tolstoy, transposed to the first World War – or you feel how saturated by the style and thought Solzhenitstyn is by Tolstoy._

    One of his themes is the self-interested behaviour of the Russian generals. In contrast, he writes the bravery of the regimental soldier:

    ‘Half of the troops were reservists who a mere month ago had reported to their assembly-points wearing bast shoes, fresh from their villages, their fields, their private aspirations, and their families. They knew nothing of European politics, the war, the battle the Second Army was fighting, or the objectives of their army corps, whose number they did not even know. And yet they did not run away, they did not waver or malinger, but drew on some unknown source of strength to cross the barrier which divides a man’s love of his family and instinct of self-preservation from devotion to cruel duty. ..(though, despite Tolstoy’s view, they would have needed [Colonel] Kabanov and his battalion commanders).. Three times they stood up and walked into fire with their silent bayonets. …
    They had burned their boats. Others like them would retreat, return home; they owed such men nothing; they were not their relatives, nor their brothers – yet they would stand and die so that they might live.’

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  6. And after that you can always try Life and Fate!
    “a realistic view of love” is exactly what I associate Tolstoy with.
    (And I can appreciate the feeling of having read a great book and not knowing what to pick up next!)

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