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Tolstoy's Writing in War & Peace Part 4

by John Cobley

Tuesday Apr 6th, 2021





One of the main themes of War and Peace is the transformation of Pierre from a hedonist into a moral and responsible person. Part of his “education” is experiencing the battle of Borodino, where he wanders around dressed as a civilian. Tolstoy uses a dream to explain how the battle changes Pierre. This enables him to dramatize the thoughts passing through the young Count’s mind and to avoid a direct authorial explanation.


For his dream, Tolstoy carefully places Pierre in a context of normality—the courtyard of an inn. This setting represents the real world as opposed to Pierre’s dream world. The courtyard is described three times (blue highlights), each time Pierre awakes from his dream. The three descriptions differ according to the time of the night, from dusk, to night-time to dawn. 


In fact, Pierre’s dream is presented in three acts, almost like a drama. Each act ends with Pierre half-waking (green highlights)—first from the traumatic dreaming of war, second from his feet becoming cold after emerging from his cloak, third from his groom wanting to harness the horse. But despite the interruptions there is continuity in the dream as it moves from war to the soldiers’ behaviour to his benefactor and the need to come to terms with life. 


Tolstoy’s main technique here is to use quoted thoughts (yellow highlights). Almost one-third of this excerpt quotes Pierre’s thoughts as he drifts in and out of sleep. 


Other points of interest. The way he uses the word “harness” to transition from the dream to reality. The symbolic effects of the cloak and of the pigeons. The competition for Pierre’s attention between the benefactor and the men at the banquet (second “act”). The use of “they” to show Pierre’s alienation.


Ultimately, what Tolstoy is saying here is that the answers to living are within us.




Pierre's Post-Borodino Dream

War and Peace III.3.ix


            Pierre had hardly laid his head on a cushion before he felt himself falling asleep. Right away, with a vividness that was almost real, he heard the boom, boom, boom of gunfire, he heard groans, cries, the thud of shells, he smelt blood and powder, and a feeling of terror and the fear of death swept over him. Frightened, he opened his eyes and raised his head from under his cloak. All was quiet in the courtyard. There was only someone’s orderly talking to a porter as he splashed through the mud at the gates. Above Pierre’s head among the dark rafters, several pigeons were disturbed when he began to sit up. The whole yard was full of a peaceful, sharp smell of hay, dung and tar that delighted Pierre. Between two black roofs a clear starry sky was visible.

            “Thank God it’s all over,” Pierre thought, covering his head again. “Oh, how terrible fear is and how shamefully I gave in to it. But they--they--were steadfast and calm all the time until the end….” They in Pierre’s mind were the soldiers, those who had been on the battery, who had fed him, who had prayed before an icon. They--these strange men hitherto unknown to him—they stood out in his mind, distinct from everyone else.

            “To be a soldier, an ordinary soldier!” thought Pierre as he was falling asleep. “To enter that communal life with my whole being, to be filled with what makes them soldiers. But how to cast off all that’s superfluous, diabolic, all the burden of the outer man? There was a time when I could have done that. I could have escaped my father as I had wanted to. After the duel with Dolokhov I could have been enlisted as a soldier.” And his thoughts flashed back to Dolokhov, whom he challenged at the club dinner,

and to his blessed benefactor in Torzhok. And then the solemn dining room of the lodge appears to Pierre. This lodge is meeting in the English Club. And someone he knew, someone near and dear to him, is sitting at the end of the table. Yes, that’s him! That’s the benefactor. “But surely he’s dead,” Pierre thought. “Yes, dead. I didn’t know he was living. What a shame he died, and how glad I am that he’s alive again!” On one side of the table sat Anatole, Dolokhov, Nesvitsky, Denisov, and others like them (the category those people in his dream was clearly delineated in Pierre’s mind as a category of those he called them), and those people, Anatole and Dolokhov, were shouting and singing loudly; but despite their shouting, the benefactor’s voice was audible, talking incessantly, and the sound of his words was as momentous and continuous as the din of the battlefield, but it was pleasant and comforting. Pierre didn’t understand what his benefactor was saying, but he knew (the categories of thought in his dream were quite distinct) that the benefactor was talking about goodness and the possibility of being what they were. And they surrounded his benefactor on all sides with their simple, kind and steadfast faces. But although they were kind, they didn’t pay attention to Pierre; they didn’t know him. Pierre wanted to get their attention and talk to them. He started to get up but at that moment he felt his feet become cold and exposed.

            Embarrassed, he used a hand to cover his feet, from which in the real world his cloak had fallen from them. For a moment, as he was rearranging his cloak, Pierre opened his eyes and saw the same roofs, posts and courtyard, but everything was now tinged with a bluish light and covered with sparkles of dew or frost.   

            “It’s getting light,” Pierre thought. “But that’s not what I want. I need to listen to and understand my benefactor’s words.” He covered his head with his cloak again, but the lodge table and the benefactor had gone. There were only thoughts, clearly expressed in words—thoughts that someone else was expressing or that he himself was formulating.

Recalling these thoughts afterwards, Pierre was convinced that, even though they had been evoked by the impressions of that day, someone outside himself had spoken them to him. It seemed to him that when awake he could never have thought or expressed these thoughts.

            “War is the most difficult subjection of man’s freedom to the laws of God,” the voice had said. “It’s simply a matter of obedience to God; you can’t escape Him. And they are simple. They don’t talk, they act. Speech is silver, but silence is golden. Man can’t control anything if he fears death. If he doesn’t fear death, everything is his. If there was no suffering, man would not know his limits, he would not know himself. The most difficult thing (Pierre went on thinking or hearing in his dream) is to know how to unite the meaning of everything in one’s soul. Unite everything?” Pierre said to himself. “No, not unite. It’s impossible to unite thoughts. But to harness all these thoughts—that’s what’s needed. Yes, we must harnessharness!” Pierre repeated the word to himself with delight, feeling that this word and it alone expressed what he wanted to say and solved the whole problem that was tormenting him.

            “Yes, I must harness. It’s time to harness. ”

            “Time to harness. Time to harness, your Excellency! Your Excellency,” a voice kept repeating. “Time to harness. Time to harness.”

            It was the voice of the groom trying to wake Pierre. The sun was shining right into Pierre’s face. He looked out into the messy courtyard of the inn, in the middle of which soldiers were watering lean horses at the well,  and from which wagons were leaving by the gate. Pierre turned away in disgust, and closing his eyes fell back on the carriage seat. “No, I don’t want that. I don’t want to see and understand that. I want to understand what was being revealed to me in my dream. In another second I would have understood everything. What am I to do? Harness, but how to harness everything?” And then Pierre realised with horror that the entire meaning of what he had seen and thought in his dream had vanished. 


Translation by John Cobley with the help of published translations by Anthony Briggs, Rosemary Edmonds, Louise and Aylmer Maude, and Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.







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