Summary and Analysis
Book V: Chapters 15–22
Nikolay returns to his regiment with a great sense of peace. He feels it is as"unchangeably dear and precious" to him as his parental home. As before, Rostov and Denisov share quarters but now their common affection for Natasha draws them closer together. Their regiment, encamped near an utterly ruined German village, loses more men from hunger and disease than from battle. When Denisov waylays a transport delivering food to the infantry in a valiant attempt to feed his hungry men, he is threatened with court-martial for brigandage. To avoid trial, Denisov goes into the infirmary with the excuse of suffering a minor flesh wound. Rostov visits him some weeks later. Humbling his pride, Denisov has composed a petition for pardon to the emperor and asks Nikolay to ride to Tilsit and deliver the letter.
This is the time of truce after the battle of Friedland when Alexander and Napoleon meet at Tilsit to sign their alliance. Boris Drubetskoy is among the suite accompanying Alexander and he welcomes Nikolay to his social circle of high-ranking French and Russian officers. Angered at having to regard his former foes as friends, Rostov avoids Boris's invitations. His main business here is to gain audience with the emperor. Finally a general in Alexander's suite offers to sponsor Denisov's petition and, while Nikolay looks on, he presents the letter to the tsar. The youthful emperor reads the paper, smiles, and shakes his head. The law is mightier than I, Alexander says, and I cannot grant this pardon. Despite his deep disappointment, Nikolay is caught up in the cheering crowd that follows the tsar down the street to the public square.
Now the historic meeting between Alexander and Napoleon takes place, with each monarch flanked by a colorful battalion of guards. Rostov is horrified at the little Corsican's audacious assumption of equality with the divine-right emperor. Napoleon now confers the Legion of Honor to the"bravest Russian Soldier," a man chosen at random among the ranks. The following day, Alexander confers the medal of St. George to an equally random choice of the bravest French soldier. Rostov has horrible questions to ask himself now. If this self-satisfied Napoleon and his beloved Alexander are allies, what of those mutilated arms and legs he saw in Denisov's infirmary? What of all the dead and dying on the battlefields? Why is this unknown Russian rewarded for bravery and the valiant Denisov punished? Nikolay forces his thoughts to conclusions during a celebration dinner that night. He decides the emperor and not soldiers like himself must know what is right. Soldiers must only take orders, die if necessary, accept punishment if they are punished."If we were once to begin criticizing and reasoning about everything, nothing would be left holy to us. In that way we shall be saying there is no God, nothing!" Rostov says."It's our business to do our duty, to hack them to pieces, and not to think."
Ostensibly these chapters reveal the limited nature of Nikolay Rostov as he becomes aware of a conflict between personal goals and the"system." Tolstoy brings Nikolay to question authority for the first time when he appeals to the tsar for Denisov's pardon. What these chapters finally illustrate, however, is the entire ethical system under which feudal Russia operates.
Unlike Pierre and Prince Andrey, Nikolay Rostov does not strive to transcend the"outer" man to achieve freedom and self-definition. In fact, he recognizes no conflict between the demands of the individual and society, between instinct and intellect. Through the incidents that lead up to his petitioning for Denisov, Nikolay reaffirms his place in the fixed order of the universe where God's laws operate through the divine right of the tsar and through the structure of the state. He decides that questioning this structure is a heresy whose end result is anarchy.
Tolstoy does not condemn Rostov for his blind obedience to authority as modern readers would expect him to do. Rather, Tolstoy shows that this"blind obedience" is based on a rational system of ethics which demands the same acquiescence of Alexander as it does of Rostov. Man's highest virtue, according to Nikolay (and the tsar) is in doing one's duty. Sentiment and personal feeling must give way to higher, more universal demands, as manifest in the universal institution of the state. Even Alexander loses his individuality when he chooses to deny Denisov's petition. Although personal sentiment might persuade the tsar to confer the pardon, the demands of universal law impose a higher duty."The law is mightier than I," speaks the divine-right monarch who cannot, by virtue of his function, express his temporal personal self.
Through Nikolay's conflict, Tolstoy once more expresses a situation on the personal and national level. That code of ethics wherein duty is the highest good has maintained feudal Russia for centuries. It is the system where kings express God's will and where an individual's highest mission is to obey.
Napoleon, however, represents the coming of a new order where the free expression of the individual becomes a higher virtue than obedience to the universal. Thus the confrontation at Tilsit between the revolutionary upstart and the divine-right monarch marks a turning-point in the evolution of western civilization. Demonstrated on a personal level, Nikolay's confrontation of duty with personal sentiment marks a turning-point in his own ethics.
Book V, in total, describes the waning power of a static, ethically based society represented by Alexander and by Nikolay Rostov. Napoleon, as well as Andrey and Pierre, herald the new order where the"free" individual is ascendant. Tolstoy will now prove that the free will of an individual operates under many constraints. He will show the fallacies of Napoleon's assumption of his free individuality, and allow Pierre and Andrey to test their own individual freedom. Eventually he will synthesize the antithetical concepts of"free will" and"necessity" to a conclusion illustrated by the lives of his protagonists.