Prince Vassily and the “Realistic Villain” in War and Peace

Stephen Rea as Prince Vassily and Gillian Anderson as Anna Pavlova in BBC’s War and Peace

Stephen Rea as Prince Vassily and Gillian Anderson as Anna Pavlova in BBC’s War and Peace

Inspired by the recent BBC War and Peace miniseries, I have been rereading War and Peace and really enjoying some of its most subtle moments. This morning I came across Tolstoy’s wonderfully nuanced portrayal of Prince Vassily:

Prince Vassily did not think out his plans. Still less did he think of doing people harm in order to profit from it. He was simply a man of the world, who succeeded in the world and made a habit of that success. According to his circumstances and his intimacy with people, he constantly formed various plans and scheme which he himself was not quite aware of, but which constituted all the interests of life. He would have not one or two of these plans and schemes going, but dozens, of which some were only beginning to take shape for him, while others were coming to completion, and still others were abolished. He did not say to himself, for instance, “ Here is a man who is now in power, I must gain his trust and friendship and through him arrange for myself the payment of a one-time subsidy,” nor did he say to himself: “Here Pierre is rich, I must entice him to marry my daughter and borrow the forty thousand that I need from him”; but let him meet a man in power, and in the same moment his instinct would tell him that the man might be useful, and Prince Vassily would become intimate with him and at the first opportunity, without any preparation, instinctively, would flatter him, behave familiarly, talk about what was needed.

Prince Vassily is a creature of instinct that merely operates according to his nature. There is not a grand theory here of what constitutes evil. Prince Vassily is part of the order of the world, a world whose full operation is never totally understandable by the human characters of the novel. What is so great here is how a small subtle description of a character fits in so nicely with the larger structure and weltanshauung of War and Peace.

Karate Bear out!