Summary and Analysis
Book I: Chapters 1–6
Anna Pavlovna talks with Prince Vassily Kuragin, the first guest to arrive at one of her soirées in 1805."Chère Annette" is a 40-year-old spinster who runs one of the most celebrated salons in Petersburg, and as usual, her manner of speaking expresses enthusiasm whether she feels it or not. She speaks of Napoleon as the Antichrist scourging Europe, asserting that the lofty-souled Alexander I must save them all against the"hydra of revolution" Bonaparte represents. Easily changing the subject, she tells Prince Vassily how charming his three children are, and that she knows a wealthy heiress to match with his profligate son, Anatole. The lady is Princess Marya Bolkonsky, who lives in the country and is dominated by her old father. Her brother Prince Andrey will appear here this evening with his wife Liza. Annette promises to speak to Liza about this matter.
With all her guests arrived, Anna Pavlovna supervises them smoothly, making sure each conversation group avoids controversy as well as boredom. The"little princess," Liza Bolkonsky, chatters eagerly. Although visibly pregnant, and once considered the most seductive young woman in Petersburg, she still makes every man she speaks to feel successful and masculine. But when she addresses her husband in the same coquettish manner she uses for casual acquaintances, Prince Andrey turns away with an involuntary grimace. His bored expression is a vivid contrast to the liveliness of his little wife. Anna Pavlovna is uncomfortable when Pierre Bezuhov arrives, for he is bound to be rude. This is his first appearance in society since his return from abroad. An illegitimate son of Count Bezuhov, a celebrated dandy in the days of Catherine, Pierre's tall stout figure and his"clever, though shy, observant and natural look" distinguishes this mild, bespectacled young man. Prince Andrey's handsome face lights up for the first time when he sees Pierre, and from their greeting, it is obvious they are good friends. Prince Vassily's daughter, the beautiful Ellen, now arrives. She wears a radiant, unvarying smile as if to acknowledge her awareness of the splendid beauty barely hidden by her décolleté. As she and her father leave, an elderly lady accosts Prince Vassily, begging him to petition the emperor so her son Boris can transfer to the Guards. She is Anna Mihalovna Drubetskoy, a member of one of the best families in Russia. Now that she is poor and out of touch with her former connections, she appears uninvited at the soirée expressly to beg Prince Vassily's favor. Wearily the elderly courtier agrees to petition for her son.
When the guests talk of the assassination of the Duc d'Enghien, Anna Pavlovna's worst fears are realized. Pierre shocks everyone by his earnest defense of Bonaparte, who, he says, saved France from anarchy. Prince Andrey joins in, defending Napoleon's action. The tension subsides when Ippolit, Prince Vassily's dull-witted son, tells a pointless story. The mystified guests do not know whether to regard Ippolit as a clown or a wag.
After the party, Pierre and Andrey spend the evening together. Bezuhov must choose a career, but he refuses to join the army to help fight against"the greatest man in the world." Bolkonsky admits he is going to war merely to escape his wearisome life at home. Liza joins them now and makes a scene because her husband is so changed to her and treats her as if she were a child, she tearfully says. While they dine alone, Bolkonsky offers Pierre some advice. First off, he says, never marry, or you will be forever imprisoned in the enchanted circle of soirées, balls, gossip. Society women like Liza cannot live without this silliness and vanity, and through them everything becomes trivial. Second, Andrey goes on, Pierre should no longer associate with Anatole Kuragin and his dissipated set of bachelor friends. Bezuhov readily agrees but cannot resist the drinking party Kuragin invited him to that night. The drunken evening ends in scandal when Pierre and his friends tie a police officer to a live bear and toss both into the river.
Like a host welcoming strangers to his town, Tolstoy throws a cocktail party to introduce us to most of the people in his novel. At Anna Pavlovna's we meet the main characters as we usually meet people in real life: We are given a minimum of biographical detail and our attention is drawn to a person's features, his smile, the look in his eyes, his way of looking or not looking at another person. We first learn of Pierre, for instance, when Anna Pavlovna greets him with the nod she reserves for her lowest-ranking guests. This harmless-appearing, massively built, bespectacled youth must possess a special power if he can threaten the equanimity of a large soirée. Our awareness of his latent power is our first indication of Pierre's importance in the novel.
Prince Andrey is introduced to us through his lively little wife, with Tolstoy emphasizing her charm and appeal to the male guests. This charm has no effect on Andrey, who turns away in disgust when he arrives and turns eagerly to Pierre. Clearly we observe how their naturalness and spontaneity distinguish Pierre and Andrey from the other guests and that Tolstoy favors this distinction.
Sketching in other details, like Ellen's unvarying smile and her décolleté, Liza's seductiveness despite her pregnancy, Anna Pavlovna's constant enthusiasm, and Ippolit's storytelling, Tolstoy provides us with a penetrating first impression of the"enchanted circle" of Petersburg life.
We learn more about Pierre and Andrey from their conversations after the party. As they both regard Napoleon as their hero, we can see their youthful desires for fame, glory, love of men. While these desires for power are basically the same that motivate the social climbers at Annette's salon, the egotism of Pierre and Andrey represents no more than a phase of their maturation and not its end. Indeed, Tolstoy spends a large part of War and Peace showing how self-conscious and selfish interests lead to disillusion and how self-aware heroism turns to powerlessness. Besides denying the greatness and power of Napoleon, Tolstoy carries Pierre and Andrey through experiences that make each conclude the nothingness of personality and the greatness of soul.
The little we know of their heritage is already a key to their destiny. Because Pierre is illegitimate, his search for identity is unencumbered by personal history; in effect, he is without history. Prince Andrey, however, bound by strong family ties as well as by marriage, must escape his past in order to find his purpose in life. Bolkonsky's past already foredooms him, whereas the freer Pierre will find a meaningful way of life.
By introducing Pierre and Andrey at the beginning of their careers, Tolstoy indicates to us that the novel will deal with their personal development. Having observed the microcosm of Russian aristocracy at Anna Pavlovna's salon, we learn that Tolstoy will discuss society as a whole. With Napoleon being the personal hero of Pierre and Andrey as well as the"Antichrist" threatening the world of the ruling classes, we recognize that history itself is the unifying investigation of War and Peace.