Imagine you've just met an elderly gentleman. Maybe you're out for a walk or something and he strikes up a conversation. He starts telling you a story about some friends of his, and you're pretty sure that at least some of the people in the story are acting pretty terribly. But when you look at his face, nothing. No emotion, no judgment, just some really detailed description of the people and what they're up to. But then you notice that every couple minutes he kind of looks up at your face to check out what's going through your mind – again, totally without judgment.
That's basically how Tolstoy's narrator is acting here. Sure, he knows the ins and out of his characters – their thoughts, their feelings, their decision-making. But he keeps his own moralizing out the equation. This is a technique that's unique to War and Peace – just check out Anna Karenina to see the difference. (Tolstoy can put on the 19th-century moralist voice like nobody's business.) And so suddenly you find yourself looking at passages like this one:
The moment he heard the firing and the cry from behind, the general realized that something dreadful had happened to his regiment, and the thought that he, an exemplary officer of many years' service who had never been to blame, might be held responsible at headquarters for negligence or inefficiency so staggered him that, forgetting the recalcitrant cavalry colonel, his own dignity as a general, and above all quite forgetting the danger and all regard for self-preservation, he clutched the crupper of his saddle and, spurring his horse, galloped to the regiment under a hail of bullets which fell around, but fortunately missed him. His one desire was to know what was happening and at any cost correct, or remedy, the mistake if he had made one, so that he, an exemplary officer of twenty-two years' service, who had never been censured, should not be held to blame. (188.8.131.52)
What are we supposed to make of this guy? The narrator gives us no clues. Are this general's worries about his own hide and reputation self-centered? Are they forgivable because they spur him to bravery? Funny, because they are so trivial given the situation? Impressive, since this is how he's managed to have such a spotless career? We don't know, we just get the thoughts and feelings from the general's point of view, and nothing more. Take out your own scales, Tolstoy is saying, and weigh this man's guilt or innocence, goodness or badness for yourselves. I'm certainly not going to tell you what to think!
This attitude catches us off guard because it's so modern. We're so used to having our narrative thinking done for us by the storyteller that we're kind of disoriented when we read War and Peace. Imagine how upsetting this book was when it first came out. It was pretty much the first of its kind with this detached, cool-as-a-cucumber narration.