Much like the Al-Fatihah this chapter not only opens the great book of which it is a part, but also encapsulates within its short space all the themes and ideas of what is to follow.
Here we have the terror of war, the delicate dance and negotiation of social relations, the pain and joy of family, the unremarked movers of history, and, of course, a great confusion of Russian names and French expressions first-time Tolstoy readers cannot possibly dream of conquering.
The chapter opens in July of 1805 at a soiree hosted by Anna Pavlovna Scherer, a leading light of Petersburg society. The first of her guests to arrive is Prince Vasili and immediately she blasts him, in inquisitorial French, with a series of questions about the dreaded Emperor Napoleon and his designs for European domination. The conversation between Anna Pavlovna and Prince Vasili constitutes the whole of the chapter. The bulk of their discussion, code-switching throughout between a refined French and a common Russian, covers rumors of war and international politics. Though Anna Pavlovna is keen to keep the conversation about Napoleon and her beloved Emperor Alexander’s response to the threat of war, Prince Vasili slyly manages to introduce the true purpose of his presence at her party: the promotion and preservation of his family. By the chapter’s end Vasili obsequiously asks Anna Pavlovna to use her influence in society to secure a rich wife for his profligate son.
Part of what makes War and Peace such a profound reading experience is its treatment of character and its unique understanding of the human experience. As such, each chapter provides an excellent opportunity for personal reflection, meditation, and self-improvement. I’d like to end every entry in this series with a brief meditation readers may use not only to reflect on the characters of the novel but also to reflect on their own lives.
This chapter, for instance, can teach us about the roles we assume in life and the importance of playing the roles we are given properly. Prince Vasili, to take one example, assumes many roles just within this first chapter. He is at once a member of society, attending the right parties, saying the right things, and behaving in society as a man of his station should. But he is also a father. He must, as a father, seek the best for his children. As we’ve seen, he uses his time at Anna Pavlovna’s to petition for his son.
Throughout our reading of War and Peace we will often return to this idea of role-playing because one conception of what it means to live the good life is to perform your roles in a dutiful manner. As Epictetus writes,
Remember that you’re an actor in a play, which will be as the author chooses, short if he wants it to be short, and long if he wants it to be long. If he wants you to play the part of a beggar, act even that part with all your skill; and likewise if you’re playing a cripple, an official, or a private citizen. For that is your business, to act the role that is assigned to you as well as you can; but it is another’s part to select that role.
Epictetus, The Handbook