The Count is Dead–Long Live the Count

This post is long overdue, but I think I read too many pages before writing, so I wasted some time trying to figure out how to incorporate everything. I came to the decision to only hit the high points.

I finished Part I of Book I. Two major and one minor episodes took place, the most urgent being the death of Count Kiríll Vladímirovish Bezúkhov. The Count, proprietor of, “Forty thousand souls (read: serfs), and millions of rubles,” is said to be one of the richest men in Russia, which means that there is going to be a mad scramble for his inheritance (P&V, 38). The suitors are: Ánna Mikháelovna, whose son Boris’ is the Count’s godson, Prince Vassíly, connected via family relations, the three princesses who reside with the Count and have aided him through his final days, and finally Pierre, the bastard son who has recently been expelled from Petersburg for binding a police officer to a bear and throwing them both in the river.

Ánna Mikháelovna has already used her influence with Vassíly to secure Boris an officer position in the Guards, and the Countess Rostóv generously provided her with 700 rubles for the purpose of supplying the young man with a uniform; yet, claiming poverty, she focuses her buzzardly sights on the dying Bezúkhov and continues to insinuate herself into the situation. She drags Pierre, whom she continually implores to “be a man,” by the nose to his father’s deathbed, setting all of her pawns just so. Meanwhile, Pierre is overwhelmed and does what he is told because he has, “decided in his mind once and for all that everything taking place before him that evening had necessarily to be so” (K&V, 81). On one hand, Ánna actively attempts to better her situation, illustrating the strength associated with an internal locus of power; on the other, Pierre is resigned to his place in life. His defeatism will soon be richly rewarded, however.

Vassíly attempts to draw the oldest princess, the main caregiver to the Count, into a conspiracy to steal Bezúkhov’s will and the letter that would legitimate Pierre as his soul beneficiary. I found this section highly engaging because I really had no idea what which direction the narrative would turn. When faced with 1,100 more pages, you, as a reader, have to believe that anything can happen. Clearly these characters have no scruples, and with the stakes so high, fairness is a relative concept.

In the end, Count Bezúkhov dies, Pierre inherits everything, and this overgrown man-child, “fat, unusually tall, broad, with enormous red hands,”  becomes the new Count (P&V, 22). As I said before, I like Pierre as a character, but that was partly due to his combination of intellect and bear-baiting prowess. I have my reservations about his ability to manage the social graces necessary to be the richest man in Russia. This development also leaves the reader wondering what will happen to the others. Vassíly has already indicated that his sons are too expensive to continue supporting. The princesses who cared for the Count in his last days will almost certainly be left in the cold. You cannot doubt that Ánna Mikháelovna will attempt some kind of play—Boris left a strong, positive impression on Pierre during a brief encounter, and she will certainly use that to her advantage. As they say: The Count is dead—Long live the Count. This is the beginning, not the end.

The next scene provides the reader with the pecking order of the Moscow upper crust. The Rostóvs are having a dinner and all the finest ladies and gentlemen attend. The evening goes smoothly, Pierre remains quiet (he has not yet learned of the inheritance), partly because his mouth is always full, and the reader is treated to a lesson regarding the art of dining in fine society. First, they chat in the anterooms. When everyone has arrived, in this case they were waiting for the Queen Bee, Márya Dmítrievna, an aged, unrestrained, no-nonsense, truth-teller, the ensemble enters the dining hall together and finds their appointed seats. You could mark the stature of each person based on how close or far away they sat from either the Count or Countess Rostóv. The party had several courses including soup, savory pie, and a sauté of hazel grouse—each accompanied by a different wine poured in its own particular crystal, monogrammed goblet. After dinner there was pineapple ice cream, the singing of songs, and several rounds of “Daniel Cooper” dances. The most memorable part of the meal occurred when young Natasha stood up in her seat and demanded to know what would be served for dessert. Márya Dmítrievna, who lovingly refers to her as “Cossack!” tells the young lady to mind her place. From this we are to gather that Natasha has carte blanche, that everyone loves her, and that even at twelve years of age she knows how to manipulate people.

Lastly, in the final section of Part I, Prince Andre returns with his wife, Lise, to his birthplace, Bald Hills. His father, Chief Prince Nikolái Andéevich Bolkónsky lives on this estate with his daughter, Princess Marya, and her companion, Mlle. Bouriénne. The Chief Prince carries the sobriquet the “King of the Prussians” because he still wears a powdered wig and holds true to a very precise routine. To refer to the elder Bolkónsky as authoritarian would be being kind. He does not seem harsh today, but that is only because it appears that the precedent has long ago been set. His daughter is so frightened of him that she would prefer not to speak his name or hear it spoken when the Prince is not in the room. She rushes downstairs at one point because, “According to the established order of the day, between noon and two o’clock the prince rested and the princess played the clavichord” (P&V, 97). There is no deviation from the schedule…ever.

If you recall, Princess Marya is the subject of the plot by Ánna Pavlovna to aid Prince Vassíly in marrying off his delinquent, youngest son, Anatóle. It appears Marya will have no joy in her future. She is trapped between the domineering men in her corporeal life and the omnipresent God in her afterlife. She is extremely devout and tries to convince Andre that God will show him the light if he would only asked for help. I see bad things in the future for Princess Marya, no matter how bright are her eyes or how true is her heart.

Similarly, the little Princess is headed for a completely unfamiliar and uncomfortable life; raised in the high society of Moscow, she is not accustomed to living on what amounts to a Russian plantation. Beyond this shift from the urban to the rural, she will also have to learn to live with the Chief Prince and his rigor, which Andre observes has grown more severe as the years have passed.

A dark cloud hangs over Bald Hills and its residents. Andre departs for the war, leaving his pregnant bride with his sister and his father. His father promises to send for a male wet nurse from Moscow when Lise goes into labor, but I have little faith in the Chief Prince’s word on this subject. He has shunned the capitals, favoring his country home, and I would wager that he sees this son’s request as an intrusion into his personal sphere and an affront to his familiar duties. Lise, though, has been disturbed by ominous nightmares about a difficult birth, so Andre thinks it is best to provide her with some help. We will have to see how this plays out.

That takes us to the end of Part I, Book I. I would like to now comment on Tolstoy’s characterizations of different nationalities—specifically, the Germans. During the dinner scene at the Rostóvs, Tolstoy says this about the German tutor:

QUOTE: [He] tried to memorize all kinds of dishes, desserts, and wines, in order to describe everything in detail in his letter to his family in Germany, and was quite offended that the butler with the napkin-wrapped bottle bypassed him. The German frowned, trying to show by his look that he did not even wish to have his wine, but was offended because no one wanted to understand that the wine was necessary for him, not in order to quench his thirst, nor out of greed, but out of a conscientious love of knowledge (P&V, 62).

This passage is hilarious for so many reasons. The stereotypes are overflowing. First, the tutor memorizes everything because he wants to recount the dinner perfectly to his family. Second, he has no need for alcohol—no, no—he is merely a gourmand, a culinary scientist, an ethnographer of vittles. He is also easily slighted apparently, feeling as though he is forced to look in from the outside. I don’t know when the stereotypes regarding different nationalities first coalesced, but there is definitely some proto-typing going on here. This is further developed in the person of the Chief Prince Bolkónsky—King of the Prussians.

He is living in a bygone era where wigs and knee breaches are still apropos. “He used to say that there were only two sources of human vice: idleness and superstition; and that there were only two virtues: activity and intelligence” (P&V, 88). It is hard not to take these specific characteristics and apply them generally because they seem too consistent across the characters to be accidental. Scientists, industrious craftsmen, lovers of knowledge, hard-workers oriented to the family: these qualities have been transferred through the generations and are still used as short-hand when referring to the Germans as a group of people. Here is a quote that explains the Prince’s routine:

QUOTE: “As the main condition for activity was order, so the order in his way of life was brought to the utmost degree of precision. His coming to the table was performed under the same invariable conditions, and not only a the same hour, but at the same minute. With the people around him, from his daughters to his servants, the prince was brusque and invariably demanding, and thus, without being cruel, inspired fear and respect fro himself such as the cruelest of men would not find I easy to obtain” (P&V, 88).

It must be said that Bolkónsky is Russian, not German. But the characterizations and the fact that he has the Prussian nickname must mean something to the author. It resonates with me at least. Furthermore, during several scenes, the characters sit under portraits of Catherin the Great, who after all, was born in Prussian Pomerania before becoming Tsarina of Russia. She is still respected as a reformer and great leader. My intention in bringing up these passages is not simply to show that, Ah yes, the Germans have always been seen as having this or that characteristic. It is more to pose the question, Did this book have some role in forming those stereotypes in the first place?

There is one exchange where the elder Bolkónsky, when speaking of war, states: “Bonaparte was born lucky. He has excellent soldiers. And the Germans were the first attacked. You’d have to be a do-nothing not to beat the Germans. Ever since the world began, everybody’s beaten the Germans. And they’ve beaten nobody. Except each other. It was on them he earned his glory” (P&V, 104).

I like this passage because it reminds us that some things change (the perception of Germany as a military weakling) while others stay the same (the idea that Germans are scientific, industrious, and hard-working). At this point in time, 1805, France had been at war constantly since 1792. They were the warriors, the battlefield innovators, and most dominant Continental army. The French were the exemplars of legal reform, republicanism, liberty, and revolution, while the Germans were still fragmented, agrarian, and insular. To the contemporary reader, unfamiliar with this history, these characterizations are almost exactly reversed and opposite to current expectations.

I don’t have much more to say on this topic. I guess it could be interesting to find out whether or not reading this book made Germans feel one way or the other, or influenced the way that readers from France viewed Germans, but this is a historical question that would need much more research than I can currently bring to bear. I still think that the relationship between Prussia and Russia, and how the characters are presented, deserves scrutinizing. After all, we are talking about war and peace here. Nations and nationalities do matter.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: