I must say that Volume IV contains most of my favourite moments in War and Peace. There’s so much to relate to, to learn from. In my edition, this volume surely has the highest number of annotations.
Hélène’s illness and death largely determine the course of the final sections. It’s part of Pierre’s journey to freedom, despite how morbid that sounds. If Hélène hadn’t fallen ill, Pierre progression as a character would have certainly been hindered. His wife would have probably drawn scandal to their marriage through adultery too. Pierre becomes the type of person Tolstoy always aspired to be: he sees the good in everyone, he avoids confrontation, and he simply has that “joie de vivre”.
Pierre’s transformation is enabled by his imprisonment. He learns that “man was created for happiness, and happiness lies within”. Pierre goes on to state that as there is “a limit to suffering and a limit to freedom”, “there is nothing in the world to be frightened of”. This latter phrase means the most to me – it helps me realise that my anxiety is entirely meaningless and trivial. Anxiety is an unnecessary expenditure of energy, time and mood, and I have no rational answer for why I’m so affected by it.
I imagine that it’s a fear of the unknown and all that I’m not used to. Pierre overcomes his similar fear and discomfort in a brutal, unenviable way: he witnesses an execution that he believes he will be part of too. It’s common to hear of people who are intensely changed after emotional and traumatic events, undergoing a sort of philosophical transformation. Before being faced with the possibility of the termination of life or its brutality, we are used to safety and luxury. As a result, it’s all too common to complain about trivialities. But after coming face to face with death and lost freedom, like Pierre, we realise the sanctity of life and each present moment.
Prince Andrey’s philosophy on life also changes in his final moments. Tolstoy narrates that “he was experiencing a sense of remoteness from all earthy things, and a strangely joyful lightness of being” (did this inspire Milan Kundera?) When faced with such urgency, there’s no room for anxiety. Instead, Andrey enjoys the purest magnificence of life in his final moments. Unfortunately Petya has no time for such thoughts, and death approaches him by complete surprise. Perhaps this is the favoured way to go, however.
I think everyone wishes to experience Andrey’s “lightness of being”, although not in such circumstances. But perhaps it’s so enviable because of it’s brevity and rarity. I’ve had what may be called subliminal experiences in the presence of the spectacular: waterfalls, cathedrals, the silence and beauty of nature.
However, it’s generally hard to appreciate the full beauty of life and the present without facing a life-changing event (although I certainly wouldn’t want to wish trauma on anybody). Yet Tolstoy presents Pierre’s “joie de vivre” as contagious. Pierre is inspired by Platon Karatayev, the embodiment of truth and simplicity in a negative environment of suffering. Moreover, Pierre’s vitality lifts Natasha from her depression and loss of faith in life’s goodness. If we don’t have sufficient motive to fully appreciate the present, we can surround ourselves with those who do. And of course visit and experience as many beautiful things as you can!
Reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace
War and Peace: Volume I
War and Peace: Volume II
War and Peace: Volume III
War and Peace: Epilogue