The French, who had stopped firing on this field strewn with dead and wounded because there was nothing left alive on it, seeing an adjutant [Nikolai Rostov] riding across it, aimed a cannon and fired several shots. The sensation of these whistling, fearsome sounds and the surrounding dead merged for Rostov into a single impression of terror and pity for himself. He recalled his mother’s last letter. “What would she feel,” he wondered, “if she saw me here now, on this field, with cannon aimed at me?” (286)
This passage comes as Rostov is galloping along the Russian line at the start of the attack. That he is even there during the combat is due entirely to a coincidence of multiple events at once: the (coincidentally Georgian) commander of the right flank is prince Bagrationi (pronounced “bah-grah-tee-own” and with a final “i” to respect the Georgian language’s convention of pronouncing names as ending with “ee” in the third person; Georgians tack on the final syllable but Tolstoy does not) and in (warning: brief editorializing imminent) typical Georgian passive-aggression wishes to avoid combat that will surely result in loss, so in order to avoid later charges of insubordination, sends a messenger to ask permission to charge, fully aware that such a trip would take the better part of the day if the messenger even survives, allowing his men to survive mostly unharmed and retreat safely when the battle has already been lost. Bagration chooses Rostov to find the commander-in-chief or sovereign to ask for orders and return, and it is on this trip that Rostov moves through the fighting forces and, in the above passage, finds himself fired upon by French troops.
The first sentence of the above passage states that the French have ceased fire because “nothing [is] left alive” on the field, language that suggests a both cruelly sadistic and coldly economical reason for them to stop fighting. Because there is nothing “left alive,” there is nothing left to kill, so it’s not worth the soldiers’ time. They also save their ammunition for later, until the prince is sighted and they once again open fire, this time on the lone adjutant—tipping the scales towards the sadistic side.
As a defense mechanism, Rostov begins pitying himself and dreaming of home, perhaps as a way of separating himself from the “surrounding dead.” That he thinks of his mother is not surprising, but that he wonders what she would think of his situation is significant: a major theme, especially in later chapters, is that civilians have little impression of what war is truly like. Rostov seems somewhat aware of this, as he suggests that his mother never pictures her son as having “a cannon aimed at [him].”
Rostov is not wounded in this particular battle, but the other wartime protagonist is: Andrei Bolkonsky is wounded leading a charge as his unit is ambushed, falling although the charge he started moves on.
He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the fight between the French and the artillerist ended, and wishing to know whether or not the red-haired artillerist had been killed, whether the cannon had been taken or saved. But he did not see anything. There was nothing over him now except the sky—the lofty sky, not clear, but still immeasurably lofty, with gray clouds slowly creeping across it. “How quiet, calm, and solemn, not at all like when I was running, thought Prince Andrei, “not like when we were running, shouting, and fighting; not at all like when the Frenchman and the artillerist, with angry and frightened faces, were pulling at the swab—it’s quite different the way the clouds creep across this lofty, infinite sky. How is it I haven’t seen this lofty sky before? And how happy I am that I’ve finally come to know it. Yes! everything is empty, everything is deception, except this infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing except that. But there is not even that, there is nothing except silence, tranquillity. And thank God!…” (281)
So far, the brief story of a red-haired Russian artillerist and some French soldiers attacking his battery is the best example of a brief, cut off fragment of a war narrative that we’ve seen so far in War and Peace. In the confusion of battle, one sees so much going on all around, and just as a filmed scene of battle in a movie uses quick cross-cuts and short shots to emphasize the fragmentary nature of watching the proceedings in a battle, Tolstoy describes short bursts of action before quickly cutting to another event or giving us a peak inside a character’s head. That Andrei doesn’t see how the conflict between the French and the artillerist ends is typical of this style of narrative, and that he notes its lack of resolution is a nod to the frustration that can result in the reader.
The motif of the “lofty sky” begins here and continues with the rest of Andrei’s passages throughout the volume. There is some sense that the sky is related to death, since Andrei notes that he hadn’t seen it before, and notes that its “not like when we were running, shouting, and fighting,” implying that the follies of life distract a man from his real reason for living. Andrei is so struck by the sky’s infinity that, not only does everything else in life become for him “empty” and “a deception,” but he is happy that this has occurred. It’s something of a spiritual awakening, appropriate considering the icon his sister Marya gave him to wear into battle, and despite being brought on by a wound, Tolstoy ends the passage with a religious attribution: “And thank God!”
When we return to Andrei, the sky is immediately pushed to the forefront, as it is his major concern as he lies wounded on the field:
Towards evening he stopped moaning and became completely still. He did not know how long he was unconscious. Suddenly he felt himself alive again and suffering from a burning and rending pain in the head.
“Where is it, that lofty sky, which I never knew till now and saw today?” was his first thought. “And I never knew this suffering either,” he thought. “Yes, I knew nothing, nothing till now. But where am I?”
He began to listen and heard the sounds of approaching hoofbeats and the sound of voices speaking French. He opened his eyes. Over him was that same lofty sky with floating clouds rising still higher, through which showed the blue of infinity. He did not turn his head and did not see those who, judging by the sounds of hoofs and voices, had ridden up to him and stopped. (290)
The voices belong to Napoleon himself and his attendants. Napoleon calls Andrei’s situation “une belle mort” (Fr.: “a fine death”) (291), but Andrei ignores him. As stated in the first passage about the sky, even complementary words from a man he respects (i.e., Napoleon) are empty compared to the sky. Indeed, at the close of volume I, Andrei completely ignores Napoleon as the French emperor questions him, as “only the sky promised tranquility (293).