Old peasant beliefs about how when someone died they tied the gate shut and believed for 40 days the soul to wander the earth before judgement. Death was personified as a woman with a scythe. 40 was average age a man might become head of household.
We get the slightest glimpse of two things that will play a larger roll in the novel: Pierre mentions Freemasonry, and we see our first servants, most likely household serfs who don’t understand, or really even care about French and are caught up in the mess made by the “elites”. We also see how Pierre is really a good person and though blumbling, is liked well enough. Andrei is still an enigma (he always is)
We learn about Napoleon and the complex relationship Russian good society now has with France a nation they have modeled themselves after and even speak their language, not Russian. This revolution is terrible to the higher classes because it puts them in jeopardy, but we see how pointless their society is when contrasted with Hippolyte’s silly story of the woman servants hat falling off and revealing herself
The introduction of Andrei is interesting in that it’s sudden and not particularly important – he’s bored and almost rude. We also see how society works with the begging and reminding to get the son into more favorable (and less dangerous) military service. Since we’ve learned there is danger about, this is touching since we can sympathize with a mother’s worry.
Tolstoy uses a few subtle hints to draw our attention to the conflict brewing under the surface of this society. First he descries the 2 main guest as being choice pieces of meat to be devoured, then he describes how Helene’s slightly plump arm deforms slightly as it rests on the table, then to the anecdote about Napoleon killing a rival, then finally to Pierre who is talking to loudly.
The brilliance of the writing can be seen in how we are introduced to Pierre. We first meet the court gossips and learn how to “behave” so that when we do finally meet the hero of the novel we immediately see how he is different and does not follow the rules of society. This draws us into the world of the novel and is one of the ways Tolstoy makes his Russia so vivid and alive because we inhabit it with him.
The first chapter introduces the villain, Napoleon, the interplay of court politics, and one of the main characters, Prince Andrei. Anna’s speech about how Napoleon is the anti-christ does reflect the exact attitude the Russians have of the general today and lets the reader know how terrible a man he is and what we should think of him. Yet it’s spoken by a woman who still does everything in French.
The thing about the military – something Nikolai will appreciate after he loses all that money later in the book – is the structure it provides. There is no guesswork to figuring out what you are supposed to do, you just follow orders and all will be well. Mostly. And for the unimaginative. Yet in society while there are rules, it is a lot more ambiguous for someone who is weak willed like Pierre.