Yes, yes, finally another War and Peace blog post! This time about Pierre Bezukhov. Last night I dreamed that I heard on the radio that thanks to a new technology Leo Tolstoy was able to have more children now. As if he didn’t have enough children when he was still alive!
In the first chapter of War and Peace Tolstoy’s brainchild Pierre wanders into the fancy Petersburg salon of Anna Pavlovna. It is immediately clear that Pierre is different: He has only just returned from his education abroad, he is larger than the other people there, and he is the illegitimate son of one of the richest men in Russia. This is his first appearance in society; Anna Pavlovna is right to be a bit worried. Pierre is enormously interested in the intelligent conversations that he hears all around him, but he blunders about like a bull in a china shop.
Kuragin and Dolokhov
In spite of his good intentions we find him a few hours later with his ‘friends’ Anatole Kuragin and Dolokhov. He clearly feels more at home at the wild drinking-bout that they’re having. It ends with the three of them tying a policeman to a bear and throwing them into the Moyka*. The gossip about Pierre’s misbehaviour reaches all the way to Moscow…
Although Pierre clearly is the the nail in his already dying father’s coffin, he is his father’s favourite child. The old Count has only illegitimate children, so many that he has lost count, but rumour has it that he has sent a petition to have Pierre made legitimate, so that Pierre can inherit his fortune and title. And indeed, as feared Pierre becomes the new Count Bezukhov and the most desirable bachelor in Russia.
Pierre does not change with the change in his fortune, but some of the people around him do. Anatole’s father, Prince Vasili, had hoped that the petition would not be sent or granted, in which case he would have inherited through his wife. Now his only hope is to marry off his children well. He cleverly arranges it so that Pierre marries his daughter Hélène, who did not even glance at Pierre before his good fortune. Pierre is easily seduced, even though he already knows that it’s probably not a good idea. At the very least he knows what Anatole is capable of and he knows of the rumours about the relationship he has with his sister. Of course the marriage ends in disaster and a duel with Dolokhov.
But what is there to say about me? What am I? An illegitimate son!…
Pierre struggles with not having a clear function in life; he has no career, no family, no direction. His failed marriage makes this all the more clear. His search brings him to the Freemasons, but there he does not find the answer. He goes to his estate and tries to improve the situation there for his serfs, but does not succeed there either. At some point he even wants to murder Napoleon. It is 1812. He is already on his way to the French quarters in occupied Moscow, but gets arrested on the way. The turning point in his life comes during his imprisonment: the famous potato scene with a simple peasant named Karataev, a fellow prisoner. From Karataev Pierre learns to saviour a simple hot potato as if it’s the greatest delicacy and particularly to live and be happy in the moment.
Like all of us at various stages in our lives, Pierre is looking for answers. He finds them when all has been stripped away from him. He has grown from an influenceable young man into a strong personality. His honesty and good nature make him one of the most sympathetic characters in War and Peace.
*Yes, the same river that that Russian professor fell into when he drunkenly tried to dispose of the body parts of his murdered girlfriend.
Text © Elisabeth van der Meer 2019
Illustration from War and Peace by A. Nikolayev