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Tolstoy’s Pierre Bezukhov on why being knocked off course is “only the start of something new and good”

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My favourite translation by Anthony Briggs and
published by Penguin.

A fortnight ago I submitted my undergraduate dissertation, which consisted of eight thousand words on Pierre Bezukhov’s transformation from “absolute scoundrel” to “a man of such value to society” in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. My argument: Pierre does not reach perfection, but rather a state of increased self-knowledge that comes from failures, false starts and poor decisions.

It was a lot of fun to research and put the essay together, and I’ve gathered several quotes and snippets of interestingness that I look forward to sharing here.

One particular point of the novel that we can mull over is Pierre’s captivity after he is falsely accused of arson. Pierre’s old life is quickly stripped away, and he realises that his family name and status now mean nothing. He undergoes weeks of hardship and witnesses a series of executions, only realising at the final moment that he has been taken there as a spectator.

However, as George R. Clay recognises in Tolstoy’s Phoenix, it is during this challenging time that Pierre “exchanges his former absent-mindedness and chronic despair for ‘a feeling of alertness and readiness for anything’”, calling Pierre’s experience a great “realignment of aspirations” (60).

As Pierre contemplates after he returns home,

‘Everybody says that adversity means suffering’, said Pierre. ‘But if you asked me now, at this moment, whether I wanted to stay as I was before I was taken prisoner, or go through it all again, my God, I’d sooner be a prisoner and eat horse-meat again. We all think we only have to be knocked a little bit off course and we’ve lost everything, but it’s only the start of something new and good. Where there is life, there is happiness. There is a huge amount yet to come.’ (1247)

Adversity challenges Pierre’s mental strength, but he perceives it as leading to opportunity rather than suffering: the opportunity of time to think, reassess his own values, and start afresh. As the novel closes, Pierre is an entirely different man from the “gross object, oversized and out of place” at Anna Pavlovna’s soirée at the start of the novel, and his road to transformation is one of the most memorable journeys in Tolstoy’s writing.
When we can, I think it’s worth pondering “where there is life, there is happiness”. Because happiness is always there somewhere, even if it means making a conscious effort to find it and build on it.

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