The tragic tale of Prince Andrei and Natasha Rostov that is the centerpiece of Tolstoy’s masterpiece is a brilliant depiction of the fallibility of life, sublimity of love and serenity in death. Andrei was a middle-aged widower and Natasha was still in her teens when love happened to them. While Natasha’s parents welcomed their romance, Andrei’s father was scornful about the match of that ‘chit of a girl’ from the family of no fortune or rank of consequence. However, he gives in subject to the condition that Andrei should put it off for a year and stay abroad during that period. “And then if your love or passion or obduracy – whatever you choose – is still as great, marry!” says the old man.
After their secret engagement with the consent of the Rostovs, Natasha’s parents, Andrei tells his betrothed, “Hard as this year will be for me, it will give you time to be sure of your own heart. I ask you to make me happy at the end of a year, but you are free: and should you discover that you do not love me, or if you should come to love…”
“Why do you say that?” Natasha interrupted him. “You know that from the very day you first came to Otradnoe I have loved you,” she cried, quite convinced that she was speaking the truth.
Thereafter, as Andrei went abroad, “flushed and agitated she (Natasha) wandered about the home that whole day. Though she did not weep; but for several days sat in her room, not crying but taking no interest in anything and only saying from time to time: “Oh, why did he go?’ But a fortnight after his departure, to the surprise of those around her, she just as suddenly recovered from her mental sickness and became her old self again, only with a change in her normal physiognomy, as a child’s face changes after a long illness”.
At last, as Andrei’s enforced exile was about to end, Natasha, as fate had willed it, gets swayed by the seductive charms of Anatole Kuragin, a wayward youth she happens to come across. “Oh why may I not love them both at once?” she kept asking herself in the depths of bewilderment. “Only so could I be perfectly happy, but now I have to choose, and I can’t be happy if I let either of them go. One thing is certain, she thought, “to tell Prince Andrei what has happened, or to hide it from him, is equally impossible. But with the other nothing is spoilt. But must I really part for ever from the happiness of Prince Andrei’s love, which I have been living in for so long.”
Thus, on an impulse, she tries to elope with Anatole though unsuccessfully. However, the shock of it all had chastening effect on her. In time, when Andrei returns to claim her hand, he was greeted by the scandalous news. Bitter and broken, he desists from meeting her and instead joins the Russian army to fight the Napoleonic aggression. However, he was critically wounded and was brought to Moscow just as the gentry were fleeing the city to the hinterland to escape the enemy. Destiny, however, gives him a berth in one of the carts of the entourage of Count Rostov, Natasha’s father.
At length, when Natasha comes to know about his presence in their camp, she tentatively steps into the tent where the wounded Andrei laid thinking – “Yes – love (he reflected again, quite lucidly). But not that love which loves for something, to gain something or because of something, but the love I know for the first time when, dying, I saw my enemy and yet loved him. I experienced the love which is the very essence of the soul, the love which requires no object. And I feel that blessed feeling now too. To love one’s neighbours, to love one’s enemies, to love everything – to love God in all His manifestations. Human love serves to love those dear to us but to love one’s enemies we need divine love. And that is why I knew such joy when I felt I loved that man. What became of him? Is he alive? … Human love may turn to hatred but divine love cannot change. Nothing, not even death can destroy it. It is the very nature of the soul. Yet how many people I hated in my life? And of them all none did I love and hate as much as her.”
And he vividly pictured Natasha to himself, not as he had pictured her in the past with her charms only, which gave him such delight, but for the first time imagining her soul. And he understood her feelings, her suffering, her shame and remorse. Now, for the first time, he realized all the cruelty of his rejection of her, the cruelty of breaking with her. “If only I might see her once more. Just to look into those eyes and say…” In time, finding her near him “he fetched a sigh of relief, smiled and held out his hand”. And she sought his forgiveness for what she “di-d to him in a scarcely audible, broken whisper”. In response he said, “raising her face with his hand so as to look into her eyes, “I love you more, more than before.”
While Natasha tended Andrei with love and care till his inevitable death, Pierre Bezuhov upon learning about his friend’s demise mused, “Can he have died in the bitter mood he was in then? Is it possible that the meaning of life was not revealed to him before he died?’ At length, Pierre, who had a heart of gold as Andrei felt, finds the answers when he hears about his mate’s last days from Natasha.
“Yes, Yes and so….?’ Pierre kept saying as he lent towards her with his whole body, listening earnestly. “Yes; so he found peace? He grew gentler? With his whole soul he was always striving for one thing only - to be completely good - so he could not have been afraid of death. The faults he had - if he had any - were not of his making. So he did soften? … What a happy thing that he saw you again,” he added, suddenly turning to Natasha and looking at her with eyes full of tears.
Natasha’s face twitched. She frowned and for an instant looked down. For a moment she hesitated; should she speak or not?
“Yes, that was a great happiness,” she said in her quiet voice with its deep chest notes. “For me it was happiness indeed.” She paused “And he … he … he said he was wishing for just that at the very moment I entered the room. …’
* From Rosemary Edmonds’ translation for Penguin Classics.