Summary and Analysis
Tolstoy now shows how the events of 1812 violate all the"rules" of history historians write about. Nations are considered conquered, he writes, when the invaders win more battles than the defenders and occupy the enemy capital. The French, for example, who have repeatedly won battles, especially that of Borodino, who then occupy and raze Moscow, lose an army of 600,000 men without fighting in any major engagement after the retreat. Victories alone do not signify conquest, Tolstoy concludes. The force deciding the fate of millions of people resides not in leadership, battles, or armies; it lies in the spirit behind the army. The spirit of the Russians makes them fight desperately to overcome the foe, and they use all means to rout the invaders. This is the part of history when Russian soldiers become guerillas and harry the French constantly. Again rules of warfare are reversed, writes Tolstoy. Usual battle patterns involve a massed front of attackers, with scattered groups retreating. The French, however, retreat in a compact mass, and the self-confident Russian attackers advance in small numbers.
Denisov and Dolohov each lead a group among the many troops of"irregulars" which destroy the Grande Armée piecemeal. They plan to combine their bands for an attack on a French transport. A courier comes to Denisov's camp with a message from a general. The soldier is none other than Petya Rostov, now an officer, and he is so excited at the coming attack he begs Denisov to allow him to remain. Petya has an intense desire to be a hero and his foolhardy behavior during a previous battle nearly caused his death. More excited than ever when Dolohov arrives, Petya longs to fight at the side of this hero whose courage and cruelty are famous.
A cold and shivering French drummer boy is Denisov's prisoner and Petya gives the youth some warm food. Dolohov wishes to shoot the prisoner but Denisov protects his charge. Petya's moment of daring occurs when he and Dolohov, disguised as French officers, pass through the enemy lines to spy out their disposition. Denisov is relieved to have the boy return safely and Petya can barely sleep for the excitement of the next day.
Before sunrise, Dolohov's Cossacks and Denisov's band attack the French. Petya gallops ahead, eager to sight the enemy. He is shot from ambush and dies instantly. The quick skirmish is successful and liberates many Russian prisoners. Pierre is among the men freed.
Pierre has marched for more than three weeks, suffering intense privations which have killed two-thirds of the other prisoners. Through his ordeal, he has learned there is nothing in the world to dread; man is created for happiness, and that happiness lies in itself. Superfluity, not privation, is the force that imprisons mankind. Freedom exists when one learns the limits of suffering, when one can recall soothing memories to overcome physical anguish. This feeling, or avoidance of feeling, is the vitality Pierre discovers every human being can possess.
Platon Karataev grew increasingly weaker from his fever and Pierre began to avoid him. One night at a campfire he listened to a story the peasant had told many times before. The story told of an innocent man imprisoned in Siberia for murder. Telling the tale of his frame-up to his barracks-mates, the old man meets the man who committed the actual murder and who begs forgiveness. But when the pardon from the tsar finally arrives, the innocent sufferer is already dead. Karataev's face expresses ecstasy at the end of his tale, and the mysterious significance of that gladness fills Pierre's soul with joy. By morning, Karataev is too ill to move, and as some French soldiers advance toward the sick man, Pierre exchanges a final glance with his friend. He hears the shot and never looks back.
The night before his liberation, Pierre has a dream whose images are all of Platon Karataev. Life is God, his dream tells him, and"to love life is to love God. The hardest and the most blessed thing is to love this life in one's sufferings, in undeserved suffering." That morning of Pierre's freedom is the funeral day for Petya Rostov.
With the onset of frost in late October, the French retreat begins to assume its tragic aspect. Men die from freezing, exhaustion, and starvation. Owing to the incredible rapidity of the desperate flight, the Russians can rarely catch their enemy. Neither army knows where the other is and they often meet by chance. The leaders flee even faster than their men. Still pretending they care for the army, the generals plan battles and give orders, although they mostly care for self-survival. The greatness of Napoleon, for his historians, is still undiminished even as he rides off in his closed carriage with furs wrapped around him. So is the greatness of General Ney, who runs off leaving nine-tenths of his men and all his artillery behind."And it never enters anyone's head," editorializes Tolstoy,"that to admit a greatness immeasurable by the rule of right and wrong is but to accept one's own nothingness and immeasurable littleness."
With the final retreat of the French, with Pierre's discovering a new freedom out of imprisonment and a new joy out of suffering, Tolstoy is preparing us for many conclusions which are, in effect, beginnings as well. The imminent Russian victory begins a new chapter in the history of Russia, just as the premature bloom and death of Petya Rostov marks the new generation. Tolstoy's sensitive depiction of Petya's eagerness and immaturity and his newly awakened sympathies toward the enemy drummer boy echo Nikolay's early experiences as a novice soldier who cannot kill an individuated human being. This repetition not only shows the passing of time and generation but underscores the continuity of life and the universality of experience.
Because it is prefigured by the death of Platon Karataev, Petya's death is conveyed to us by the author with the same"lack of feeling" Pierre felt at Platon's demise. The"lack of feeling" is not callousness but rather an expression of God's universal, equally extended love. Death is one consequence of the process of growth, Tolstoy seems to say, and Petya's death is another incidental sacrifice to the cause of the war, in itself a mode of national growth.
By comparing the way Petya is sacrificed with the way Napoleon and Ney sacrifice their men to their own self-interests, Tolstoy restates his thesis on the"nothingness and immeasurable littleness" of human beings. In the Tolstoyan sense, men are"immeasurably little" compared to the universe of which they are a part; in the"Napoleonic" sense, they are nothing because they are tools, and this is the fallacy historians accept. Ability to act according to the measure of right and wrong is one of the defining qualities of human beings. With these standards suspended, as they are when historians refrain from judging the actions of"great men," the humanness of man no longer exists. Tolstoy wishes to ask historians why they consider Napoleon a"great man" when what he precisely lacks is this defining quality of humanness.