Summary and Analysis
Book VI: Chapters 1–10
By 1809 the two emperors are so much in accord that Alexander sends troops when Napoleon declares war on Austria. There is talk of a match between one of the tsar's sisters and Bonaparte. Despite political friendship or enmity, international scheming or wars, Tolstoy says, life, meanwhile — real life, with its essential interests of health and sickness, toil and rest, its intellectual interests in thought, science, poetry, music, love, friendship, hatred, and passions — goes on as usual.
Prince Andrey quietly and efficiently frees 300 serfs by making them"free cultivators," replaces forced labor with a rent system, hires a priest to teach reading and writing to peasant children, and provides midwives. These are among the earliest reforms in Russia. Throughout the past two years he spent at Bogutcharovo, Andrey has kept up with current affairs and knows more about the world than do his city visitors.
In spring of 1809, on the way to inspect his Ryazan estates (his son's inheritance), Andrey spies an ancient gnarled oak whose limbs are yet unadorned with blossoms. He agrees with the grim tree: Let others — the young — yield to the fraud of life, he says, but we who are experienced know life is finished. Bolkonsky pays an obligation-visit to the marshal of Ryazan, Count Ilya Rostov. As his carriage drives down the avenue, Bolkonsky sees a slim girl, running and laughing with some companions. She seems to personify the creature-awakening of springtime. In his room later that night, he is unable to sleep. From his open window he hears the rustle of a dress at the floor above and realizes Natasha is silently gazing at the beauty of the soft, clear night. Sonya calls her cousin to sleep but Natasha is too enraptured with the spring air to stir. Suddenly Andrey's soul is again kindled with youthful hopes and ideas. He is so disturbed by this confutation of his life for the past years he forces himself to sleep.
Homeward bound, Prince Andrey passes the old oak whose gaunt limbs are cloaked now by new leaves. His thoughts change at once and he plans to be active in life again."Life is not over at thirty-one," Andrey decides and recalls his talk with Pierre, his thoughts of love and glory; in his memory, Liza's dead face no longer expresses reproach.
Bolkonsky arrives in Petersburg in August, 1809, intending to join the service again. Having sent to the tsar his suggestions for certain army reforms, Andrey visits the minister of war by way of follow-up. He becomes a member of the Committee on Army Regulations.
This period of Alexander's reign is a time of liberal reform led by the young secretary of state, Mihail Mihalovitch Speransky. Andrey, being well-received in society, meets this luminary at a soirée and feels flattered when Speransky takes him aside for a talk. They discuss necessary changes in civil service, and Prince Andrey believes the young secretary is his ideal of a rational and virtuous man. At a subsequent party in Speransky's home, Bolkonsky admires his practical sense and agrees with everything the great man says. Only vaguely does he discern Speransky's serious faults: his coldness, his contempt for others, his belief in the sovereign power of reason. Through Speransky, Andrey becomes chairman of a committee to revise the legal code.
Actively involved in freemasonry at this time, Pierre begins to feel serious doubts. He discovers that many members are hypocrites, interested not in attaining inner virtue but in bringing distinction to themselves. He finds they are niggardly in contributing to the organization. Pierre decides that Russian freemasonry rests on formal observances and, at the end of 1808, travels abroad to devote himself to the higher mysteries of the order. In the summer he returns and speaks before a large gathering of the lodge. He suggests that masons organize and train members to form a"universal government" — not to interfere with national governments or civil obligations — to carry out the best principles of Christianity. Violence and revolution have no part in this, since wisdom has no need of these measures. The agitated members discuss Pierre's resolutions, but the final word of the Grand Master is a strong rejection. Bezuhov leaves the group.
After days of anger and idleness, Pierre receives a letter from Ellen asking for reconciliation; his mother-in-law also comes to make the same request. Pierre calls on his benefactor, Osip Bazdyev, for advice. Only in midst of worldly cares can you achieve self-purification, peace, and love of death, that is, regeneration into a new life, he is told."Life shows us its vanities only through worldly corruptions," says Osip Alexyevitch. As a result, Bezuhov recalls his wife and, once having overcome the pain of this reconciliation, he feels happy and regenerated.
Once established in Petersburg, Countess Ellen Bezuhov becomes one of the most distinguished women in society. Attendance at one of her soirées insures a"certificate of intellect" to an aspiring social climber. Pierre appears as a harmless, contemptible figure as be moves absent-mindedly among his wife's guests. He is always amazed at how her stupidity can be considered the expression of intelligence, how her least remark gains rapt attention.
Since his visit with Bazdyev, Pierre keeps a diary to chronicle his spiritual progress. Here he recounts being the rhetor for Boris Drubetskoy's initiation into the lodge. He notes that Boris, intent on grooming the"outer man," seeks in freemasonry another connection with influential persons. When they meet, Pierre cannot repress anger and insults Boris. Another entry in Pierre's diary recounts a dream in which Bazdyev talks of"conjugal duties," and later he receives a letter from his benefactor with the same advice. In another dream Bezuhov symbolizes his sexual desire and is terrified by the strength of these base passions within him.
Introducing these chapters with an editorial flourish to show the reader that the"essential interests" of"real life" have nothing to do with the gamesmanship of Napoleon and Alexander, Tolstoy steps out of his novel as if to make sure we will understand the"message" of his story. This is our signal that the author is winding up to become more and more instructive. Indeed, Tolstoy becomes increasingly editorial in future chapters.
Thus encouraged to find a moral, we can immediately surmise that Andrey will not be happy as a government official. His"real life" has to do with his springtime awakening and his feelings for Natasha. By the same token, we realize that Pierre's disaffection with freemasonry is less"real" than his internal struggle against low passions. In effect, these experiences restate Tolstoy's discussion of Book V as both Pierre and Andrey discover that institutions which attempt to solve problems for the mass of individuals leave personal needs unsatisfied."Real life" refers to the individual dynamics of how a human being comes to terms with the conflicts in his own soul.
For Tolstoy, moreover,"real life" is expressed when an individual acknowledges his bond with nature and the instinctive life forces within himself. Thus Prince Andrey's self-comparison with the old oak is significant as a sign of his renascence. When the tree puts out new leaves, Andrey affirms his commitment to life and love.