The Two Deaths of Prince Bolkonskij: Inside and Outside the Code of Chivalry

Yevgeny A. Slivkin, Defense Language Institute

Philippe Aries, a French historian and ethnographer, notes that the knights in the Chanson de Roland and the stories of the Round Table do not die ordinary deaths. None of their deaths ever comes "as a surprise, even when it is the accidental result of wound [...] Its essential characteristic is that it gives advance warning of its arrival." Extending his observation to Tolstoj's works, Aries points out that in the Russian writer's stories "muzhiks" die exactly like Roland, Oliver Gawain, etc. In this paper I analyze the deaths of several of Tolstoj's "military aristocrats" and "military non-aristocrats," as he himself put it, in Sevastopol Stories. As I demonstrate, these episodes are integrated into the more complex episodes of the two deaths ("false" at Austerlitz and "real" at Borodino) of Andrej Bolkonskij in War and Peace. I broaden Aries's observation, showing that the "military aristocrats" in Tolstoj's works are always deprived of the death of an epic knight, which according to Aries could not be sudden and does not differ from the calmly anticipated and humbly accepted death of a peasant. Looking for the underpinnings of this phenomenon I suggest that while the theme of Tolstoj's epic vision, his "poetry of war and agriculture" (G. Steiner), prompts scholars to compare War and Peace with Homer's Iliad and to define the stages of Andrej Bolkonskij's moral development in the novel as "from Achilles to Christ". (L. Jepsen) Tolstoj's novel has much more in common with another epic work written under the influence of the Iliad, that is Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto.

My arguments are based on D. Kress's studies of Orlando Furioso as an official myth of Napoleon's France, and on the contrast between the simplicity of genuine bravery and natural life on the one hand, and the false chivalrous valor and pomposity of Napoleon's grandeur on the other hand, which is one of the central motifs in War and Peace. I argue that Tolstoj could not help being engaged in artistic antagonism (i.e., in a special kind of esthetic relation) with Orlando Furioso as a "national text" of the Napoleonic Empire. I present a comparative structural scheme of Tolstoj's novel and Ariosto's po╦ma which reveals striking similarities between these two epic works.

I conclude that the metamorphosis of Andrej Bolkonskij, as well as the expressive opposition of his two deaths in the novel, could be understood only through changing the interpretive paradigm of his inner development. Thus, he changes not "from a Pagan Hero to a Christian Saint" (H. Zimmer) (which, for instance, does not explain the fact that Bolkonskij dies in the presence of the patriarchal Rostovs and pious Princess Mar'ja without receiving the last rites), but rather from Orlando Tranquillo to Orlando Furioso or, in other words, from inside to outside the Code of Chivalry.