An Unhappy Family Unhappy in its Own Way

Day 6 of A Year of War and Peace


Congratulations! You’ve just completed the longest chapter in what may be the longest book you’ll ever read. I’ll do my best to make this entry as short as possible out of respect for your achievement.

It’s going to be a difficult task though because this is a very important chapter in terms of themes and character development. Part of the reason the chapter is so long — it’s roughly ten pages — is because it covers two separate scenes. The setting of the first scene is Prince Andrei Bolkonsky’s home and the second is at the home of the notorious rake Ánatole Kurágin.

At Prince Andrei’s Princess Lise, having changed into a new dress, enters the study to join Pierre and her husband. What follows is a scene of domesticity composed of all the ingredients necessary for a happy marriage: misunderstandings, recriminations, coldness, frustration, accusation, and, most importantly, that leaven of all healthy unions, an unresolved feud.

This portion of the chapter has always been curious to me for at least two reasons. First, there is no doubt in my mind that Tolstoy made this the longest chapter in the book as a metaphor for the long slog of a miserable marriage. Second, Sofia Tolstoy, Leo’s wife, often helped him prepare his manuscripts. I like to imagine her hand-copying these words and just boiling over in silent vexation. Poor soul.

At any rate, Princess Lise eventually leaves the room in frustration. Prince Andrei, who just can’t even, quickly turns the conversation back to Pierre’s life. Pierre doesn’t know what he wants to do. Prince Andrei assures him that he’ll do well no matter what he chooses to do only he must stop hanging out with Ánatole Kurágin. Pierre promises to stop hanging out with Ánatole Kurágin.

Pierre leaves Andrei’s and immediately convinces himself that his promise doesn’t count and so he heads over to hang out with Ánatole Kurágin.

What follows is a scene of classic Russian drunken debauchery. Empty bottles line the floor. Hoots and hollers abound. One man, Dólokhov, bets an Englishman, Stevens, that he, Dólokhov, can drink an entire bottle of rum in one continuous series of gulps whilst sitting outside the window on a steeply sloping ledge without holding on to anything, nor without falling to his certain death. He wins the bet. Oh yeah, and there’s also a bear the group has abducted and chained so they can, playfully of course, ursidaeously attack each other while slamming bottles of wine.

Ain’t no party like a nineteenth-century aristocratic Russian party!


Consider Pierre.

In this chapter he agrees, correctly, that spending time with characters like Ánatole Kurágin is a waste. And then, just minutes after promising his friend that he will reform and never associate with that set again, Pierre convinces himself, in a textbook case of psychological rationalization, that he not only can hangout with Kurágin that night but that he must hang out with Kurágin that night.

Self-deception and rationalization are powerful enemies. Marcus Aurelius, the great Roman Emperor, helped himself fight against these enemies by reminding himself of the honorable characteristics he associated with his adopted father. Reflecting on these characteristics may also help us better guard against doing things we know are bad:

Unwavering adherence to decisions, once he’d reached them. Indifference to superficial honors. Hard work. Persistence.
-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

This is the sixth installment in a daily, yearlong, chapter-by-chapter reading devotional and meditation on Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. For more information on this project please read the introduction to the series here.

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