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Lessons on failure from Pierre in Tolstoy’s War and Peace

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I’ve posted before about Tolstoy’s “Rules of Life” and desire for self-improvement, both of which generally led to failure rather than any real progression. War and Peace tells a similar story, as my university dissertation research into Pierre Bezukhov’s path from “absolute scoundrel” to splendid husband and father suggests.

Sketch of Pierre by M.S. Bashilov

Pierre is one of my favourite characters in literature. He’s goodhearted and a character I aspire to be like in many ways, but he’s definitely not without his flaws. His literary life is littered with false starts, misjudgements and failures, but this is all so… authentic.

While I’ll be writing more about Pierre’s transformation (I’ve written before about how War and Peace can help us to find direction in life), for now I’d like to embrace his failures.

Here are just a few of them.

He volunteers for foolish drinking games

Dolokhov, one of the many negative influences in Pierre’s life as a twentysomething, drinks a bottle of rum while sitting on a window ledge. Immediately afterwards, Pierre also jumps on to the window-sill, shouting, “I don’t even need a bet. No, I don’t. Tell them to get me a bottle. I’ll do it … Just get me a bottle”.Fortunately for us and for Pierre, the bet is postponed and never happens. Lessons to be learned: heavy drinking doesn’t end well, nor does copying stupid friends.

He ties a policeman to a bear and throws them both in the Moyka

While Pierre doesn’t drink rum on a window ledge that night, he does tie a policeman to a bear, drop the bear in the Moyka river, and is banished from the city with the rest of the “absolute scoundrels”. Needless to say, this fuels society gossip for some time, although one or two remain convinced of Pierre’s good nature behind the peer pressure.

He always seemed to me to have an excellent heart, and this is the quality I value most in people. […] So young and burdened with this wealth, what temptations will he have to resist!

– Princess Marya, who sees Pierre’s mishaps for what they are

He admires the wrong people and is seduced by appearance

In Pierre’s early twenties, when life is at its most chaotic, he not only misjudges situations and choices, but also people. Lacking a positive role model, he is envious of the malicious, empty and pretentious Anatole Kuragin. Perhaps, we think, this is a mistake he has to make in order to move forwards:

His face was fresh and flowing, his hat sported white feathers and sat at a jaunty angle, showing off pomaded curls with a sprinkling of fine snow. ‘Now that’s what I call worldly wisdom!’ thought Pierre. ‘He can’t see beyond the pleasure of the moment, nothing worries him, so he’s always happy and contented. What wouldn’t I give to be like him?’ he mused, full of envy. (651)

He marries for looks and is promptly cheated on

Pierre’s marriage to Hélène is a big mistake, no doubt about it. His second marriage seems a lot more positive, however, and by the end of War and Peacewe feel he’s learned his lesson. On his marriage to the beautiful Hélène, he ponders:

“Oh, why did I say ‘I love you’?” he asked himself over and over again. At the tenth time of asking a quotation from Molière occurred to him: “How the devil was he going to get himself out of a mess like that?” and he laughed at himself.

He believes he is destined to kill Napoleon according to numerology

This is probably the most ridiculous of Pierre’s errors, and hopefully not one we can align too easily with our own experience. By lining up the French alphabet alongside a list of numbers, Pierre thinks it is his duty to “put an end to the power of the beast that was Napoleon”. Pierre clearly isn’t thinking very logically, especially considering the manipulation of word order and spelling required to get to this point. The fact that he also ends up saving three people instead of killing Napoleon also says a lot.

l’russe Besuhof – exactly 666! This discovery shook him. How, and by what means, he was connected with the great event predicted in the Apocalypse, he couldn’t tell, but the connection was there beyond doubt.

When you’re faced with failure or mistakes, think about Pierre

We all fail often, and we all have a lot of mistakes left to make.

While Pierre does learn from his mistakes and rarely commits a similar one twice, he doesn’t stop failing. His intentions, values, intuition and social circles do change, however, and this marks his true transformation.

Maybe you need to avoid some negative influences, or spend more time thinking through a decision. Perhaps, however, the failure was simply unavoidable, or at least all part of our constant learning experience.

Without the failures and mistakes of its characters, I don’t think War and Peacecould be anywhere near as authentic. I’d like to think the same about our own lives too.

“Pierre looked into the sky, into the depths of the retreating, twinkling stars. “And all this is mine, and all this is in me, and all this is me!” thought Pierre. “And all this they’ve caught and put in a shed and boarded it up!”

While reading Tolstoy, you might also like this comparison of the best translations of Anna Karenina, as well as my guide to reading War and Peace.

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