The desire to write a novel about the historical past occurred to Tolstoy shortly before his marriage. Its hero was to be a participant in the Decembrist Revolt of 1825 who, in 1856, returned to Russia from exile. Tolstoy took up this theme in 1863 and wrote three vivid chapters and then put them aside because he felt it necessary to study the period of his hero's youth. The realization that the Decembrist conspiracy had its roots in events connected with Napoleon's invasion of Russia, historical accounts of which had long interested Tolstoy, brought about a new concentration on this earlier period. For in the autumn of 1863 he wrote a close friend that he was absorbed in a novel "covering the years from 1810 to 1820." (actually 'War and Peace' extends chronologically from 1805 to 1820). A discarded early foreword suggests that originally Tolstoy may have had a trilogy in mind, in which 'War and Peace' would be followed by a sequel focused on the events of 1825 and another on 1856. As additional support for this conjecture, one may cite the "open" ending of 'War and Peace' where Pierre Bezukhov has already begun to manifest an interest in the political movement which five years later culminated in the Decembrist Revolt. There is clear evidence that in 1877 Tolstoy returned to the design of the second volume of the trilogy, "The Decembrists," and actually began work on it. He appears to have had in mind a novel of the dimensions of 'War And Peace'. Historical materials were collected and investigated; old Decembrists were visited and their memories of years of proud suffering in exile were ransacked at his request; and Tolstoy went to Petersburg to inspect the dungeons of the Petropavlov Fortress, where some of the rebels had been confined — he was told politely that he could see every part of the prison except the dungeons, which only three persons in the whole Empire, the emperor, the commandant, and the chief of the gendarmes, could leave after having once entered. His interest continued until January, 1879, when he dropped the subject. This decision was no doubt prompted partly by the fact that the authorities refused him permission to study materials in the state archives, and partly because he lost sympathy with the rebel cause when he learned that the movement was not a purely national one but had been inspired by French example and thought.
From the outset of 'War and Peace', Tolstoy was concerned with Napoleon's struggle against Russia and its relation to historical problems, as well as with the peaceful elements of family life, but early drafts and notes fail to indicate that at this stage he had worked out a comprehensive plan that would involve the vast epic sweep and elaborate philosophy of history of 'War and Peace'. Nor did the publication in a magazine in 1865 of the first thirty-eight chapters under the simple title 1805, corresponding roughly to the first twenty-five chapters of the definitive text, suggest that he had hit upon his larger and final design. By the next year, when a second instalment appeared which took the story only through 1805, Tolstoy's design did not seem to carry the action beyond Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. Notes at this point hint that the ending was to be a happy one — Prince Andrew, who recovers from his wound, nobly gives up his love for Natasha in order that she may marry Pierre, whose changed outlook on life is uninfluenced by Platon Karataev's simple philosophy; and Sonya, inspired by Prince Andrew's renunciation, gives way to Princess Mary's love for Nicholas. Pierre and Nicholas marry on the same day, and Nicholas and Prince Andrew leave to rejoin their army units. In fact, in 1866 Tolstoy was confident he would finish the novel the next year and publish it as a whole under the title Alls Well That Ends Well! (* For some facts on the chronology of the composition of 'War and Peace' and supporting evidence drawn from the drafts and notes on the novel, I am indebted to the excellent study of R. F. Christian, Tolstoy's 'War and Peace' (London: Oxford University Press, 1962).
We have no certain knowledge of just when Tolstoy's preliminary and inconclusive plans were brought into focus on a final vision of vaster design and inner harmony, the details of which were undoubtedly developed as the writing continued. At least one clear indication of the kind of insight that fired his imagination and illuminated the huge potentiality of his subject, while at the same time giving it some direction and aim, is an entry in his diary, March, 1865:
"I read with delight the history of Napoleon and Alexander. At once I was enveloped in a cloud of joy; and the consciousness of the possibility of doing a great thing took hold of my thoughts — to write a psychological novel of Alexander and Napoleon, and of all the baseness, empty words, folly, all the contradictions of these men and of the people surrounding them."
Further jottings in his diary reaffirm his delight with this purpose and his determination to carry it out. At about this same time Tolstoy attended evening gatherings of Moscow intellectual friends where the subject of philosophy of history was much discussed. Two problems often debated were the relation of individual freedom to historical necessity and the factor of causality in history. It is very likely that Proudhon's works, which Tolstoy knew, especially 'La guerre et la paix', were also talked about at these meetings. In any event, by March, 1867, the final plan and title, 'War and Peace', had been decided, but the expanded design prevented Tolstoy from finishing the novel until 1869, almost seven years after he began it.
The common complaint that 'War and Peace' is devoid of form recalls eighteenth-century criticism of the shapelessness of the Alps. In the first place such a complaint overlooks the unique totality of life indigenous, so to speak, to the novel. Given this fact, one naturally asks: What other form, or what changes in the present one, would have resulted in greater aesthetic unity of design in so huge a work? Of course, the logical answer is that Tolstoy surrendered the possibility of satisfactory form by attempting to do too much in a single novel. However, if he had radically reduced its scope, the work would probably not be the 'War and Peace' which so many modern writers of stature have acclaimed as the greatest novel in the world.
A close examination of the structure reveals that a unifying design was worked out once Tolstoy had settled upon the scope and purpose of the novel, although this may be form in the sense that Percy Lubbock defines it in The Craft of Fiction:
"The best form is that which makes the most of its subject...."
Interestingly enough, Tolstoy was convinced that in a work of art, form will be determined by the subject, and he believed that this was true of 'War and Peace'.
But what is the subject of Tolstoy's great novel? Many have remarked that it has no subject other than life itself and no single hero. The work has such an immediacy for us that we tend to forget what Tolstoy never forgot, that he was writing a historical novel. He makes this abundantly clear from the beginning in his notes, early drafts of chapters, and in abandoned prefaces. In one projected introduction to the novel in 1864, he declares:
"I shall write a history of people more free than statesmen . . . ," people, he pointedly asserts, whose faults go unmentioned in the chronicles of history. A little later he repeats in one of the draft versions: "I have been trying to write a history of the people." Then, in replying to criticism of his friend A. A. Fet, of early published chapters of the novel, he explains that, apart from his conception of the conflict of characters,
"I have another conception, a historical one, which complicates my work in an extraordinary way...."
This special concern he also mentioned to the historian M. P. Pogodin in 1868:
"My thoughts about the limits of freedom and independence, and my views on history are not a mere paradox that has occupied me in passing. These thoughts are the fruits of all the intellectual efforts of my life, and they are an inseparable part of that philosophy which I have achieved, God alone knows with what striving and suffering, and it has given me complete calm and happiness."
In short, to write a history of the people, understanding history both as a theory of knowledge and as the principal integrating factor in a vast wealth of material, is the real subject of 'War and Peace'.
The difficulty is that Tolstoy had his own ideas, which had begun to spawn as early as his student days in Kazan University, on the so-called truth of history and of historians and on the relations of people and their leaders to the historical process. Aware of the significance of his views for the whole course of the novel, he tried to anticipate both objections and misunderstanding on this score by publishing an article almost a year before 'War and Peace' finally appeared. There he defends the artist's treatment of history as contrasted with that of the historian. There are two kinds of actions, he explains, those that depend on the individual will and those that do not. In the historical process, he argues, there is a minimum of freedom of action. That is, the so-called makers of history are fundamentally dependent upon the actions of countless other people and hence to that extent their actions are predetermined.
Among these countless people are scores of character types in 'War and Peace', often simple individuals like Tushin or Karataev, and all of them are connected in one way or another with the famous historical events described. The sum total of their individual actions, so often fortuitous or independent of their own will, contributes more to the determination of these events than the actions of celebrated makers of history. It is important to realize that Tolstoy's theory of history applies to the activities of these numerous fictional characters as well as to the purely historical ones. To paraphrase his lengthy and rather involved statement in the novel, he contends that in order to understand the process of history, one must begin not with a consideration of the deeds of supposed great men, but with the integration of an infinitely large number of infinitesimally small actions, what Tolstoy calls "the differential of history."
If Tolstoy tends to deflate the historical reputations of those who are credited with shaping great events by insisting that the events themselves are beyond their active control, the actions of his fictional characters are conditioned by the same lack of freedom. But these tremendously vital, well-rounded, and intensely real men and women enjoy the illusion of freedom, the full consciousness that they are directing their own destinies. Yet fate, chance, accident, lady luck, or decisions thrust upon them by others often determine crucial events in the lives of Natasha, Nicholas, Sonya, Pierre, Princess Mary, Prince Andrew, and others. Tolstoy wisely avoids arguing his thesis on the limitations of man's conscious will in connection with his fictional characters, which may be one reason why its pervasiveness in the total design is often overlooked.
However, the integration of the Napoleonic campaign into the design of the novel, whose subject is the history of the people, is accompanied by lengthy sections of theorizing about war, its leaders, and the historical implications of their actions. Though opinions differ sharply on the necessity of this extensive theorizing, and on its intellectual quality and connection with major and minor fictional characters, Tolstoy obviously regarded it as of the utmost consequence in the definite plan of 'War And Peace'. In this sense these sections are not extraneous and may be considered as necessary and extremely informative. To convey knowledge was for Tolstoy an essential concomitant of the novel.
If it is possible to accept all this theorizing as a vital part of the novel's structure, it is something else again to regard it as a convincing philosophy of history. Tolstoy knew war at first hand and no one would deny that the battle scenes are magnificently described and the characterizations of active figures from plain soldiers to marshals and emperors are unforgettable. Who does not recall the boyish, irrepressible Petya Rostov, full of life and desire for glory in the fury of the cavalry charge, and the next moment lying dead on the field. As the gruff Denisov tenderly turns over the bloodstained body, he remembers Petya's words while generously giving away raisins to his comrades a short time before the charge:
"I am used to something sweet. Raisins, fine ones . . . take them all!"
Can such a deed be satisfactorily explained in terms of Tolstoy's conviction that man lives consciously for himself but is an unconscious instrument in the attainment of the historical, universal aims of humanity? A deed done, Tolstoy argues, is irrevocable, and its results, coinciding in time with the actions of millions of other men, assumes an historic importance. In history, he maintains, the so-called great men are merely labels, giving names to events, and like labels, they have only the smallest connection with the events themselves. In the novel, Prince Andrew remarks that the best generals he had known were either stupid or absent-minded. If Tolstoy can be said to have made a hero of any of the famous generals he treats in the novel, it is the Russian commander-in-chief Kutuzov. In his simplicity, intuitive wisdom, lack of hypocrisy and affectation, and in his conviction of the impossibility of controlling events, Kutuzov takes his place with the innumerable simple and patriotic members of the gentry and peasantry as a representative of the unconscious spirit of the nation which Tolstoy identifies as the true historical force at a time of national crisis. Kutuzov admirably illustrated Tolstoy's theory of war, for his strategy, in so far as he can be said to have had any, is based on the assumption that everything comes to him who waits in war. "Patience and time," declares Kutuzov, are the things that win wars. When in doubt, do not act — that is his great military axiom. And in effect Tolstoy defends this position when he writes toward the end of the novel:
"If we admit that human life can be ruled by reason, the possibility of life is destroyed."
If truth does not matter to the literary reader of a great masterpiece of history such as Gibbon's, Tolstoy fully realized that a novel would fail if it did not seem to be historically true, for the reader must believe in the whole of society described in it. What particularly troubled him was the prevailing practice of historians of fixing responsibility for what occurs in life upon individuals whom they call great men and endow with heroic virtues. He insists that history is not a science, that no acceptable laws of history have ever been discovered, and that attempts to explain people and events in terms of causes, genius, or chance are simply the result of ignorance. On the contrary, he says, there is a natural law which determines the lives of human beings no less than all the processes of nature itself; all is ruled by an inexorable historical determinism.
Lapses in factual information and substantial distortions in characterizations of great figures of the past, which in some cases can possibly be excused as artistic license, reflect badly on Tolstoy's philosophy of history in 'War and Peace'. But a more significant flaw in his theorizing may be discerned by relating his views to the ambivalence that dominated his whole emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic life. As Sir Isaiah Berlin has pointed out, the contrast between the universal but nevertheless delusive experiences of free will and historical determinism corresponds to an inner conflict in Tolstoy between two systems of values — a public system and a private one. At times his irrational depreciation of greatness in 'War and Peace' seems psychologically to have been motivated by his private set of values — a feeling of personal envy of the historical fame of Napoleon — just as his later depreciation of revealed Christianity may have been inspired by a feeling of envy of the historical perfection of Christ.
Though Tolstoy regarded his theorizing as essential to the development of the main subject of the novel, he was too great a literary artist not to anticipate the difficulties it would present to the average reader. He rather humorously pictures such readers in a draft version of the Second Epilogue as exclaiming, after repeated doses of historical and philosophical argumentation: "What again! How dull." And he whimsically adds that this sort of reader is most precious to him, the kind whose criticism he most admires. A second type of reader, he says, primarily interested in the historical sections, will blame him for impugning the reputations of great men. But he defends himself by pointing out that he is writing a history of the people involved in a past that has been misrepresented. For Tolstoy there could be no compromise between art and truth, or what he believed to be the truth. The vaunted higher truth of art he would not accept if he found it to be at variance with what he considered the truth of life.
Once the main theme of the novel is grasped, a history of the people and the manner in which all the elements involved in it are integrated by Tolstoy's theory of history, the basic structure becomes apparent and stands as a refutation of the notion that the work is formless. A history of the people is told in terms of the two broad areas of human experience identified in the title — war, symbolizing the vast world of public affairs, and peace, the private manifold activities of the family. A careful examination of the amazingly rich thematic multiplicity of the novel reveals a deliberate and meaningful series of juxtapositions and alternating contrasts, first between War and Peace, and then, within this framework, series of alternating contrasts of scenes, situations, events, and characters under each of these two divisions. In war we have the contrasts between Alexander I and Napoleon; good and bad generals; those who think they can direct the course of events and those who make no pretence at doing so; cowardly braggarts among the officers and selfless, unconsciously brave fellows like Tushin. In the division of peace there are the contrasts between the bureaucracy, cultural snobbery, and cynicism of city life and the simple pleasures of country existence; the cold aristocratism of the Bolkonskys and the gay, simple, indulgent Rostovs; or between these two families, with their true patriotism and tradition of unselfish service, and the Kuragins and Drubetskoys, who place their own advancement, financial or professional, above everything. So attached is Tolstoy to this device of antithesis, which he regards as a touchstone of the reality of things, that he creates a series of contrasting characters, and in a few individual characters, such as Pierre and Natasha, he stresses their contrasting moods and thoughts as important traits in their natures. This elaborate pattern of juxtapositions and alternating contrasts serves to create an illusion of ceaseless movement involving an endless variety of action, people, moods, and thought.
It is this incredibly rich variety of life rather than the historical forces integrating it in the grand design of 'War and Peace' that primarily interests the reader, and one suspects that this was also true of Tolstoy. The aim of an artist, he once said, is not to resolve a question irrefutably, but to compel one to love life in all its manifestations. With his belief in the timelessness of human experience, he did not hesitate to project his own into the historical past of the novel. When he read several early chapters in manuscript to a circle of in-laws — the Bers family — and their mutual friends, some in the audience looked furtively at each other as they recognized, among those present, models of a few of the characters. When Natasha Rostova was introduced, a friend winked at the blushing Tanya Bers, Tolstoy's young sister-in-law, known in the family as "the Imp." And Tanya was delighted to hear the description of her doll Mimi and the true story of how she asked a young lover to kiss the doll and then made him kiss her instead. The exquisitely wrought scene of Natasha's first ball must also have recalled to Tanya her own first ball at which Tolstoy had been her escort. Although his wife jealously insisted that she had served as the model for the unforgettable heroine, and perhaps she did in certain traits, one has only to read the published diary of Tanya Bers to observe the striking correspondences between her image and youthful experiences and those of Natasha Rostova. But the perceptive reader will wonder at how completely the model is transposed, for the realism, vitality, and pure beauty and poetry Tolstoy imparts to his heroine belong only to the transmuting power of art.
In general, Tolstoy drew upon the Bers family and their friends, as well as upon his own parents and forebears, for a number of the characters in the Rostov and Bolkonsky families. In early drafts, the name Tolstoy is for a time used in place of Rostov. In several characters it was a matter of borrowing prominent features, in others of forming composite portraits from such sources. Though research in the 1812 period provided most of the historical background and local colour he used, which was not extensive, he also depended on family archives, the existence of his own family on their estate at Yasnaya Polyana, and on the Moscow life of the Bers family for city scenes and situations of the Rostovs and Bolkonskys. On the whole, he distrusted writers who invented "reality" by seeking material outside their own range of experience. When necessity compelled him, he used his imagination, and there is much of this in 'War and Peace', but he always contended that it was more difficult to portray real life artistically than to invent it.
In Prince Andrew may be found some of Tolstoy's own characteristics — family pride, deep loyalty, and a profound sense of honor belong to both. Andrew's sister says of him:
"You are good in every way, but you have a kind of intellectual pride,"
an observation that could be made of Tolstoy. In fact, the moral conflict between Prince Andrew and his intellectual foil and unwitting 'deus ex machina' of the novel, the easy going, generous, and noble Pierre Bezukhov, reflects an important phase of the inner struggle that had been going on in Tolstoy since his youth and would in a few years plunge him into a profound spiritual crisis. The debate between them reaches its climax in that impressive scene on the ferry which is steeped in the soft counterpoint of nature's twilight beauties. Andrew, embittered by disappointments in his pursuit of fame and glory and conscience-stricken over the death of his young wife in childbirth, sees no further purpose in life. Pierre opposes his despondency:
"If there is a God and future life, there is truth and good, and man's highest happiness consists in striving to attain them. We must live, we must love, and we must believe that we live not only today on this scrap of earth, but have lived and shall live forever...."
Tolstoy, after his religious revelation, attempted to resolve the dualism of his nature — to cease living for himself as Prince Andrew had done, and to accept the moral credo of Pierre. Another manifestation of this same discord in Prince Andrew's nature, which was also so much a part of his creator's, is revealed in the beautiful scene where Natasha is singing and the Prince asks himself: Why do I feel like crying? Am I not perfectly happy? He is, Tolstoy comments, but he is pained by the terrible discord between something immense and indefinite that haunts his soul and the poor, limited thing his body is. Like Tolstoy, the only thing Prince Andrew was sure about was that there was something precious and unknown within him striving to escape, while the flesh bound him to earth. Only in the remarkable scene of his passing, when he discovered that death was a great awakening, did he get a glimpse of what that something was.
A Western critic once said that if life could write, it would write just as Tolstoy did. Surely some such impression is conveyed by innumerable scenes, especially in 'War And Peace', where the reader's awareness of the author vanishes and life itself seems to take the pen in hand. One thinks of such scenes as that of the impish sixteen-year-old Natasha stealing into her mother's bed at night and smothering her with kisses while she charmingly argues her right to encourage Boris's visits, even though she is not going to marry him; the inexpressible joy of the whole Rostov household upon Nicholas' first return from the front, with Natasha shrieking piercingly as she prances up and down in one place like a goat, and his little brother Petya clinging to his leg, shouting for his kiss: "And me too"; Prince Andrew's involuntary eavesdropping on Natasha's ecstasy at the open window of the bedroom above his over the enchantment of a lovely moonlit spring night:
"I feel like sitting down on my heels," she exclaims to Sonya, "putting my arms around my knees like this, straining tight, as tight as possible, and flying away!";
or the captivating episode of the young Rostovs, as Christmas maskers, on an evening sleigh ride to their neighbours, where the joyous festivities lead the hesitating Nicholas into the arms of Sonya.
Such scenes are not designed for bravura effects. They advance the action in important ways and add something to the characterizations of major participants. Natasha's talk that night with her mother results in the rejection of Boris as a suitor; Nicholas on his return home brings Denisov with him which sets the stage for his falling in love with Natasha; Prince Andrew's eavesdropping puts in motion the long train of events that will lead to his proposal to Natasha; and the maskers' Christmas party initiates a series of significant complications in the lives of Nicholas and Sonya.
Tolstoy's techniques in characterization are part of the secret of his extraordinary realism, for one of the most difficult things for a novelist is to reveal the total personality of a character, as a person in real life reveals himself. The revelation of personality in real life comes about over a period of time by slow accretions, by the accumulation of much detailed information and understanding through innumerable small actions and intimacies. This is the logical, the natural way, and a close approximation of it is pursued in Tolstoy's novels. We become acquainted with his men and women as we would become acquainted with real people whom we meet for the first time and about whom our knowledge and understanding increase as our intimacy increases over time and space.
Tolstoy does not confront us at the outset with the familiar lengthy description of a character, nor does he take refuge in the awkward flashback. We are introduced to Prince Andrew, Pierre, Natasha, or Nicholas in a customary setting, as we might be in the case of a future friend in real life. Our first impression of the external appearance is only that which we would see ourselves, conveyed by the author's few brief descriptive sentences. We learn next to nothing of the character's past or personality at this point. But from the reactions and remarks of others — this indirect method is a favourite of Tolstoy — and eventually through the conversation, self-examination, behaviour, and actions of the character, spread out over many pages and years, our knowledge of him grows until finally we obtain a complete image. There are no startling or abrupt revelations. Each thought or emotion develops out of another. And in the case of characters with a pronounced moral and spiritual bent, like Prince Andrew and Pierre, their dissatisfaction with life is resolved, if ever, not by the author's philosophizing, but by a combination of prolonged self-examination, reflection, and extensive experiences on the part of the characters. As Percy Lubbock affirms, these men and women never inhabit a world of their own, they seem to inhabit our world. That is, their world never strikes us as an abstract one. They stand forth fully defined with all their limitations of time, place, and circumstance. Tolstoy does not hover over the destinies of his men and women; they appear to exercise free choice in working out their fate, so that what they do seems to be psychologically necessary, even though their consciousness of freedom, in the Tolstoyan sense, is illusory. His psychological insights, like his style, create in the reader a sense of intimacy with the characters, for in his analysis of thoughts, feelings, and actions Tolstoy's points of reference are nearly always the reality of life and not abstractions.
"You can invent anything you please," he once said of Gorky's fiction, "but it is impossible to invent psychology. . . ."
Such an approach goes beyond conventional realism and suggests not only Tolstoy's complete identification with his characters, but a genuine love for them. Even in negative characters, he nearly always discovers some good, which was his abiding principle in real life. The reprehensible Dolokhov is tenderly devoted to his mother, and the obnoxious Anatole Kuragin is apparently a brave officer in combat. The artist, Tolstoy believed, is called upon to portray his men and women, not to judge them. It almost seems as though he lived among the characters he created very much as he wanted to live among his friends and neighbours.
"The best way to obtain true happiness," he wrote in his diary, "is, without any rules, to throw out from oneself on all sides, like a spider, an adhesive web of love to catch in it all that comes: an old woman, a child, a girl, or a policeman."
It has been noted more than once that characters actually grow and develop in 'War And Peace'. The vivacious child Natasha who runs breathlessly into the living room with her doll at the beginning of the novel, and at the large formal dinner boldly demands to know what the dessert will be, is the same Natasha who fifteen years later, at the end of the book, appears as Pierre's wife, noticeably plumpish and sloppy, anxiously scanning the diapers of her newest born. That is, they are really one and the same person at two different ages and not merely two different ages attributed to a single person, a familiar fault with novelists who project development of a character over a long stretch of years. And Tolstoy shows us all the intermediary stages of this growth as he does with other major figures of the novel.
Though one criterion of the realistic novel is truthfulness to individual experience, what writer, when truth is dull, gray, or commonplace, has not garnished it with the illusion of bright exaggeration. There is a suspicion of this in that appealing and unusual peasant, Platon Karataev, who personifies the slow, patient indomitable will of the people that must triumph because its cause is just and its life entirely one of service. Yet Tolstoy rarely deals in illusion. He deals with life itself, and no matter how ordinary it may be, he makes it interesting without the aid of exaggeration. There are no overtly psychopathic cases in 'War and Peace', no lost weekends, no snakepits, and no undue emphasis upon melodramatic, inpressionistic effects to titillate the reader's sensibilities. What could be simpler and more unimpressive than the figures of Nicholas Rostov and Princess Mary. They have no particular brilliance, no special abilities, and they do not stand out among the ordinary level of people of their social class. Yet they are evidently admirable souls, they gain our sympathy, and we identify ourselves with them. Tolstoy achieves this effect by bringing out in such characters what he calls the common sense of mediocrity which, at crucial moments in their lives, is manifested as a spiritual power that enables these ordinary people to act nobly.
In an uncanny way Tolstoy adapts his art to meet every exigency of the human natures he describes. For example, in the case of Princess Helene, he wishes to convey the impression of a souless nature, of a woman who dazzles all by her beauty, but is devoid of any inner passion or moral substance. The method he uses to create this effect is one of brilliant externalization. At Anna Pavlovna Scherer's soiree at the beginning of the novel the vicomte is about to tell one of his stories and the hostess calls Helene over:
The princess smiled. She rose with the same unchanging smile with which she had first entered the room — the smile of a perfectly beautiful woman. With a slight rustle of her white dress trimmed with moss and ivy, with a gleam of white shoulders, glossy hair, and sparkling diamonds, she passed between the men who made way for her, not looking at any of them but smiling on all, as if graciously allowing each the privilege of admiring her beautiful figure and shapely shoulders, back, and bosom — which in the fashion of those days were very much exposed — and she seemed to bring the glamour of a ballroom with her as she moved toward Anna Pavlovna. Helene was so lovely that not only did she not show any trace of coquetry, but on the contrary she even appeared shy of her unquestionable and all too victorious beauty. She seemed to wish, but to be unable, to diminish its effect.
"How lovely!" said everyone who saw her; and the vicomte lifted his shoulders and dropped his eyes as if startled by something extraordinary when she took her seat opposite and beamed upon him also with her unchanging smile.
"Madame, I doubt my ability before such an audience," said he, smilingly inclining his head.
The princess rested her bare round arm on a little table and considered a reply unnecessary. She smilingly waited. All the time the story was being told she sat upright, glancing now at her beautiful round arm, altered in shape by its pressure on the table, now at her still more beautiful bosom, on which she readjusted a diamond necklace. From time to time she smoothed the folds of her dress, and whenever the story produced an effect, she glanced at Anna Pavlovna, at once adopted just the expression she saw on the maid of honour's face, and again relapsed into her radiant smile.
Here, with these few strokes, Princess Helene's nature is completely revealed. And her beautiful white shoulders continue to gleam throughout most of the novel. When she appears at Natasha's first ball, however, Tolstoy used this feature to draw a significant characterizing comparison. Natasha's
"slender bare arms and neck were not beautiful — compared to Helene's, her shoulders looked thin and her bosom undeveloped. But Helene seemed, as it were, hardened by a varnish left by thousands of looks that had scanned her person, while Natasha was like a girl exposed for the first time, who would have felt very much ashamed had she not been assured that this was absolutely necessary."
Special features, such as Helene's gleaming white shoulders, Princess Bolkonskaya's pretty upper lip, and Napoleon's white hands, are frequently repeated, not only to fix the character's appearance, but sometimes to suggest a moral facet of the individual's nature.
This method of externalization used in the case of Princess Helene contrasts with the internal psychological analysis employed in the characterization of Princess Mary. Her deep spiritual qualities lend themselves to such an approach, for she never appears on the scene without Tolstoy making us feel the peculiar inwardness, the moral goodness, softness, and piety of this woman, whose soul, like her eyes, seems always to illumine her pale and unattractive face with the light of moral grandeur.
In the novelist's business of creating life as Tolstoy envisaged it in 'War and Peace', to convey the ceaseless ebb and flow was central to his purpose. At the end of the book, the old order, represented primarily by mother Rostova in her dotage, has passed or is passing. The present generation, Nicholas and Pierre with their wives Princess Mary and Natasha, gathered at Bald Hills with their children, is set in the ways of married people approaching middle-age. Then, of the new generation, young Nicholas, son of the dead Prince Andrew, after listening to his Uncle Pierre's warm defence of political liberals in the capital, murmurs to himself in bed that night:
"Oh, what a wonderful man he is! And my father? Oh, Father, Father! Yes, I will do something with which even he would be satisfied. . . ."
Tolstoy indicates by dots that this last sentence of the novel is unfinished. And so is life, he implies. It will go on and on, just as it had in 'War and Peace'.