Summary and Analysis
Book XII: Chapters 1–13
Petersburg society has hardly changed during these critical times, and the aristocrats still hold balls, levées, and theater parties, and they are still concerned with court politics. They rejoice at the victory of Borodino and discuss the battle with the same emotions they talk of Ellen Bezuhov's sudden heart ailment. At Anna Pavlovna's soirée some days later, the guests exchange commiserations on account of the death of Countess Bezuhov. After Moscow is abandoned, the grief-stricken emperor declares he will stop at no sacrifice to save his country and will himself lead the peasants to battle if the army fails.
Despite the war, despite all the self-sacrificing, people carry on their personal lives. Tolstoy says that these daily human interests and activities are more important than the public ones we hear so much about. Those who are concerned with their immediate problems, he writes, play the most useful role in history, while those who strive to grasp the general course of events, and try by heroism and self-sacrifice to take a hand in it, are the most useless in society."It is only unselfconscious activity that bears fruit," he says,"and the man who plays a part in an historical drama never understands its significance. If he strives to comprehend it, he is stricken with barrenness." In the remote provinces people bewail the fate of Russia and of Moscow, and in Petersburg society-minded persons talk only of war and self-sacrifice; but the men in the army are silent on these issues and, as they gaze on the flames, their thoughts are not on revenge but on their next pay check or on the next halting place. Their silence comes from an implicit understanding of what they must do, whereas the discussions of those far from the battle scene come from a lack of understanding and a lack of experience.
Nikolay has orders to purchase horses in the district of Voronezh and he departs a few days before Borodino takes place. After the first day, with the horses chosen and contracted for, Nikolay is free to pursue his social life and attends a ball. He also calls on an aunt of Princess Marya and tells her what is in his heart: that he has promised to marry his penniless cousin Sonya, that he admires Marya but will not marry her for her wealth. The aunt promises to be tactful about the whole matter, especially since her niece is still in mourning.
Two days later, Nikolay and Marya have an impressive meeting. Filled with love and joy at his presence, she becomes transformed into a lovely woman whose face reflects the beauty of her soul; on his part, Nikolay regrets his promise to Sonya. At this point he gratefully receives a letter from home. Sonya writes to free him of his promise, and his mother tells him that Andrey is traveling with them, nursed by Natasha and Sonya. With this news of her brother, Princess Marya regards Nikolay almost as a kinsman.
Pierre believes he is sentenced to death along with the other incendiaries with whom he has been imprisoned for a week. Because he has refused to divulge any information about himself, he is sent to General Davoust, a man known for his cruelty, for further questioning. Here Pierre tells his name and states he is not a spy. At one point during the interview, he and Davoust exchange a long look. At once a relationship springs between them; their look is an acknowledgment of their common humanity. Led to the firing squad among five other prisoners, Pierre is ready to die and watches as each man is methodically shot. But he himself is led away. That he has again the gift of life means nothing to him now; he feels himself dead inside, with all his faith in human life destroyed by that disciplined machinery that has had the other innocent prisoners killed.
Later, when he is in the barracks with other prisoners of war, Pierre learns he had been officially pardoned. A caressive sing-song voice addresses him and the words penetrate Pierre's numbness."Ay, darling, don't grieve," says an old man from the corner,"Trouble lasts an hour, but life lasts forever." The man sits hunched over his knees, a dog next to him, and the round peasant face characterizes the roundness of his entire aspect. This is Platon Karataev, whom Pierre remembers for the rest of his life while he hardly recalls the other prisoners. Influenced by his new acquaintance, Pierre's soul finds a new world to replace the one destroyed at the firing squad — a world of new beauty which rests"on new foundations that cannot be shattered."
The four weeks Pierre spends in the shed are brightened by Platon's presence. The other prisoners, too, regard the old man with warmth and the dog follows him everywhere. When Karataev goes to sleep he ends his prayers with a special appeal to the"Saints Frola and Lavra," the horses' saints."For one must think of the poor beasts too," Platon explains. Platon, energetic and strong, is over 50 years old. His face bears the innocent expression of a child, and childlike, everything he utters is spontaneous and genuine. He speaks with caressive epithets like a peasant woman, which (Pierre thinks) he invents as he goes along and never knows beforehand what will come out. When hearing stories from the soldiers, Platon asks questions and repeats details to emphasize the moral beauty of what is told. Lacking special attachments, Karataev loves every creature equally: the French, his comrades, the dog, his neighbor. Pierre feels that Karataev, despite his deep affection, would never suffer a moment's grief at parting from him, and Pierre begins to have the same feelings toward Platon. Neither actions nor words seem to hold any significance for the old man; they exist only as part of a sentence or an event that expresses, for the moment, an incomprehensible force, his life itself. And Karataev regards his life meaningful only because it is part of a whole of which he is conscious at all times.
The moments he spends watching the firing squad and feels death upon him are the moments of Pierre's turning point in life. Because this is such an important moment, Tolstoy has carefully foreshadowed this death-to-life movement and has provided once more a brief but significant incident to illuminate the qualities of humanity and inhumanity.
Having refused to even give his name, Pierre has no other identity except that of a human being. To have an excuse for killing him, his captors have labeled him as a spy or an incendiary. Pierre realizes himself a victim of an impersonal machinery already set in motion and realizes as well that this trick of dehumanizing a person is the only means whereby an innocent individual can be executed. When Pierre and Davoust look at each other in the face, this impersonalizing machinery is reversed and Pierre becomes an individual with the right to live. As his fellow"incendiaries" are methodically fired upon, Pierre feels himself dead. His soul has been"killed" from an intense awareness of the facility with which individual human beings become impersonal objects of execution. Tolstoy must now bring his hero back to life.
The scene of rebirth is as symbolically rich as the scene of dying. The darkened shed that imprisons Pierre is like a womb. Karataev, endowed with feminine sympathy, is his midwife and he offers Pierre some simple food (potatoes) for his first nourishment. Karataev's"roundness," itself suggestive of the womb, is like the wheel of life in which every human soul is part of God and the spirit of God part of each soul. As a living symbol of life's unity and universal love, Karataev is the means for Pierre's renewal.
Platon Karataev exemplifies that person whose"unselfconscious activity bears fruit." The"activity" Tolstoy means is the moment-by-moment business of life lived with spontaneity and simplicity of soul. The"fruit" of such activity is life itself, with its implicit awareness and acceptance of death and suffering by which life is defined. Platon embodies the love that Prince Andrey felt when he confronted Anatole in the hospital: a love universal and unchanging like God's love to all creatures. Each activity of Karataev, whether speaking, listening, or breathing, expresses the cosmic unity that guarantees significance and continuity to each organic and inorganic component of the universe.
Platon Karataev is Tolstoy's creation wherein all opposites are resolved. From the"roundness" of his aspect, Tolstoy implies the solution to all the conflicts he illustrates in his novel. Karataev is the symbol of the universe where all things come full circle; personal love and impersonal love, age and youth, sagacity and naivete, immediacy and eternity, imprisonment and freedom, life and death — all are concepts to describe unities, not polarities.