War and Peace was read by most of Tolstoj’s contemporaries as an apologia for the aristocracy; they complained of the absence of portraits of raznočincy, peasant poverty, and the abuses of serfdom. And yet, as both Viktor Šklovskij and Kathryn Feuer have argued, Tolstoj was in fact responding, albeit in veiled form, to the burning issues of his day. Šklovskij argues that both Napoleon and Speranskij are meant to be read as raznočincy; Feuer claims that one of the novel’s concerns is in describing a battle between a service-oriented, bureaucratic aristocracy and the morally superior landed gentry.
This split between the “false,” bureaucratic nobility and the “true,” landed gentry had particular significance during the 1860s, when Tolstoj was writing War and Peace. Both during and after the emancipation of the serfs, thinkers of various political stripes voiced concern that, having lost its most important privilege, the gentry would come to be swallowed by a faceless bureaucracy. Such ideas hailed back to old resentments arising from Peter the Great’s Table of Ranks, which allowed commoners to acheive noble status through civil service—an innovation which old-fashioned noblemen felt was causing their ranks to be infiltrated by servile parvenus.
In his thinking on the gentry in War and Peace, Tolstoj shows the influence of Montesquieu, who inspired many Russian conservative social thinkers, including, for example, Nikolaj Karamzin, who also figures obliquely in Tolstoj’s novel. Tolstoj’s hero Prince Andrej is a particular admirer of the French thinker, and, in a discussion with Speranskij, quotes Montesquieu’s assertion that the monarchy is upheld by the honor of the nobility. If the principle of honor, as personified by the nobleman, is degraded, then the system is a despotic one, under which, Montesquieu says, “every man is a slave.” This concern with honor as one of the cornerstones of nobility is fundamental to Tolstoj’s thinking on class in War and Peace. Noblemen who betray their background by being servile are marked as false noblemen, and connected through images and linkings with the parvenus Napoleon and Speranskij. Prince Andrej tries to admire both Montesquieu and Speranskij simultaneously—a contradiction which takes its toll. Throughout the novel, Prince Andrej suffers from the conflict between his noble need for true honor, and his Napoleonesque obsession with outward appearances.
The false nobleman is always recognizable by his manners. Those who behave with excessive social aplomb, or comme il faut, as Tolstoj often called it, mark themselves as servile and inferior. Speranskij and Napoleon both are models of social propriety, seeming incapable of committing a faux pas. The Kuragin family, especially Hélène, is connected to Napoleon through images and words—Hélène, for example, cites Napoleon as a precedent when she seeks to divorce her husband in order to marry another. Boris, likewise, is connected to Speranskij through the “screened gaze” that is mentioned repeatedly in connection with both men. While Tolstoj relies in some measure on the literary stereotype of the raznočinec as awkward and unlovable outsider in his descriptions of Napoleon and Speranskij, he has made one very significant change. While still exiles from human closeness, the parvenus of War and Peace are the opposite of socially awkward. Instead, social awkwardness belongs to the genuine aristocrats. In contrast to Hélène and Anatole, Pierre and Princess Marija reveal their moral superiority through their clumsy manners. The Rostov family is continually transgressing social rules; Nataša in particular, by violating what Alexander Žolkovsky has called “the laws of the ball,” comes to embody a sense of rightness that is higher than social propriety.