After inheriting a vast fortune from his father, Pierre spends the novel trying to answer questions about such trivial topics as the meaning of life and how to be a worthwhile human being. He lives through some horrific experiences and is transformed from a wild and crazy party boy into a mature husband and father.
Questions of Life, the Universe, and Everything
As soon as War and Peace was published, everyone quickly caught on to the fact that in a lot of ways Pierre was like Tolstoy himself. He definitely looks like him, with his awkwardness and heavyset frame, but more important, Pierre is a way for the author to ask a lot of deep questions about what it's all about (besides the hokey-pokey of course). Pierre is a perpetual seeker and is constantly trying to make himself a better man. He tries out almost every approach that philosophers have advocated as a way to live life.
In the beginning, Pierre is totally a slave to physical pleasure, getting wasted with his friends and, it's implied, visiting brothels. The high point of this phase is his marriage to Helene, who is so crazily hot that he can't think straight. But this marriage is a terrible one, since there's no love or any other emotions involved.
Next, Pierre tries out religion and mysticism and becomes a Freemason. He really tries to commit himself to this order, and there are some things the Freemasons advocate that seem to really click for him. But everything he tries to do to follow Masonic rules ends up failing: his attempts to liberate his serfs end up a sad mess, for example. Eventually he comes to see that most in the order are hypocrites, pledging to do one thing in their meetings and then just living the high life as usual. The low point of this pursuit comes when Pierre watches Boris join – Boris, whose only goal in life is social advancement and who is clearly only joining to hobnob with the rich and powerful members.
Then Pierre kind of enters politics...well, OK, not really. He just goes crazy and thinks it's his destiny to assassinate Napoleon. This doesn't end well, as you can imagine.
It's only when Pierre is a lowly prisoner, stripped of all his wealth, his possessions, and even of the basics of human existence, that he finally figures out the meaning of life – at least for himself. What does he figure out? That happiness can only come from within, and that it involves a combination of an appreciation for how good it is to be alive and a belief in God.
Hero, Anti-hero, or Non-hero?
In most novels, it's pretty easy to figure out which character we're supposed to be rooting for. Sometimes it's a hero, awesome and pure and out to defeat the bad guys (think Superman or D'Artagnan in The Three Musketeers) or bad ideas (like, for example, John Galt in Atlas Shrugged). Other times it's an anti-hero, a guy who is plenty bad but still clearly better than whoever he's going up against (say, the X-Man Wolverine, or Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye). Either way, though, because we know where we stand with this guy, it's easy for an author to make us like and identify with him.
But Pierre is totally different. He's so different that when the book first came out, reviewers and readers couldn't even figure out who the main character was supposed to be. Surely not this wishy-washy fat man who spends most of his time agonizing about philosophy only to be totally carried away by craziness – like the idea that he is somehow destined to be Napoleon's anti-anti-Christ?
Pierre has none of the defining characteristics that would endear him to us or impress us with his power and skill. Instead he is weak-willed and easily browbeaten by those around him. In fact, Shmoop would argue that we only ever start to identify with Pierre when Tolstoy begins to reshape him mid-novel into a more recognizable type – a sort of reluctant hero, who goes off to war and starts to participate despite himself, who saves the lives of a French officer and a little girl even though he actually is trying to assassinate Napoleon, and who finally gets it together enough to start pursing Natasha.Timeline