Summary and Analysis
A close look at historical events, writes Tolstoy, shows us that the heroes of history are controlled by the actions of the multitudes. By showing various incidents of this part of the war occurring through freak happenings (he cites the battle of Tarutino occurring because a Cossack, hunting rabbits, happened upon the French encampment), Tolstoy attributes error to most historians who say Kutuzov is responsible for this or that, or Napoleon's"genius" caused this or that to happen.
Tolstoy describes the secure position of the French army who, with twice the manpower of the Russians, have all the wealth and supplies of Moscow to draw upon if they wish to attack the Russian forces. Despite these obvious advantages, the French neither seek out the Russians nor reserve winter supplies. It is clear, says Tolstoy, that the French themselves do the most damage to their cause, and Napoleon's"genius" cannot prevail over the inevitable course of events.
With the pretext of punishing the Russian army for defeating the French at Tarutino, Napoleon leaves a small garrison in Moscow and orders the army to depart. This simple maneuver begins the headlong flight of the Grande Armée out of Moscow. The army is overloaded with trains of booty-laden wagons — Napoleon has his own collection of treasure — and despite his past experiences, Bonaparte refrains from having the booty burned. Moreover, the army takes the same route out of Moscow as it had entered it, passing again through lands and towns devastated and pillaged and lacking sustenance for the men and horses. Tolstoy says the army is now like a stampeding herd of cattle, trampling its own necessities and approaching nearer to ruin. Napoleon is like a child sitting in the carriage who fancies he is moving it by pulling on the straps. In reality, Tolstoy says, Napoleon is led by his army, which acts in the blind panic of a wounded beast heading straight for the hunter with the gun.
This, then, is the significance of the battle of Tarutino: It signifies the transition from retreat to attack for the Russians, it exposes the weakness of the French, and it provides the shock that puts the Grande Armée to flight.
Pierre is regenerated since that day of execution which killed the thoughts and feelings he felt were so important. Stripped of all the superfluities of civilization — his title, his conveniences, his search for self-sacrifice — he has found the inner harmony he has yearned for. His four weeks of hardship create only basic demands for food, cleanliness, and freedom. The men in the barracks like him and respect him. The very peculiarities that used to embarrass him in civilized society — his strength, his disdain for comforts, his absent-mindedness, his good nature — now give him the prestige of a hero among his comrades.
The night of October 6 begins the retreat of the French. Among the drumbeats that drown the groans of the sick prisoners, Pierre begins to feel afraid. It is here again — the mysterious, unsympathetic force that drives men, against their wills, to do their fellow creatures to death. It is the force he felt at the execution. At the end of the first day of a grueling march, Pierre walks among the campfires. Suddenly he laughs a hearty, good-humored laugh. He laughs at the imprisonment that has freed him, for his immortal soul is still his. Gazing at the sky, at the distant forests and boundless fields, he muses,"All that is mine, all that is in me, and all that is I." And all this they caught and shut up in a shed closed in with boards! He falls asleep still smiling.
When he receives the news that Napoleon has evacuated the entire army from Moscow, Kutuzov weeps for joy at the proof of what he suspected: The doomed French have fled from Moscow and recoil in blind panic from Russian soil. From now on his aim is to avoid losing his men unnecessarily and to avoid, as well, obstructing the French retreat out of Russia. On the other hand, Kutuzov knows he cannot prevent his men from attacking the helpless enemy, for he realizes how eager men and officers are to distinguish themselves in battle. Kutuzov is correct; from now on the French retreat with increasing rapidity. As the army goes along, troops melt away, each man desiring to be taken prisoner and escape the horrors and miseries of his position.
These chapters illustrate the inevitable tide of history that engulfs individuals. Tolstoy shows how all the"single wills" of the French troops combine into the huge movement of the retreat from Moscow, with Napoleon, mistaking this inevitable movement as an expression of his own will, carried along by the tide and helpless to avoid the disaster that occurs. That Napoleon is unable to use his military"genius" to avert the self-destruction of the French proves Tolstoy's thesis: that leaders merely follow movements and do not originate them.
Kutuzov resolves the forces of necessity with his free will by submitting to the inevitable tide of history. He will not encourage military victories for his own glory, but will merely supervise the historical forces already unloosed; his aim, therefore, is merely to keep the French moving out of Russia. Kutuzov, like Pierre, is able to use the forces of destiny to gain freedom for his nation.
Contrasting Napoleon's"imprisonment" by the"irresistible tide of history" with Pierre's newly found freedom as a prisoner, Tolstoy underscores his thesis of free will and necessity with a personal example and translates a historical theme into an individual one. Carried along by the movement of the multitude, stripped of its insignia as well — title, conveniences, all the false values that define an individual in society — Pierre discovers his inner self freed from the prison of outer significations. Having no one to command and no one to be commanded by, he is freer than Napoleon; he is left with his own soul and a will free to overcome all physical and emotional obstacles.