Pierre at the Party
Day 2 of A Year of War and Peace
Anna Pavlovna’s party quickly fills up with the biggest names in Petersburg society. We’ve got everything from pretty princesses to erudite abbés. And Anna Pavlovna, as the evening’s social conductor, orchestrates them together harmoniously throughout her drawing-room. A particular note she desires each guest to perform is the paying of respect to her elderly aunt. Though everyone considers this to be an annoyance they perform their duty of social nicety and say hello to the old lady.
Except for one young man.
This young man is Pierre, an illegitimate son of the wealthy Count Bezukhov. Anna Pavlovna, aware of Pierre’s reputation as a clever though eccentric individual, decides to keep a close eye on him. You’ll want to keep a close eye on him too. Pierre is one of five central characters in War and Peace that we’ll be paying special attention to throughout this reading. In fact, his behavior in this chapter is the subject of today’s meditation.
But before we get there I’d like first to talk about Tolstoy’s literary style. War and Peace is rightly regarded as a novel of grand, panoramic sweep. We’ll see this later during the war scenes in particular. But Tolstoy is also a master of the small, both in scene description and in the development of the psychology of his characters. Take the young princess Bolkonskaya, for example. When we first meet her in this chapter we’re treated to a fantastic little detail of the “delicate dark down” of her pretty upper lip. We also hear her complain to Anna Pavlovna, in a kind of joking manner, that the party is much larger than she expected and she fears she has underdressed for the occasion. The inclusion of this seemingly minor remark is a quick and efficient way for Tolstoy to reveal the princess’s psychological concern that her pregnancy has corrupted her youthful beauty. These tiny descriptions offer just the right amount of subtle highlights necessary to bring the story and characters into relief. We’ll see plenty more in the year to come.
But back to Pierre. It’s useful to consider his behavior here. First, he rudely cuts short his greeting of Anna Pavlovna’s elderly aunt whereas everyone else dutifully pays her respect. Then, in a “reverse act of impoliteness,” he prolongs his conversation with Anna Pavlovna in a talk about politics that she clearly doesn’t want to take part in. When I was younger, back when I first read War and Peace, I really liked Pierre in this chapter. I admired his unconventional — maybe even anti-conventional — personal style. Nowadays, however, I find myself much more sensitive to social convention. I’m reminded of Cicero who, in discussing social obligations, wrote,
We ought to respect and look after people who are known for the greatness and decency of their lives, who think well of the Republic and have been honored by holding offices or commands. We should hold old age in high regard, defer to office-holders and cherish citizen and foreigner alike — the later whether their business is public or private. In sum, so as to not go on about specifics, we should cherish, defend, and preserve the bonds that join and unite the whole human race.
-Cicero, On Duties