War and Peace
War and PeaceIntroduction
For Further Study
War and Peace is a historical novel that chronicles the tumultuous events in Russia during the Napoleonic war in the early nineteenth century. Focusing on an aristocratic way of life that had already started to fade at the time that Leo Tolstoy wrote the book in the 1860s, it covers a comparatively short span of time—fifteen years—but it renders the lives of disparate characters from all segments of society with vivid, well-realized details. The story captures a generation on the brink of change, with some defending the existing class structure with their lives while others realize that the old way of life is disappearing. Part history lesson, part grand romance, part battlefield revisionism, and part philosophy lecture, War and Peace has captivated generations of readers with its gripping narrative and its clear, intelligible understanding of the human soul.
Leo Tolstoy was born to an upper-class Russian family on September 9, 1828, at the family's estate in Tula province, Russia. His father was Count Nikolay Tolstoy, a nobleman and prestigious landowner. Tolstoy's mother died when he was two years old. Tragically, his father died when Leo was nine, leaving the young boy to be raised in the home of his aunts. He went to the University of Kazan when he was sixteen, studying Oriental languages and then law, but he left in 1847 without completing his degree.
In 1851 he went to the Caucasus to live with his brother, and began writing his first novel Childhood. Published in 1852, it was followed by Boyhood (1854) and Youth (1856). During this time he served in the army at Sevastopol, fighting the Crimean War. His experience as a soldier in that war provided much of the experience that he drew upon in writing War and Peace.
After the war, Tolstoy returned to his family estate. In 1859 he started a school on his estate for peasant children. In 1861, after the emancipation of the serfs, Tolstoy served as Arbiter of the Peace, a temporary local judiciary position. The following year, after the deaths of two his brothers, he married Sophia Behrs, the daughter of a Moscow physician, and began an educational magazine, Yasnaya Polyana, which I. S. Aksakov called a "remarkable literary phenomenon" and an "an extraordinarily important phenomenon in our social life." Tolstoy edited the journal for a little more than a year.
After that, a second phase of his literary career began, the phase that produced his two greatest masterpieces, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. He retired to his estate with his new wife, wrote, hunted, farmed and socialized with his country neighbors. At the end of the 1860s, though, he found himself at a spiritual crisis, brought about by the deaths of several of his children and other relatives. He questioned the meaning of life and was not sure about whether he could or should go on. He drifted away from the Russian Orthodox Christianity he had been raised in and focused on a more rational world view that eliminated the need for church intervention between humanity and God. This religious conversion left him at odds with many members of his family, especially his wife.
Impacted by his evolving philosophical outlook, his later works of fiction were less ornamental and more direct. They include the novellas The Death of Ivan Ilych, Master and Man, and Memoirs of a Madman. Tolstoy also produced many philosophical works and religious tracts. His 1888 religious essay "What Is Art?" is still considered an important treatise on art and morality. Tolstoy died on November 20, 1910 of pneumonia.
War and Peace is a massive, sprawling novel that chronicles events in Russia during the Napoleonic Wars, when the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte conquered much of Europe during the first few years of the nineteenth century. Bonaparte unsuccessfully tried to expand his dominion into Russia, only to be turned back in 1812. The novel opens in July of 1805, with Russia allied with England, Austria, and Sweden to stave off Bonaparte's aggressive expansion.
A member of a dissolute, upper-class crowd, Pierre Bezukhov is a troublemaker who criticizes governmental policies. At night he frequents drunken card parties with a fast crowd, including Anatole Kurgagin and Fedya Dolokhov, whom Tolstoy describes as "an officer and a desperado." Another member of the group, Prince Andrew, is a patriot who is determined to defend his country and aristocratic way of life. The novel soon introduces the Rostov family as they prepare a celebration for their youngest daughter Natasha.
The illegitimate son of a well-known, wealthy aristocrat, Pierre's life changes when his father dies and recognizes him as his son. Therefore Pierre is heir to his large fortune. Prince Andrew leaves to fight in the war against the French, leaving his pregnant wife with his father and sister Mary. Natasha's brother, Nicholas, gets into trouble in the army for threatening a superior officer whom he has caught cheating; later, in battle, Nicholas runs away from the enemy and realizes that he is the coward and cheat. Suddenly popular, Pierre marries Helene Kuragin. Her brother, Anatole, proposes to Mary, but her father will not allow her marriage. Prince Andrew is wounded in battle and left for dead at the end of Book I.
Nicholas Rostov is in love with his cousin Sonya, and she loves him; unfortunately, the family needs him to marry somebody with money because their wealth is dwindling. Pierre, reacting to rumors about an affair between his wife and Dolokhov, challenges him to a duel. When Pierre wounds Dolokhov he runs away, questioning his own morals, and in an inn he meets an old acquaintance who introduces him to the Freemasons, a secret society that does good deeds. Pierre becomes an enthusiastic member, separating from Helene and arranging to give away his belongings to help humanity.
Prince Andrew returns from the war on the same day that his wife dies giving birth to their son. Nicholas encourages Sonya to accept Dolokhov's marriage proposal, but she refuses. Soon after his father puts him on a budget of two thousand rubles, Nicholas gambles with Dolokhov and loses forty-three thousand rubles, which the family has to sell more property to pay. While Pierre is busy freeing his serfs from their commitment to him, in accordance with his new Masonic beliefs, Prince Andrew is setting up new economic policies that will allow them to be self-sustaining after they earn their freedom.
In 1808 a truce is called in the Napoleonic War. Prince Andrew becomes disheartened with the difficulties of dealing with the army bureaucracy and Pierre becomes disenchanted with being a Mason. In 1809, when Natasha is sixteen, Pierre falls in love with her. So does Andrew, and he proposes to the young lady. However, Andrew's father will not give his consent and tells him to wait a year before marrying. Andrew returns to the army. Meanwhile, Nicholas' mother convinces him that he cannot marry Sonya—he must marry someone rich.
Impatiently waiting for Andrew to return, Natasha lets Anatole court her, secretly giving in to his charm. He makes plans to run away with her, but fails to tell her that he is already married in secret to a girl in Poland. The elopement is broken off when he comes to fetch her and is met by a huge doorman; like a coward, he runs away. Word of this gets back to Andrew, and he breaks the engagement. Natasha tries poison herself but is unsuccessful. Pierre visits her and confesses his love.
The war begins again in 1812, when the French army moves into Russia. The novel narrates Napoleon's thoughts and impressions of the campaign, and then switches to Tsar Alexander, going back and forth between them. During the fighting, Nicholas comes to realize that his earlier cowardice was just a normal reaction to war and he forgives himself. Recovering from her suicide attempt, Natasha starts to attend morning mass and gains peace and serenity. Her younger brother, Petya, joins the army, but cannot find a way to tell his family.
As the French army advances toward their estate in the country, Mary's father has a stroke. After he dies, Mary rides into the town nearby to prepare to evacuate her household servants. When she sees the peasants starving she offers them all of the grain stored on the family estate, but they become suspicious and think it is some sort of trick to get them to leave their land. They are on the verge of rioting against her when Nicholas rides up, saves her, and falls in love with her.
People flee Moscow to avoid the oncoming French army. Pierre travels out to Borondino, which is the last place where the French can be stopped. Much of Part III is concerned with different views of the Battle of Borondino—from Napoleon, Andrew, Pierre, and Kutuzov.
After the Russian defeat, Moscow has to be evacuated. Natasha insists that the wagons taking her family's belongings need to be emptied in order to bring some injured soldiers too. One of the injured soldiers turns out to be Andrew, who, seeing Natasha for the first time since their engagement was broken off, forgives her.
In deserted Moscow, Pierre comes up with a crazed scheme of assassinating Napoleon. Taken into custody by a French captain, he saves the man's life when Pierre's servant is going to shoot him, and, after being given the comforts of good food and drink he forgets his assassination attempt. He races into a burning building to save a peasant's child, then assaults a French soldier who is molesting a woman, for which he is arrested.
Pierre's wife dies while he is a prisoner of the French army. During a long march, Pierre becomes even more at peace with himself. He meets Platon Karataev, a peasant who owns nothing but has a joyful outlook, and decides to be more like him.
Mary finds out that her brother, Andrew, is still alive. She travels to where Natasha and her family are caring for him, and the two women take turns nursing him until he dies.
Kutuzov, the Russian general, is pressured to overtake the fleeing French and kill them, but he knows his army does not have the energy. Petya Rostov admires Dolokhov's daring when he accompanies him on a scouting party into the French camp. The next day, they attack the French: Pierre is freed when the French soldiers flee, but Petya is killed. As the French menace fades, Pierre rejoins the Rostov family and he and Natasha console each other over their grief: she has lost her brother, Petya, and her lover Andrew; he has lost many friends in the fighting. They fall in love.
Nicholas and Mary marry, as do Pierre and Natasha. They all live at Bald Hills, the estate left to Mary by her father. On December 6, 1820, Pierre arrives home from a trip to Moscow, where he has been meeting with a secret organization. Pierre and Nicholas disagree about a citizen's responsibility to the state, but everyone is happy living together—especially Andrew's son Nicholas, who idolizes Pierre.
Tolstoy discusses his view of history and how the weaknesses of the historian's methods fail to distinguish between those actions undertaken by free will and those which are caused by circumstance.
Prince Andrew Bolkonsky
Prince Andrew is a dashing, romantic figure. For much of the book, he and Natasha are in love but are separated by the war. In the beginning he is married to the pregnant Anna Pavlovna, "the little princess," and is active in the army. At the Battle of Austerlitz, he is wounded and listed as dead for a while, but he shows up alive just as his wife dies while giving birth to their son, Nicholas. When he falls in love with Natasha Rostov, he asks her to marry him right away, but his domineering father tells him to wait for a year to see if their love will endure. He is wounded at the Battle of Borodino and again news comes that he is dead, but while Moscow is being evacuated wounded soldiers are brought to the Rostov house and Andrew is one of them. Nastasha stays with him through the evacuation, but he eventually dies. In the end, he reaches a new level of spiritual enlightenment.
Elizabeth is Prince Andrew's wife. She dies while giving birth to their son, Nicholas.
Mary is the sister of Prince Andrew. She is a devoutly religious woman who stays devoted to her father even though her devotion nearly ruins her life. Early in the book she is engaged to Anatole Kuragin, but her father objects, and she finds that she cannot ignore his objection. While Andrew goes off to war, Mary stays on the family estate, watching after her father and Andrew's son, Nicholas Bolkonsky. Her father, Prince Nicholas Bolkonsky, becomes more and more verbally abusive in his old age, and Mary becomes more involved with the religious pilgrims who stop at their estate. When Nicholas Rostov stops at Bolkonsky, he protects her from the peasants and they fall in love. After her father's death she is immersed in guilt, feeling that he was not so bad after all and that it was awful of her to not be with him in his last moments. She ends up marrying Nicholas.
Napolean is the Emperor of France. Napoleon mistakenly thinks that his army's progress is due to his own skill, not taking into account the role of fate. On the eve of the great Battle of Borodino, for instance, he is more concerned with a painting of his infant son than with devising an effective battle plan for his troops.
Pierre is the central character of this novel and its moral conscience. When he first appears, he is a loud, obnoxious man only interested in himself and the next party. Pierre is forced to change when his father dies: after some uncertainty over the will, it is determined that the old Count did recognized Pierre as his son. Suddenly rich and titled as Count Buzekhov, Pierre finds himself very popular. He marries Princess Helene Kuragin.
After hearing rumors of an affair between Helene and Dolokhov, Pierre challenges him to a duel. After wounding him, Pierre escapes, and while he is traveling across the country he is invited by an old acquaintance to join the Freemasons, a secret society. As a Mason, Pierre releases his servants and spends millions on charitable endeavors, often without knowing that he is being swindled. He is still married to Helene, but they lead different lives, and he finds himself attracted to Natasha Rostov. As the battle is waged against the French outside of Moscow, Pierre hangs around curiously asking questions of the officers; after his return to Moscow, he plans to kill Napoleon. He is captured after saving a child from a burning building, and is taken as a prisoner when the French march back to Paris.
After the war, when he is freed, Pierre marries Natasha. They have children, and at the end of the novel he is involved in a secret society that gathers against the government's knowledge to overthrow the social structure that kept men as serfs. The society described resembles the one that led the Decembrist uprising that was to take place in Russia five years later.
Vasili Dmitrich Denisov
Denisov is the model of a professional military man. Angered at the inept bureaucracy that is not getting provisions to his troops, Denisov rides off to the division headquarters and threatens a commander, which gets his troops food but makes Denisov subject to court martial. Returning from the division headquarters, Denisov is shot by a French sharpshooter. When Nicholas Rostov tries to visit him at the hospital the place quarantined with typhus, with only one doctor for four hundred patients. Eventually, the court martial is averted, but Denisov retires from the service disillusioned. At the end of the book he is staying with the family of Count Nicholas at their estate.
Dolokhov comes off as a rogue, a man of small means who manages to impress society's elite and get ahead by using his social position. As a gambler, he wins thousands off of Nicholas Rostov. As a lover, he fights a duel with Pierre Bezukhov over rumors about Dolokhov and Pierre's wife. He is wounded in the duel, but that makes him even more of a romantic figure. He proposes to Sonya, but she rejects him. While the Russian forces are chasing the French army out of the country, Dolokhov makes the bold move of riding into the enemy camp in disguise on a scouting mission; young Petya Rostov idolizes him for his courage.
Drubetskoy's rise in the military is due to the social machinations of his mother, who is a wealthy society widow and not afraid to ask, or even peg, highly-placed officers to give her son a good position in the army.
Platon is a Russian soldier who gives spiritual comfort to Nicholas.
- The quintessential adaptation of War and Peace is the six-and-a-half hour film done in Russia in 1968, which was directed by Sergei Bondarchuk. It is available on videocassette with either dubbing or subtitles from Continental Distributing.
- War and Peace is available on audiocassette, in a 45-tape package, from Books on Tape, Inc. The novel is read by Walter Zimmerman.
- There was another cinematic adaptation in 1956 by King Vidor, starring Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Herbert Lom, Vittorio Gassman, and Anita Ekberg.
- In 1994 the British Broadcasting Company did a six-part miniseries adaptation with Colin Baker, Faith Brook, Alan Dobie, and Anthony Hopkins. The series is available from BBC Video.
- The novel has been adapted to an opera by Sergei Prokofiev, renown for his production of Peter and the Wolf. The opera version of Tolstoy's story was first produced in Leningrad at the Malay Theater on June 12, 1946.
Anatole is a scoundrel. His role in the book is to break up the engagement of Natasha and Prince Andrew. He starts paying attention to her out of a sense of adventure, considering her as another in his string of conquests. When he proposes to her and arranges to elope with her, even his friend and companion Dolokhov finds the scheme ridiculous. Anatole is already married in Poland, and the priest and witnesses that he arranges for the wedding are gambling friends willing to go along with a hoax. The wedding plans fail to transpire when, approaching the house, Anatole is asked in by a huge doorman, and he runs away instead. Later, at a field hospital with an injury, Prince Andrew is put on a stretcher next to Anatole, the man who ruined his wedding plans, who is having his leg amputated. Anatole later dies of complication from that operation.
Helen is Anatole's sister, and she is every bit as devious as he is. When Pierre inherits his father's fortune, she marries him. After he fights a duel with Dolokhov over her honor, they lead separate lives. Helene is known in Petersburg polite society. She converts to Roman Catholicism, and, under the pretense that to the church her marriage to Pierre is invalid, plans to marry one of her two suitors. When she dies, it is from a botched operation to cure an illness that is not clearly described in the book, indicating that it might be an abortion: "They all knew very well that the enchanting countess' illness arose from an inconvenience resulting from marrying two husbands at the same time, and that the Italian's cure consisted in removing such inconvenience."
The commander of the Russian Army, the novel follows Kutuzov through some of his decision-making process, especially focusing on his wisdom in ignoring the popular decision that he should attack the French army as it was fleeing back home.
In the course of the story, Natasha (also known as Nataly) grows from a petulant child to a mature woman who knows the sorrows of war. Natasha is pretty and flirtatious, and the young soldiers are smitten with her. When she and Andrew are engaged, she is delighted to feel like a grown-up, but as time goes by she grows impatient. Kuragin, convincing her that she is in love with him, arranges to elope with her, even though he is already secretly married. When Andrew learns about it, he breaks up with her. She tries to poison herself, in shame.
Later, when Moscow is being evacuated, Natasha is the one who convinces her parents to leave some of their fine possessions behind so that they can take some wounded soldiers. When she finds out that Prince Andrew is one of the wounded, she writes to his sister Mary and together they nurse her until his death. Natasha marries Pierre after he is the only person who she can talk to about Andrew's death.
Presented as a typical example of a nobleman, Rostov lived a wasteful life with little intellectual or spiritual depth. Early on he joins the army because he needs the money. He loses great sums of money gambling. Passing by the town near the Bolkonsky estate, he finds the peasants accusing Mary of trying to steal their land by making them evacuate. His aristocratic sensibilities are offended; unarmed, he makes the mob rulers quiet down and turn away. At the end of the book he is a retired gentleman, arguing with his brother-in-law Pierre that he should leave the government alone to handle the situation of the serfs properly.
The youngest member of the Rostov family, Peter is mostly forgotten in the background, playing childish games, until, at age sixteen, he enlists in the army. He is killed in the same attack that frees Pierre from the retreating French forces.
Sonya is a pathetic figure, always in love but too meek to do anything about it. She is a cousin of and lives with the Rostov family, and early in the book she and Nicholas Rostov pronounce their love for one another. His family, in bad financial shape, object and hope that he will find a woman with a better dowry to offer. Sonya is Natasha's confidante, and stands by her during her various disastrous love affairs.
Although there is not much open conflict between members of the different classes of this novel, there is an underlying tension between them. Members of the older generation, such as Countess Rostova and Prince Nicholas Bolkonsky, verbally abuse the peasants who are under their command. In a patronizing manner, they openly discuss how lost the peasants would be without their guidance. At the same time, there are characters like Platon Karataev, a poor man who leads a simple and happy life.
The closest the novel comes to an open-class conflict is when Mary is confronted by peasants at Bogucharovo, near her family's estate, as she is planning to evacuate before the French arrive. Tolstoy is clear about the fact that they act, not out of resentment for the social privilege Mary has enjoyed at their expense, but because of their fear that they have no leader. They are starving, but will not accept the grain that Mary offers them because they fear angering the French. The greatest danger that they pose to her is blocking her horse when she plans to leave. When Nicholas arrives they automatically fall under his spell and comply with his demands without hesitation, apparently in recognition of his superior breeding and intelligence. He orders the leaders of the insurrection bound, and several men in the crowd offer their belts for that purpose. "How can one talk to the masters like that?" says a drunken peasant to his former leader as he is being led away. "What were you thinking of, you fool?"
Duty and Responsibility
The greatest motivation for the noble families in this novel is their duty to the serfs in their care. In other words, the upper classes believe that they have the responsibility to care for their serfs, looking after them as one would look after children. This assumption stems from the common perception that the serfs were not intelligent enough to survive without their help. To do this is an important part of the code of honor; any nobleman that violates this trust is recognized and punished by his peers.
In fact, this code of conduct controls almost every aspect of upper-class life. It dictates how a gentleman should act in any given situation; to deviate from it invited the censure of one's peers. After the drunken revelers at a poker party throw a policeman in the canal, the act is derided as improper for well-bred gentlemen:
And to think it is Count Vladomirovich Bezukhov's son who amuses himself in this sensible manner! And he was said to be so educated and clever. That is all that his foreign education has done for him!
Later, Bezukhov, undergoes a series of transformations that raise his sense of social responsibility. He joins the Freemasons with the idea of working among society's elite to help the poor. He visits the army at the Battle of Borondino and tours the field; half-crazed, he decides he should get a gun and shoot Napoleon. In peacetime, he works with a secret organization to rearrange the social order and free the serfs from their oppression.
Topics for Further Study
- Compare the protests in America during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s to the Decembrist uprising, which Pierre is involved with at the end of the book. What were the Decembrists protesting? Were there any similarities in the way the Decembrist and Vietnam protests were organized?
- The Society of Freemasons, which is so influential in Pierre's life, is still an active organization. Investigate the modern-day Masons. Considering the fact that it is still a secret organization, how much information can you find out about them? How have their practices and goals changed from the time of Tolstoy's novel?
- During World War II, Russia was an ally of America and Great Britain. Yet for most of the twentieth century, America and Russia were bitter rivals. Research the relationship between the two countries at the time of the novel and report on it. What is America's relationship to Russia today?
Art and Experience
Any historical novel such as War and Peace raises questions about the interplay between fiction and reality. The battle scenes in this novel are commended for their realism, but Tolstoy did not actually experience these battles; instead, they are drawn from his exhaustive research of the war against France and his own experiences in the Crimean War. At the end of the novel, Tolstoy dispenses of the fictional story altogether and talks directly to the reader about how historians impact his-tory. Reality is too large and complex for humans to comprehend, Tolstoy contends, and so historians cannot cover all of the diverse aspects of historical events.
Success and Failure
A large part of what drives Tolstoy in the novel is his rejection of conventional historical perceptions of the war: Napoleon, who eventually lost in Russia, is viewed as a shrewd commander today, while the Russian commander, Kutuzov, is dismissed as a blunderer. As Tolstoy perceived the situation, those detractors who considered the Russians as failures because they did not destroy Napoleon's army were not accounting for the army's weakened condition. Moreover, those who credited Napoleon with brilliant strategy were not taking into consideration his good luck. In the end, Tolstoy reminds readers of the role of chance involved in life, and the sometimes small difference between success and failure.
Since War and Peace was first published, critics have discussed the ambiguous structure of the novel. Some contend that Tolstoy raced through the book, putting down ideas as they came to him; therefore, any structure in the story is accidental. As evidence of this, they point to the final chapters, which seem if the author's attention was distracted and he followed his interests rather than doing what the novel would require for completion. Some critics consider the free-floating structure to the appropriate device for the ideas that Tolstoy was trying to convey about free will, and they credit him with utilizing a structure that permitted him to balance necessity with chance.
Some critics perceive a clear pattern to the overall book: the alternation of chapters about war with chapters about peace; the symmetry and repetition in the amount of time spent on the march to Moscow and the march from it; in the scenes of blithe society and the scenes of existential angst; and in the scenes about love and the scenes about death. The question of whether Tolstoy planned the patterns that can be found in his book or whether they were coincidences is an issue that will be debated throughout history.
In the early nineteenth century, Russia was going through a tumultuous and transitional time. The old feudal system was disappearing. Conventional ideas of honor were losing ground to pragmatic ideas from the Enlightenment. Military victories were seen as a result of luck. Tolstoy took advantage of these unique circumstances to set his sprawling tale of love, war, and changing political and social ideas. It took genius to recognize the potential of this setting and exploit it, but his philosophical case was helped greatly by the fact that this was a situation rich in possibility.
Prince Andrew is a hero in a conventional sense: he overcomes initial fear in battle to ride bravely against the enemy, and he has a beautiful woman waiting for him at home, dreaming of his return. He has qualities, though, that are less than heroic, such as a fear of commitment. He is all too willing to accept his father's demand that he put off his marriage for a year. During that time, Natasha is drawn to another man, Anatole, who almost ruins her socially. In the end, Andrew remains an idealized hero by dying a soldier's death after he has been reunited with his beloved.
On the other hand Pierre is more of a modern hero. He is not a warrior, but a thinker: the struggle he fights is with his conscience, after he is made rich with an unexpected inheritance. He is not a dashing figure, and he bears his love for Natasha silently instead of declaring it. Yet in the end, he is the one who wins her hand.
Toward the end of the story, Tolstoy increasingly addresses the reader directly, stepping out from behind the persona of the third-person narrator who has told the stories of the characters. Throughout the novel, there are breaks from the action where the theoretical aspects of war are discussed. Sometimes these are written like textbooks, describing troop movements; sometimes the important figures of the war are discussed as characters, describing their specific movements and thoughts. At the end, the narration directly addresses the reader, referring to thoughts presented as having come from "I," apparently abandoning the structure of the story to talk about philosophy. The narrator becomes a character who hijacks the novel by the second and last epilogue, lecturing his audience about his theories of historical truth.
The Napoleonic Wars
In 1789, the French Revolution swept through France, marking one of the true turning points in Western civilization. In part, this revolt was inspired by the success of the American Revolution, which had rejected the old English monarchy and established a new country based on democratic principles. Mostly, though, the French Revolution was a protest against the widespread abuses of the French aristocracy, who lived in decadence while the lower classes had to endure higher taxes and economic restrictions. When the peasants realized that the French government was going to use force against protesters, they became violent. The violence escalated as the people systematically began to eliminate anyone of aristocratic lineage. After a long fight, King Louis IX was beheaded in Paris in 1793. There followed a two-year period called the Reign of Terror, during which the revolutionary leaders executed more than 17,000 people.
During this time, France's enemies tried to take advantage of the situation. As a result, France was constantly at war. Out of all of this confusion, conservative elements in the government supported the rise of military commander Napoleon Bonaparte, whose solution to the government's instability was to take control. He was appointed First Consul by the constitution of 1799, and in 1802 he appointed himself that position for life. In 1804, a new constitution appointed him Emperor, a title which was to pass down to his heirs.
Napoleon's influence was seen in almost all aspects of French social life. However, his true interest was in waging war. As England and France had always been enemies, he aimed to conquer England; but since England was the most powerful and important country in the world at that time, his plans were foiled. He turned his attention to Russia. The Treaty of Tilsit, which he signed with Russia's emperor Alexander I in 1807, divided Europe into half: the French controlled Holland, Westphalia, Spain, and Italy. By 1809 Napoleon was the ruler of most Europe, except for Russian and England. In 1812 he invaded Russia with 500,000 troops, a situation depicted in War and Peace.
Emancipation of the Serfs
From the 1600s until the middle of the nineteenth century, the Russian economy had been based upon an economic principle of serfdom. Serfs were agricultural laborers, legally bound to work on large estates and farms. Moreover, serfs were owned by the people who owned the land they worked on. The serf could buy his freedom or work it off, but this happened rarely (serfs were always males; female peasants were attached to spouses or parents and, likewise, the property of the landowners). Landowners had a responsibility to take care of their serfs, and in hard times they might have to incur losses to make sure that their serfs were all adequately fed.
This social system was always fraught with tension. As in War and Peace, when the war broke up society and forced landlords to flee their land, open rebellion was only avoided by those serfs who felt loyalty to the tradition. In America, the slave system that was in place at the same time was justified by theories of one race being inferior to another, but the Russian system had even less justification for saying why one human had a right to rule over another. Many members of the aristocracy realized this, and in the years after the Napoleonic Wars they banded together to form the secret societies that would lead the Decembrist uprising.
The Decembrist uprising was the first real revolution of modern Russia. In 1817 landowners started forming secret societies, patterned on societies such as the Masonic Order. These societies, such as the Society of Russian Knights and the Union of Welfare, started as gentlemen's clubs; but as they grew in number their rhetoric became more revolutionary. When Tsar Alexander I died unexpectedly in December of 1825, there was confusion about who was to assume power, and in the temporary confusion about who was to be the next ruler the members of the uprising were able to gather three thousand soldiers to their cause. Alexander's successor, Tsar Nicholas, gathered fifteen thousand soldiers; the result was a massacre in Senate Square. Members of the secret societies were gathered up and jailed. After trials, the leaders were executed and over a hundred received jail sentences, but revolutionaries in Russia since then have acted in the names of the Decembrists.
Not surprisingly, Nicholas' reign was conservative in its nature and intolerant of dissent, but even he realized that the days of the old aristocracy were disappearing. He appointed commissions to study the question of serfdom. In 1855, when his son Alexander II became took power, it was clear that the country was headed for chaos, that the serf system would not survive. He had a committee work for four years on the right way for Russia to evolve beyond the serf structure with the least change.
The system that Alexander announced with his Imperial Manifesto Emancipating the Serfs arranged for land to be divided: landlords were to keep half of their land, and communes, or mirs, were to distribute the other half equally between the serfs. The peasants had a forty-nine year period to pay back the cost of their land. This proclamation was read at churches throughout Russia in February of 1861, two years before Tolstoy began writing War and Peace. These reforms still left the former serfs, now peasants, under the control of a government ruled by an aristocracy. The issues of freedom and of class continued to boil in Russia, and eventually led to the Russian Revolution in 1917.
Compare & Contrast
- 1805: America is still developing an identity after winning its independence from England in 1783. A second war against England will be fought in 1812–1814.
1866–1869: In the aftermath of the Civil War, America undergoes a period known as the Reconstruction.
Today: America is a stable country. It is considered the dominant economic and military power in the world.
- 1815: News of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo is reported four days later by London's Morning Chronicle, which scooped the competing British newspapers.
1866: Telegraph communication is the most common way to communicate over long distances. In America, Western Union controls 75,000 miles of wire, becoming the first great monopoly.
Today: News events are available instantly from all corners of the globe, thanks to the Internet.
- 1807: Former Vice President Aaron Burr is arrested for his part in a scheme to form an independent nation of Mexico and parts of the Louisiana Territory.
1868: President Andrew Johnson faces an impeachment trial, charged with dismissing the Secretary of War, a violation of a year-old law prohibiting removal of certain cabinet officers without the consent of Congress. Opposition forces end up one vote short of the number necessary to impeach him.
Today: President Bill Clinton is impeached by the Senate for crimes related to a sex scandal. After his acquittal, his approval ratings are higher than ever.
- 1805–1815: Napoleon Bonaparte is the Emperor of France. He assumes that position after his rise to military power during the French Revolution.
1866–1869: Naploean III is Emperor of France, having named himself emperor in 1852. A nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, he is elected president in 1848 and then seizes dictatorial power.
Today: France is a republic; the people democratically elect a president.
- 1805: The Russian population is approximately thirty-three million people.
1866: The population of Russia has increased to approximately seventy-six million people.
Today: Russia has a population of approximately 149 million people.
Much of the earliest critical reaction to War and Peace focused on how well Tolstoy had accurately portrayed historical events in Russia. Al-though Tolstoy took great pains to research the historical documents, he did not feel obliged to stick firmly to the common historical interpretations. Still, since many critics had lived through the events described, while many others had grown up hearing about them, it was difficult for critics to not talk about how Tolstoy's version related to their own. In general, they found the novel to be quite accurate.
Some critics took exception with the way that Tolstoy had presented the military commanders as less instrumental in the outcome of the war. At the other extreme were those critics who faulted Tolstoy for failing to improve the social consciousness of the time. Edward Wasiolek explains that radical critic Dmitry Pisarev commented that the first half of the book, which was all that was published before his death, was "a nostalgic tribute to the gentry."
Wasiolek also relates the comments of N. K. Strakhov, whose criticism of the novel he describes as "the best criticism on War and Peace at the time, and possibly the best in Russian since." He credits Strakhov for his appreciation of the psychology of the novel and for recognizing the fact, which is commonly accepted today, that Tolstoy's greatness was in being able to render a full character in just a few words. Strakhov appreciated the novel, but he could not fully account for its greatness: as he noted, "among all the various characters and events, we feel the presence of some kind of firm and unshakable principle on which the world of the novel maintains itself."
The ambiguity of that "firm and unshakable principle" was what earned the book a lukewarm reception when it was translated into English. Matthew Arnold, in his review for Fortnightly Review, noted that Tolstoy wrote about "life" but not "art." Perhaps the most lasting criticism by an English-speaking author was that of novelist Henry James. In his introduction to the book The Tragic Muse, as in the introductions to most of his works, James considered philosophical matters of art. Considering Tolstoy and Alexandre Dumas, the French author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, James wondered, "What do such large loose baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary, artistically mean?" He went on to assert that "there is life and life, and as waste is only life sacrificed and thereby prevented from 'counting,' I delight in a deep-breathing economy and organic form."
After the Russian Revolution in 1917, Tolstoy fell into favor with new Communist government. Up until then, his literary reputation was maintained by people who had known him (he died in 1910) and a few stalwart fans. In a 1924 article, the author Maxim Gorky relates Lenin talking about War and Peace in the Kremlin in 1918: "'He, brother, is an artist!… Whom could one put next to him in Europe?' Then [Lenin] answered himself 'No one.'" It was not long before Tolstoy studies went beyond personal reminiscences to intellectual scholarship in Russia. At a time when many other significant Russian authors were banned because of their views, Tolstoy was embraced as a fore-sighted nobleman who wrote about the value of common people and the arbitrary nature of class distinctions.
Today, Tolstoy's career is divided into two eras: the spiritualism of the later novellas and the sweeping romances of the earlier novels, such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Critics perceive within War and Peace one phase of his life leading into the other: how the prodigious novelist of the 1860s and 1870s evolved into the thoughtful spiritual man he was by the turn of the century. There is no question of Tolstoy's greatness today.
David Kelly is an instructor of Creative Writing and Literature at College of Lake County and Oakton Community College in Illinois. In the following essay, Kelly discusses why the people most likely to avoid reading War and Peace are the ones who would probably enjoy and benefit from it most.
It would be difficult to question the quality of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. Although most critics would not go as far as E. M. Forster did in Aspects of the Novel, proclaiming this to be the greatest novel ever written, all would swear to its overall excellence. As with any work, critics consider different ideas about its relative merits and weaknesses, no matter how revered.
Still, with such universal acclaim, no one ever feels the need to ask why War and Peace isn't read more often—anyone who has ever looked at it on a bookshelf, taking up the space of four or five average novels, knows at a glance the secret of its unpopularity. It's huge. All across the world War and Peace is mentioned in pop culture, but usually it is discussed in terms of how difficult the speaker's education was, or would have been, if they had actually gone ahead with things like reading big novels.
Literary critics tend to skip quickly past this issue of the book's enormous size, although the general public can never get past it. In the literary world, bringing up a book's length is as tasteless as mentioning its price—both being worldly concerns, not artistic considerations. Unfortunately, the result is a huge gap between the values of critics and the values of readers, especially students. Many students find the page count intimidating, and would be just as happy reading three hundred pages of nonsense as a thousand worthwhile pages. This is where the jokes about War and Peace come in, reinforcing the idea that it is not only unimportant, but is ridiculous. Students end up making their decision about whether or not to read it without ever looking at a page, judging the book by the distance between its covers. To students who do not care for literature this book seems the most dreaded of all possibilities.
Actually, this is the book that students who do not like literature have been asking for. It is not too clever, too wound up in an artistic style, to be appealing to the general reader. We all feel life's pace—its mix of chance and fate—and some people find themselves particularly irritated by the way that life is compressed to fit into a book of a few hundred pages. They sorely miss the rich incidental details that are trimmed off on the edges of the writer's frame. Young readers, who are dissatisfied with books that don't represent life, need a book like this: one that can take bends, back up, or plow straight ahead, according to what happens in the world we know—not according to some literary theory. Ernest J. Simons' classic examination of War and Peace quoted an anonymous reader saying it best: "if life could write it would write just as Tolstoy did."
Of course, all writers write about life in their own way, but what makes this case different is that War and Peace is successful at reflecting a true pace of life without having to dwell upon how poignant it is or oversell its own sensitivity. It is not difficult to understand. The book has something in it to remind readers of all of their own experiences. Working with such a long form gives Tolstoy freedom to follow the lives of his characters as they zig and zag, as they live out their intentions or fall to fate's control.
Freedom is what War and Peace is about, although Tolstoy does not formally declare this intention until nearly twelve hundred pages are done. By that time, after we have felt the looseness of his style, the emphasis on freedom of the mind is no surprise. The feeling of freedom takes time to establish. A novel that is tightly plotted can get to its point in a few sentences, but these are the books that raise the suspicions of those wary readers who hate the artificiality of art. For an author like Tolstoy to follow the rhythms of life, especially the easygoing lives of the leisured class, means taking time.
The idea of freedom, which Tolstoy talks about in the Second Epilogue, is evident in the way that this book came to be, having ended up a far, far different thing than it was when he first thought of it. It originally spanned over fifty years—at the pace War and Peace as we know it unravels, that would come out to nearly five thousand pages. When the idea first came to Tolstoy, the character Pierre Bezukhov was to be a veteran of the Decembrist uprising, returning to Moscow in 1856 after being exiled in Siberia for thirty years for his part in the uprising. That led the story back to 1825, but writing about the uprising raised the broader question: Who were these revolutionaries? They were Russian noblemen who had tried to overthrow the government to gain freedom for the country's peasants. What gave them the idea to act against their own self-interests? Searching for the answer to that question took Tolstoy even deeper into the past.
Eventually, the sections taking place in 1856 and 1825 were dropped from the novel. Instead, the action begins in 1805, when the major characters are young adults and the Russian aristocracy is first being politicized by the threat of Napoleon, and concludes in 1820, when Pierre is just starting to discuss the ideas that later led to the Decembrist uprising. This flexibility led the book in directions that could not have been anticipated when Tolstoy started it—directions that the readers do not see coming. Reluctant readers might not buy the idea that the book is a "thrill-ride," but it certainly plays out unlike any other novel, which in itself should cut short most objections to reading it.
To get the full effect readers need to take their time unraveling this book, which is not the same thing as saying that it is difficult to understand. The language is not difficult, and the situations are clear enough, but the wealth of details just will not be understood as quickly as busy people want. Of course, there will always be readers who think that any novel that does not happen in their own towns within their own lifetimes is irrelevant to their life. They foolishly think that human nature has somehow become different as the times have changed, or that it is significantly different from one place to another. There isn't much that will change these people's minds, because they will always find excuses to hate reading.
It is one of the great ironies of literature that many people will not touch War and Peace because they do not consider themselves to be fans of history. They feel that history is not real or relevant. These people could have sat down with Leo Tolstoy and, language problems aside, gotten along just fine. He disliked history, too—at least, the way that historians present it. The novel's long, winding road leads to its Second Epilogue, where Tolstoy addresses the problems with historical interpretation of the past and how he thinks events should be recorded as time passes. It is almost beyond worth mentioning to say that anyone who feels that she or he cannot understand history has not had it presented to them in the right way before. They might have been told about "heroic" deeds that were obviously done out of desperation, not good character, or heroic figures with despicable personal lives, or "common" people who are more interesting than the focal subjects of history. Overgeneralization makes historians liars, a fact that bothered Tolstoy as much as it bothers people who feel that reading stories based in the past are not worth the effort.
Sometimes people feel that they are not qualified to read War and Peace because they do not know enough about its time and setting. The book certainly mentions a lot of historical detail, but it also explains the significance of the details. If it did not explain the references within the novel, it would not have to be so frighteningly long—that is what all of those hundreds of pages are for. All one should do before starting is to take out a map, find France, find Moscow, and know that in 1812 the French army marched across Europe and Russia to Moscow, then quickly turned around and marched back to France. Any further knowledge of the events of the time—why they advanced, why they retreated, who the principle actors were—would be nice, but it is not necessary.
There will always be people who do not want to read—whatever their reasons, and there are millions of them, they feel that reading is not worth their time, and, if you haven't heard it all your life, War and Peace takes time to read. But it is not much more reader-friendly than books a fraction of its size. It is not much more difficult to figure out what is going on than it is to catch up with the characters on a soap opera, and it is, in the end, a better experience: soap operas do not consider the questions of reality and freedom that make non-readers shun novels in the first place.
Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000.
In the following excerpt, Maude praises Tolstoy for his artistry, for "clearness of form and vividness of colour," for showing things as his characters saw them, and for presenting the soul of man "with unparalleled reality."
Nothing can be simpler than most of the occurrences of War and Peace. Everyday events of family life: conversations between brother and sister, or mother and daughter, separations and reunions, hunting, holiday festivities, dances, card-playing, and so forth, are all as lovingly shaped into artistic gems as is the battle of Borodino itself. Whatever the purpose of the book may be, its success depends not on that purpose but on what Tolstoy did under its influence, that is to say it depends on a highly artistic execution.
If Tolstoy succeeds in fixing our gaze on what occupied his soul it is because he had full command of his instrument—which was art. Not many readers probably are concerned about the thoughts that directed and animated the author, but all are impressed by his creation. Men of all camps—those who like as well as those who dislike his later works—unite in tribute to the extraordinary mastery shown in this remarkable production. It is a notable example of the irresistible and all-conquering power of art.
But such art does not arise of itself, nor can it exist apart from deep thought and deep feeling. What is it that strikes everyone in War and Peace? It is its clearness of form and vividness of colour. It is as though one saw what is described and heard the sounds that are uttered. The author hardly speaks in his own person; he brings forward the characters and then allows them to speak, feel, and act; and they do it so that every movement is true and amazingly exact, in full accord with the character of those portrayed. It is as if we had to do with real people, and saw them more clearly than one can in real life….
Similarly Tolstoy usually describes scenes or scenery only as reflected in the mind of one of his characters. He does not describe the oak that stood beside the road or the moonlight night when neither Natasha nor Prince Andrew could sleep; but he describes the impressions the oak and the night made on Prince Andrew. The battles and historic events are usually described not by informing us of the author's conception of them, but by the impression they produce on the characters in the story…. Tolstoy nowhere appears behind the actors or draws events in the abstract; he shows them in the flesh and blood of those who supplied the material for the events.
In this respect the work is an artistic marvel. Tolstoy has seized not some separate traits but a whole living atmosphere, which varies around different individuals and different classes of society….
The soul of man is depicted in War and Peace with unparalleled reality. It is not life in the abstract that is shown, but creatures fully defined with all their limitations of place, time, and circumstance. For instance, we see how individuals grow. Natasha running into the drawing-room with her doll, in Book I, and Natasha entering the church, in Book IX, are really one and the same person at two different ages, and not merely two different ages attributed to a single person, such as one often encounters in fiction. The author has also shown us the intermediate stages of this development. In the same way Nicholas Rostov develops; Pierre from being a young man becomes a Moscow magnate; old Bolkonsky grows senile, and so forth….
In judging such a work one should tread with caution, but we think a Russian critic judged well when he said that the meaning of the book is best summed up in Tolstoy's own words: "There is no greatness without simplicity, goodness and truth."
Source: Aylmer Maude, "Life of Tolstoy," reprinted in Tolstoy: The Critical Heritage, Edited by A. V. Knowles, Rout-ledge & Kegan Paul, 1978, pp. 225-32.
An English poet and novelist, Bayley is best known for his critical studies of Tolstoy, Alexander Pushkin, and Thomas Hardy. In the following excerpt from his Tolstoy and the Novel, Bayley discusses the depiction of characters and historical events and the themes of life and death in War and Peace.
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What Do I Read Next?
- Thomas Hardy was an English author who lived at approximately the same time as Tolstoy. One of the crowning achievements of his later life was a long poem, The Dynasts, written between 1903 and 1908. It is an epic drama with nineteen acts and 135 scenes that are impossible to produce for the stage. The work focuses on England's role in the Napoleonic Wars.
- Tolstoy's other great masterpiece is Anna Karenina, his 1877 novel about an aristocratic woman's illicit affair with a count.
- Crime and Punishment is considered to be the masterpiece of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's literary career. It was published in 1866, the same year as the first installment of War and Peace.
- Russian writer Ivan Turgenev was a friend of Tolstoy. Contemporary critics consider his 1862 novel Fathers and Sons to be his greatest work.
- Patient readers who can work their way through this novel's mass may be ready for Moby Dick, Herman Melville's 1851 opus about a whaling ship captain and the object of his obsession, the great white whale of the title.
- Henri Troyat's biography, Tolstoy, was published in 1967 by Doubleday and Co. It chronicles the life and times of this intriguing author.
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Source: John Bayley, Tolstoy and the Novel, Viking Press, 1967, pp. 66-68, 68-72, 73-82.
R. F. Christian
Christian is an English educator, translator, and critic specializing in Russian literature. He wrote Tolstoy's "War and Peace," which is a book-length study of the work. In the following excerpt from that book, Christian analyzes characterization in War and Peace.
The subject [of characterization in War and Peace] is complicated by the sheer number and variety of the dramatis personae, but we can narrow it down from the very start by drawing a general distinction between the treatment of historical and non-historical characters in the novel. It is a fact that the generals and statesmen, the great historical names of the period of the Napoleonic wars, are almost without exception flat and static figures. Little or nothing is revealed of their private lives. We do not see them in intimate relationships with other people. Their loves, their hobbies, their personal dramas are a closed book to us. This is not accidental. As Prince Andrei reflects at Drissa in 1812:
Not only does a good commander not need genius or any special qualities; on the contrary, he needs the absence of the highest and best human qualities—love, poetry, tenderness, and philosophic, inquiring doubt. He must be limited…. God forbid that he should be humane, love anyone, pity anyone, or think about what is right and what is not.
Their thoughts are rarely scrutinized either through interior monologue or by extended description from the author. Some characters, such as Arakcheev, for example, use only direct speech. Nothing is conveyed of their thought processes or the motives behind the words they utter. Nor do they develop with the action of the story. The statesmen and the generals in War and Peace are either bearers of a message or bureaucratic Aunt-Sallies for Tolstoy to knock down. This fact illustrates the unity which exists between Tolstoy's ideas and their expression through his characters. Static characters generally speaking deserve static treatment. Theme and style are as one.
An exception to the rule that generals are flat characters might be made in the case of Kutuzov. Although he is a general, he is not, as Tolstoy understands him, arrogant or self-satisfied. The Kutuzov of War and Peace has some claim to be three-dimensional. It is not that he is shown by Tolstoy to have grown sufficiently in stature with the course of events to justify the remark—true though it may well have been in real life—that "In 1805 Kutuzov is still only a general of the Suvorov school; in 1812 he is the father of the Russian people." But his little acts of kindness, his friendly words to the soldiers who fought with him in his earlier campaigns, his unaffected behavior in the company of his inferiors, his present of some sugar lumps to the little girl at Fili, his request to have some poems read to him—all these small things reveal positive and humane qualities which more than balance his lethargy and lechery. Again it is in keeping with Tolstoy's purpose that a general who is not a poseur or an egoist or a careerist should emerge as a more rounded personality than any of his professional colleagues….
[Our] remarks will be confined to the fictitious or, rather, non-historical characters. Here again the range is enormous, and in order to restrict it as much as possible we shall concentrate mainly on the men and women who figure most prominently in War and Peace…. Tolstoy's first step as a novelist was to draw thumbnail sketches of his future heroes and group their main characteristics together under such headings as wealth, social attributes, mental faculties, artistic sensibilities and attitudes to love. In this respect, incidentally, his rough notes and plans are very different from those left by Dostoevsky, and illustrate an important difference of approach. Dostoevsky in the preliminary stages of his work is concerned with how to formulate his ideas (a generation earlier, Pushkin had tended to jot down first of all the details of his plots). But Tolstoy was interested primarily in the personalities of his characters—in the fact, for example, that Nikolai "is very good at saying the obvious"; that Natasha is "suddenly sad, suddenly terribly happy"; or that Berg has no poetical qualities "except the poetry of accuracy and order."
The problem of actually bringing his major characters on to the stage was one to which Tolstoy attached the greatest importance, and one which, as we have seen, gave him a great deal of difficulty. Broadly speaking, the problem was tackled in a fairly uniform manner, and the technique employed is clearly recognizable, though not of course invariable. All the main characters are introduced very early on. They are introduced with a minimum of biography and with a minimum of external detail (but such as there is typical and important, and likely to recur). Attention is drawn to their features, the expression on their faces, the expression in their eyes and in their smile, their way of looking or not looking at a person. This is a fact which has attracted the notice of most critics of Tolstoy's novels, and inspired Merezhkovsky to make his much-quoted mot "with Tolstoy we hear because we see" (and its corollary "with Dostoevsky we see because we hear"). From the very beginning, the fundamental characteristics of the men and women as they then are enunciated. There is little or no narration to elaborate these characteristics. Almost at once the men and women say something or make an impression on somebody, so that the need for any further direct description from the author disappears. Pierre, for example, is introduced with one sentence about his appearance (stout, heavily built, close cropped hair, spectacles); one sentence about his social status, and one sentence about his life to date. He is then portrayed through the impression he makes on other people present. He is summed up by four epithets which all refer to his expression (vzglyad)—clever, shy, observant, natural—and which at the same time distinguish him from the rest of the company and reveal the essence of his character as it then is. Similarly Prince Andrei is given a sentence or two of "author's description"—handsome, clear-cut, dry features, measured step, bored expression (vzglyad)—while the impression he makes on the company and his reaction to them is at once sharply contrasted with the mutual response of Prince Andrei and Pierre to one another. Virtually nothing is said about the earlier lives of these two men. What did Pierre do in Paris? Why did Prince Andrei marry Lisa? We are not told. Both men immediately catch the eye, for both are bored and ill at ease. They are introduced in fact into an environment which is essentially foreign to their real natures, although their way of life requires that they should move in this environment. Despite the fact that the manner of their first appearances attracts attention, there is nothing to suggest that they will be the main heroes of the novel, in the sense that no extra length or detail goes into their description.
By contrast, Natasha and Nikolai are both introduced in their own domestic environment—home-loving creatures on their home ground—integrated in the family and, as it were, part of the furniture. But again they are presented with a minimum of external description (in which facial expressions are conspicuous); again their salient characteristics—Natasha's charm and vivacity, Nikolai's frankness, enthusiasm and impetuosity—are conveyed from the very start; and again we are told nothing about their earlier lives (for example, Nikolai's student days). This lack of biographical information is important in the sense that it enables us to be introduced to the characters as we usually meet people in real life—that is to say, as they now are, and without any knowledge of the forces which shaped them before we met them and made them what they are. It could even be argued that a novelist who introduces his heroes by reconstructing their past when that past plays no direct part in the novel, actually risks sacrificing, by the accumulation of historical detail such as we do not have about people whom we are meeting for the first time, that immediate lifelikeness which, in the case of Tolstoy's greatest characters, is so strikingly impressive.
Once the men and women have made their entrances the author has to face another problem. Are they to remain substantially as they are, with the reader's interest diverted towards the details of the plot? Or are they to grow and change as the plot progresses? If they are to develop, must they do so because the passage of time and the inner logic of their own personalities dictate it? Or because of the pressure of the events which form the plot? Or because the author wishes to express an idea of his own through their medium? In War and Peace the main characters do grow and change, and they do so for all these reasons. In the course of the time span of the novel the adolescents grow to maturity and the mature men reach early middle age. War and marriage make their impact on men and women alike, and experience teaches them what they failed to understand before. The Pierre of the opening chapter of the novel, with his self-indulgence, his agnosticism and his admiration for Napoleon, is very different from the spiritually rejuvenated middle-aged man who has discovered a focus for his restless and dissipated energies, and who no longer has any illusions about the grandeur of power. The course of events brings Prince Andrei round from a cynical disillusionment in life, through a feeling of personal embitterment, to a belief in the reality of happiness and love; in the face of death his vanity and ambition are humbled by the realization of the insignificance of this world, and he acquires a hitherto unknown peace of mind. Natasha acquires an unsuspected strength of character after her younger brother's death, and an unaccustomed staidness as the wife of Pierre—to some readers an astonishing violation of her nature, but to others a change which is fully comprehensible in the transition from adolescence to motherhood. Even Nikolai's impetuosity is curbed and experience gives him greater solidity and stability. These changes do not result from the fact that our knowledge of the main heroes gradually increases throughout the novel, as it inevitably does, and the picture of them grows fuller and fuller with each successive episode. They are changes of substance, qualitative rather than quantitative changes. Tolstoy's achievement in contriving the development of his main characters lies in the fact that all the reasons mentioned above for their development are so carefully interwoven that the reader is not conscious of many strands but only one. The characters change because they grow older and wiser. But the events which form the plot, and in particular the Napoleonic invasion, give them greater wisdom and experience, for characters and events are organically connected. And the state to which the main heroes come at the end of the novel—marriage, and the simple round of family life—the state which is the ultimate expression of Tolstoy's basic idea—is the natural outcome of the impact on them of the events they have experienced as they have grown older and their realization of the shallow-ness of society and the vainglory of war. The profoundly subjective basis of Tolstoy's art may be seen in the fact that Pierre and Natasha, Nikolai and Princess Marya all achieve the state which he himself had achieved, however imperfectly, and which he sincerely believed to be the most desirable of all states. But this does not mean that their characters are distorted in order to force them into the channels which for him were the right ones. Pierre has so much of Tolstoy in him that he needs no forcing. Natasha, we may remember, was from the very earliest draft of War and Peace "crying out for a husband," and needing "children, love, bed." Nikolai and Princess Marya, for all the difference between their personalities, interests and intellectual attainments, never seem likely to stray far from the family nest or to be seduced from the family estate by the allurements of le monde ["the world"].
Change and development are at the centre of Tolstoy's characterization, and the process is a consistent and logical one. But however great the changes in his main heroes may seem to be, it must not be forgotten that they occur within certain well-defined bounds, and that the characters themselves remain in the camp to which they have always belonged and continue to be what they have always been—some of the finest and most sympathetic representatives of the Russian landowning aristocracy.
There is no need to labour the point that Tolstoy's principal heroes change and develop. We can turn instead to the question how he achieved the effects he desired by the devices of characterization at his disposal. It seems to me that the essence of Tolstoy's technique is to show that at every stage in the life of his heroes the likelihood of change is always present, so that at no time are they static, apathetic or inert, but constantly liable to respond to some new external or internal stimulus. Very often the stimulus is provided by a person from the opposite camp—a "negative" character, a selfish, complacent or static man or woman. These people act as temptations to the heroes; they are obstacles in their path which have to be overcome. Pierre, for example, is momentarily blinded by the apparent greatness of Napoleon. He is trapped into marriage with Hélène, with whom he has nothing in common, and is in danger of being drawn into the Kuragin net. After their separation he is reconciled with her again, only to bemoan his fate once more as a retired gentleman-in-waiting, a member of the Moscow English Club and a universal favourite in Moscow society. Prince Andrei, like Pierre, is deceived by the symbol of Napoleon, and like Pierre he finds himself married to a woman who is as much his intellectual inferior as Hélène is morally beneath Pierre. Natasha for her part is attracted at first by the social climber Boris Drubetskoy and later infatuated by the same Anatole Kuragin who had actually begun to turn Princess Marya's head. Julie Karagina looms for a while on Nikolai's horizon. From all these temptations and involvements the heroes and heroines are saved, not by their own efforts but by the timely workings of Providence. Prince Andrei's wife dies. Pierre is provoked by Dolokhov into separating from his wife, and after their reconciliation he is eventually released by Hélène's death. Natasha is saved from herself by the solicitude of her friends. By chance Princess Marya catches Anatole unawares as he flirts with Mlle Bourienne. (Nikolai, to his credit, is never likely to obey his mother's wishes and marry Julie.) It seems as if fate is working to rescue them from the clutches of egocentricity. But it is not only external circumstances such as personal associations with people of the opposite camp which are a challenge to Tolstoy's heroes and heroines. There are internal obstacles against which they have to contend, without any help from Providence. Tolstoy made it a main object of his characterization to show his positive heroes at all important moments "becoming" and not just "being," beset with doubts, tormented by decisions, the victims of ambivalent thoughts and emotions, eternally restless. As a result, their mobility, fluidity and receptivity to change are constantly in evidence, as they face their inner problems. Princess Marya has to overcome her instinctive aversion to Natasha. Nikolai has to wage a struggle between love and duty until he finds in the end that they can both be reconciled in one and the same person. Pierre's inner disquiet and spiritual striving express his determination, now weak, now strong, to overcome in himself the very qualities of selfishness and laziness which he despises in other people. Outward and inward pressures are continually being exerted on Pierre, Prince Andrei, Princess Marya, Natasha and Nikolai, and their lives are lived in a state of flux.
And yet Tolstoy felt himself bound to try and resolve their conflicts and bring them to a state which, if not final and irreversible, is a new and higher stage in their life's development. It is not a solution to all their problems, a guarantee that they will not be troubled in future. The peace of mind which Prince Andrei attains before his death might not have lasted long if he had lived. Pierre's uneasy religious equilibrium may not be of long duration. The very fact that we can easily foresee new threats to their security, new stimuli and new responses, is a proof of the depth, integrity and life-likeness of the two finest heroes of Tolstoy's novel. But although there is not and cannot be any absolute finality about the state to which Tolstoy's men and women are brought, there is nevertheless an ultimate harmony, charity, and sense of purpose in their lives which represent the highest ideals of which they are capable, given the personalities with which they have been endowed and the beliefs of the author who created them.
The novelist who wishes to create a vivid illusion of immediacy and mobility in his heroes must avoid exhaustive character studies and biographical reconstructions concentrated in a chapter or series of chapters in his novels, whether at the beginning, in the middle or at the end. Many novelists begin with lengthy narrative descriptions of their main heroes…. But Tolstoy by dispensing largely with "pre-history" and allowing his men and women to reveal themselves little by little as the novel progresses, avoids the necessity for set characterization pieces, static and self-contained as they often are in other writers.
Another factor which aids the illusion of reality—and movement—is the continued interaction of all the elements which make up Tolstoy's novel—men and women, nature, and the world of inanimate objects. Very seldom is a person seen or described in isolation—just as in real life, human beings cannot be divorced from the infinite number of animate and inanimate phenomena which make them what they are and determine what they do. Tolstoy is at pains, therefore, in striving after truthfulness to life in his characterization, to show the interdependence and interpenetration of man and nature. The stars, the sky, the trees, and the fields, the moonlight, the thrill of the chase, the familiar objects of the home all affect the mood and the actions of the characters no less than the rational processes of the mind or the persuasions of other human beings. That this is so in life is a commonplace; but there have been few authors with Tolstoy's power to show the multiplicity of interacting phenomena in the lives of fictitious men and women.
Movement is the essence of Pierre, Prince Andrei and Natasha and this is shown both externally and internally. Externally their eyes, their lips, their smile are mobile and infectious; their expressions continually alter. Internally their thoughts are in a state of turbulence and their mood is liable to swing violently from one extreme to another—from joy to grief, despair to elation, enthusiasm to boredom. There are times indeed when two incompatible emotions coexist uneasily and the character does not know whether he or she is sad or happy.
Princess Marya is not such a forceful or impulsive character as her brother or sister-in-law. Her qualities of gentleness, deep faith, long-suffering, humility and addiction to good works are not combined with a searching mind or a vivacious personality. But she is, nevertheless, a restless person, and as such is clearly a favourite of Tolstoy (she even quotes his beloved Sterne!). The anxieties and disturbances in her relations with Anatole Kuragin, Mlle Bourienne and Natasha are evidence that she is a rounded and dynamic figure, and not, as it were, conceived in one piece. In the presence of Nikolai she is brought to life with all the magic of Tolstoy's art. Nikolai too, for all his apparent complacency and limited horizons, does not stand still. He has his moments of doubt, uncertainty, and fear just as he has his outbursts of uninhibited enthusiasm and emperor worship. He is given his own inner crisis to surmount when at Tilsit "a painful process was at work in his mind" as he tried to reconcile the horrors of the hospital he had recently visited, the amputated arms and legs and the stench of dead flesh, with his hero the Emperor Alexander's evident liking and respect for the self-satisfied Napoleon. The crisis, it is true, soon passes after a couple of bottles of wine. But it could never have been allowed to come to a head at all by his friend Boris Drubetskoy.
By contrast, the less prominent figures in War and Peace are not shown in the critical stages of their change and development. Even Sonya's conflict (she is described in an early portrait sketch in typically Tolstoy fashion as "generous and mean")—the conflict between her loyalty to the family and her love for Nikolai—emerges rather through Tolstoy's description of it than through the inner workings and sudden vacillations of her mind. Vera and Berg, Akhrosimova, Bolkonsky and many other minor figures, however vital and many-sided they might be as individuals, are fundamentally static characters who are fully-grown from the beginning. The ability to respond to change, the qualities of restlessness, curiosity, flexibility and dynamism are essentially the perquisites of the main heroes of the novel, and in particular Pierre, Prince Andrei and Natasha. And one may add that it is the growth and development of precisely these three people which reflects above all the changes in Tolstoy himself and those closest to him at Yasnaya Polyana, and is a convincing proof of the personal basis of Tolstoy's art.
In examining the characters of a novel with an historical setting, three questions immediately spring to mind. In the first place, do they emerge as individuals? Secondly, do they unmistakably belong to the historical environment in which they are made to move? And thirdly, do they embody universal characteristics which make them readily comprehensible to people of a different country and a different age? If we apply these questions to Pierre, Prince Andrei and Natasha, the answer to the first is indisputably yes. There is nothing bookish, contrived or externally manipulated about their actions. They can never be confused with any other characters. They have an outward presence and an inner life which mark them off as highly individualized personalities. To the second question the answer is less obvious and critical opinion is divided. For my own part I am inclined to think that there is nothing about them specifically representative of their own age, which is not also representative of Tolstoy's own generation. They are the products of a class and a way of life which had not materially altered when Tolstoy began to write. That they experienced the impact in their homes of a great patriotic war is a fact which distinguishes their lives from the lives of Tolstoy's own contemporaries, but the development of their characters cannot be explained solely in terms of that particular war. Pierre might ask different questions from Levin or put the same questions in a different way, but his spiritual journey is fundamentally the same. Prince Andrei's reactions to war could have been those of one of the many obscure defenders of Sevastopol. Natasha's progress to motherhood, while it is not identical with Kitty's, is not peculiar to the first half rather than to the second half of the nineteenth century. The third question, however, like the first, is easily answered. In Tolstoy's heroes in War and Peace there is a basic denominator of human experience which is common to all men and women regardless of class, country, age and intellectual attainment. Their mental, spiritual and emotional problems, their pleasures and pursuits, their enthusiasms and their aversions are as relevant to England today as they ever were to Tolstoy's Russia. And it is ultimately this fact which ensures that War and Peace and especially the main heroes of War and Peace will always be a part of the literary heritage of the reading public throughout the world.
Characterization cannot be considered in isolation from the many other sides of a novelist's art…. First there are the changes which occur in Tolstoy's characters themselves as the successive draft versions are written and discarded. Then there are the features which they inherit from their various historical and living prototypes. There are the ideas of the novelist himself which are transmitted to his heroes and heroines, so that they in turn express his own prejudices and beliefs and in Pierre's case, the gulf between what Tolstoy was and what he wanted himself to be. There is the question of the composition of the novel which is so designed that the character development should proceed pari passu ["at an equal pace"] with the development of the plot, and not fortuitously or independently of the main action. Finally there are the different linguistic devices at Tolstoy's disposal which play their part in characterization—interior monologue, the contrasting use of the French and Russian languages, speech mannerisms, irony….
In the final analysis it is the characters which a novelist creates which are the greatest and most memorable part of his achievement. In War and Peace they range over the scale of good and evil and they are treated by the author with varying degrees of sympathy and dislike. In later life Tolstoy wrote to the artist N. N. Gay that in order to compose a work of art: "It is necessary for a man to know clearly and without doubt what is good and evil, to see plainly the dividing line between them and consequently to paint not what is, but what should be. And he should paint what should be as though it already was, so that for him what should be might already be."
This opinion was expressed some twenty years after War and Peace was written, but the first part of it at least is applicable to that novel. Tolstoy knew, as well as any man can, the dividing line between good and evil, although in War and Peace he devoted much more time to painting things as they are than as they should be. For a novelist, however, to know what is right and what is wrong is not the same thing as to concentrate virtue in one character and vice in another, or to pass an unqualified moral judgement on any of the people he creates. "The Gospel words 'judge not'," Tolstoy wrote in 1857, "are profoundly true in art: relate, portray, but do not judge." Tolstoy's purpose in his first novel, as a creator of living characters, was to entertain and not to judge. One of the most interesting pronouncements he made about the function of an artist occurs in a letter which he wrote in 1865 while actively engaged on his novel, but which he never sent…. The letter was addressed to the minor novelist Boborykin and contains some mild strictures on the latter's two latest novels. Tolstoy wrote:
Problems of the Zemstvo, literature and the emancipation of women obtrude with you in a polemical manner, but these problems are not only not interesting in the world of art; they have no place there at all. Problems of the emancipation of women and of literary parties inevitably appear to you important in your literary Petersburg milieu, but all these problems splash about in a little puddle of dirty water which only seems like an ocean to those whom fate has set down in the middle of the puddle. The aims of an artist are incommensurate (as the mathematicians say) with social aims. The aim of an artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably but to make people love life in all its countless inexhaustible manifestations. If I were to be told that I could write a novel whereby I might irrefutably establish what seemed to me the correct point of view on all social problems, I would not even devote two hours work to such a novel; but if I were to be told that what I should write would be read in about twenty years time by those who are now children, and that they would laugh and cry over it and love life, I would devote all my own life and all my energies to it.
To make people laugh and cry and love life is a sufficient justification for even the greatest of novels….
Source: R. F. Christian, Tolstoy's "War and Peace": A Study, Clarendon Press, 1962, pp. 167-68, 177-79.
In the following excerpt, Fadiman describes Tolstoy's writing as lacking in artistic style, suspense, and originality but also as clear, good, and able to express the ordinary and real.
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Source: Clifton Fadiman, "'War and Peace', Fifteen Years After," in Any Number Can Play, Harper & Row, 1957, pp. 361-69.
Fadiman became one of the most prominent American literary critics during the 1930s with his often caustic and insightful book reviews for the Nation and the New Yorker magazines. He also managed to reach a sizable audience through his work as a radio talk-show host from 1938 to 1948.
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Source: Clifton Fadiman, reprinted as "War and Peace," in Party of One: The Selected Writings of Clifton Fadiman, The World Publishing Company, 1955, pp. 176-202.
"Tolstoy's 'Peace and War
In the following review, the reviewer praises Tolstoy for his accurate presentation of how people act and talk and points to Tolstoy's presentation of the moral imperfection of all and of the folly of self-will in historical events.
This book of Tolstoy's [War and Peace] might be called with justice 'The Russian Comedy,' in the sense in which Balzac employed the word. It gave me exactly the same impression: I felt that I was thrown among new men and women, that I lived with them, that I knew them, that none of them could be indifferent to me, that I could never forget them. I entered into their souls, and it seemed almost as if they could enter into mine. Such a power in a writer is almost a miracle. How many novels have I not read, and, after having read them, and admired many qualities—the beauty of the style, the invention, the dialogues, the dramatic situations—have still felt that my knowledge of life had not increased, that I had gained no new experience. It was not so with War and Peace….
It would be difficult to give a proper definition of the talent of Tolstoy. First of all, he is an homme du monde. He makes great people, emperors, generals, diplomats, fine ladies, princes, talk and act as they do act and talk. He is a perfect gentleman, and as such he is thoroughly humane. He takes as much interest in the most humble of his actors as he does in the highest. He has lived in courts: the Saint-Andrés, the Saint-Vladimirs have no prestige for him—nor the gilded uniforms; he is not deceived by appearances. His aim is so high that whatever he sees is, in one sense, unsatisfactory. He looks for moral perfection, and there is nothing perfect. He is always disappointed in the end. The final impression of his work is a sort of despair….
[A] fundamental idea of fatalism pervades the book. Fate governs empires as well as men: it plays with a Napoleon and an Alexander as it does with a private in the ranks; it hangs over all the world like a dark cloud, rent at times by lighting. We live in the night, like shadows; we are lost on the shore of an eternal Styx; we do not know whence we came or whither we go. Millions of men, led by a senseless man, go from west to east, killing, murdering, and burning, and it is called the invasion of Russia. Two thousand years before, millions of other men came from east to west, plundering, killing, and burning, and it was called the invasion of the barbarians. What becomes of the human will, of the proud I, in these dreadful events? We see the folly and the vanity of self-will in these great historical events; but it is just the same in all times, and the will gets lost in peace as well as in war, for there is no real peace, and the human wills are constantly devouring each other…. We are made to enjoy a little, to suffer much, and, when the end is approaching, we are all like one of Tolstoy's heroes, on the day of Borodino….
[Tolstoy's book] is by far the most remarkable work of imagination that has been lately revealed to us….
Source: "Tolstoy's 'Peace and War,'" in Nation, Vol. 40, No. 1021, January 22, 1885, pp. 70-71.
Arnold, Matthew, "Count Leo Tolstoy," in Fortnightly Review, December, 1887.
Christian, R. F., Tolstoy's "War and Peace": A Study, Clarenden Press, 1962.
Fodor, Alexander, Tolstoy and the Russians: Reflections on a Relationship, Ardis Press, 1984.
James, Henry, "Preface to The Tragic Muse," in The Art of the Novel, C. Scribner's Sons, 1934.
Simmons, Ernest J., Tolstoy, Routledge & Kegan Paul, Boston, 1973, p. 81.
Wasiolek, Edward, Tolstoy's Major Fiction, The University of Chicago Press, 1978.
Berlin, Isaiah, "Tolstoy and Enlightenment," in Mightier that the Sword, MacMillan & Co., 1964.
An influential assessment of the often-repeated charge that Tolstoy was a good fiction writer but a flawed philosopher.
Christian, R. F., Tolstoy's War and Peace: A Study, The Clarendon Press, 1962.
A comprehensive and recommended study of the novel.
Citati, Pietro, Tolstoy, Schocken Books, 1986.
Written by an Italian literary critic, this is a short biography that introduces students to the key elements in Tolstoy's life and works.
Crankshaw, Edward, Tolstoy: The Making of a Novelist, The Viking Press, 1974.
Traces Tolstoy's development as a novelist.
Crego Benson, Ruth, "Two Natashas," in Women in Tolstoy: The Ideal and the Erotic, University of Illinois Press, 1973.
Examines the conflict between Tolstoy's portrayal of Natasha as a strong complex heroine and his tendency to see women only as objects of beauty.
Debreczeny, Paul, "Freedom and Necessity: A Reconsideration of War and Peace," in Papers on Language and Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature, No. 2, Spring, 1971.
Debreczeny's understanding of Tolstoy's basic philosophy allows him to read the diverse aspects of the novel as one continuous, homogeneous narrative.
Greenwood, E. B., "The Problem of Truth in War and Peace," in Tolstoy: The Comprehensive Vision, St. Martin's Press, 1975.
Explores Tolstoy's interest in the problem of historical truth.
Johnson, Claudia D., To Kill a Mockingbird: Threatening Boundaries, Twayne, 1994.
A book-length analysis of the novel that provides historical and literary context as well as discussion of key themes and issues.
Morrison, Gary Saul, Hidden in Plain View: Narrative and Creative Potentials in "War and Peace", Stanford University Press, 1987.
Discusses the structure of the novel.
Sampson, R. V., "Leo Tolstoy: 'God Sees the Truth, But Does Not Quickly Reveal It'," in The Discovery of Peace, Pantheon Books, 1973.
Sampson examines several key writers who have influenced the history of the moral debate about war.
Simmons, Ernest J., "War and Peace," in Introduction to Tolstoy's Writings, The University of Chicago Press, 1968.
In this chapter in a book about the Tolstoy's major works, Simmons provides a stylistic and thematic analysis of the novel.
War and Peace
War and PeaceINTRODUCTION
War and Peace, by Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, is often called the greatest novel ever written. It is certainly one of the longest, and its great length is one source of its enduring fame and reputation. The panoramic novel tells a story of sweeping scope that takes place during the Napoleonic Wars in early nineteenth-century Europe. The events depicted in the novel begin in 1805 and end in 1812, the year of Napoleon Bonaparte's fateful invasion of Russia. It is a story of wartime and peacetime, love and marriage, birth and death. It is a story of families, of societies and nations, of soldiers and civilians, of peasants and nobility, of country estates and city salons. In short, War and Peace is a novel that attempts to seemingly encompass and interconnect every aspect of life.
Tolstoy's contemporaries were never quite sure what to call War and Peace. It had too many unusual elements to be classified simply as a novel, and indeed, Tolstoy himself denied that it was a novel. What was it then? What is it now? It is a novel, of course, but it is more than that. It is a study of history and historians, a unique portrayal of Russian society, a philosophical tract, and an attempt at Russian mythmaking. Tolstoy presented history using the techniques of fiction and analyzed that history within the text itself. He then attached a purely philosophical (and much-criticized) epilogue on the nature of history, power, and free will. The book is often described as a prose epic, a designation that links it to the great verse epics of the ancient Greek poet Homer and those of Virgil, his Roman counterpart.
Tolstoy began writing the book in 1863. His initial idea was to write about a group of revolutionaries called the Decembrists, who tried to prevent Nicholas I from taking the Russian throne in 1825, hoping to install a constitutional monarchy instead. As Tolstoy examined the history of this group, following the threads of their movement took him back in time to the events of the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon was a French emperor who conquered most of Europe in the early 1800s, but whose failed invasion of Russia initiated his downfall.
Tolstoy published War and Peace over four years, from 1865 to 1869. It was an immediate success, in part because of the Russians' patriotism and their resultant resistance to Napoleon's massive invasion fifty years earlier. This book marked the beginning of what is considered the great middle period of Tolstoy's writing career. After a rapid rise to fame in the 1850s, Tolstoy's career had stalled. War and Peace re-established his reputation, and his next novel, Anna Karenina (1877), confirmed his greatness as a writer.
Unlike much war-related literature, War and Peace was not intended specifically as an antiwar statement or as a chronicle of war's horrors, though these elements emerge naturally from its detailed and realistic portrayal of war. Tolstoy was more interested in how history unfolds and how historians present it to the public.
Leo Tolstoy was born in 1828 on the estate Iasnaia Poliana, in the Russian province of Tula. In 1851, fleeing his gambling debts, he joined the Russian army and participated in the Crimean War. He retired from the military in 1856, and by the end of that decade, he returned to his birthplace.
Tolstoy began work on War and Peace in 1863. The first part of the novel appeared in 1865 and 1866 under the title The Year 1805 in the literary journal the Russian Messenger. Later sections appeared in six volumes as Voina i mir (War and Peace) in 1868 and 1869. The book was a literary sensation, though criticism prompted Tolstoy to write a defense of the work in 1868. This work was followed by his other literary masterpiece, Anna Karenina, in 1877.
Although War and Peace was not meant to convey an antiwar message, Tolstoy underwent an ideological conversion some ten years after finishing the novel. He renounced much of his previous life and work, including War and Peace, and embraced pacifism, the belief in the immorality of all violence and war. In the late nineteenth century, he was the world's most famous pacifist. He even corresponded with and influenced the young Mahatma Gandhi, who later became an even more celebrated pacifist and political activist.
Tolstoy died of pneumonia on November 10, 1910.
War and Peace contains vivid, realistic battle scenes, and some of its characters bitterly condemn war. These aspects of the novel combined with Tolstoy's later renunciation of war and violence to make the novel a classic of war literature. But, like Homer's Iliad, this book is much more than a classic war novel, which is why Tolstoy is generally considered to be one of the giants of world literature. In the 140 years since its publication, translators have offered several English versions of War and Peace. The novel's great length makes translations relatively rare, with a new one appearing every twenty-five to thirty years. The newest version, translated by Anthony Briggs, appeared in 2005. It is the first completely new English translation since 1967.
More than five hundred different characters populate the pages of War and Peace, including historical figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Tsar Alexander. The novel includes a number of short essays analyzing history, but it focuses primarily on the lives of four families—the Rostovs, the Bolkonskys, the Kuragins, and the Bezuhovs—and their intersecting circles in Russian society.
Book One, Part One: July 1805
The novel opens in a St. Petersburg society salon where Prince Vasili Kuragin, an influential statesman, is among the guests. The conversation turns to Napoleon and war, as well as Vasili's sons, Hippolyte and Anatole, and his beautiful daughter, Helene, all of whom attend the salon. Pierre Bezuhov, the illegitimate son of the dying Count Bezuhov, is also there. The young and clumsy Pierre embarrasses himself by arguing for the liberal ideals of the French Revolution. Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, an old friend of Pierre's, arrives with his pregnant wife, Lise. Andrei is handsome and intelligent, but proud. He regrets his marriage and feels himself to be a failure.
At the home of Count Ilya Rostov, the family is celebrating the Countess Natalia Rostov's name day—the feast day of the saint whose name she bears—and that of her youngest daughter, Natasha, a spirited thirteen-year-old. Natasha's older brother Nikolai is sixteen and has joined the Russian cavalry. Nikolai's cousin Sonya lives with the family. Nikolai and Sonya are in love, though Countess Rostov is against their marrying. Pierre is visiting the Rostovs when his father has another stroke. The dying Count Bezuhov summons Pierre to his bedside and Anna Mihalovna, a distant relative of the count, goes with him. Meanwhile, Prince Vasili and one of the count's daughters plot to destroy the count's will along with a letter he has written to the emperor. The letter asks that Pierre be declared his legitimate son so that he can inherit the count's fortune. After seeing his dying father, Pierre finds Anna Mihalovna struggling with Pierre's half sister over the will and the letter. Anna Mihalovna wrestles the papers away and returns them to the count's room. Moments later, the count dies, leaving his vast wealth to Pierre.
Prince Andrei's family, the Bolkonskys, is the last of the four central families to be introduced. Old Prince Bolkonsky lives at Bald Hills, his country estate, with his daughter Maria and her French companion, Mademoiselle Bourienne. The Old Prince is obsessive in his habits and treats Maria cruelly. Maria is plain and devout, tolerating her father's cruelty and viewing her victimization as a form of Christian suffering. Prince Andrei takes his pregnant wife to Bald Hills where she is to stay while he is away with the army. Maria gives the skeptical Andrei a religious icon to wear around his neck, and the Prince leaves for Austria, where war is brewing.
Book One, Part Two: October 1805
In Austria, Russian and Austrian troops are allied against Napoleon. Andrei works as an adjutant to Prince Kutuzov, commander-in-chief of the Russian army. As the army crosses the Danube at Enns, it skirmishes with the French as they approach. Nikolai engages in his first military action and finds himself shocked by the confusion of battle and his own fear. The retreating Russians win a small battle at Krems, and Andrei takes the news to Brno, where the Austrian government has relocated because Vienna is under threat. He then returns for the battle of Schon Graben. Kutuzov is suspicious of the overly complex battle plans; he expects to lose the battle, and his expectations are fulfilled. Nikolai charges with the cavalry and is slightly wounded. He flees from the French in panic. Meanwhile, Andrei witnesses how a single solider, the artillery man Tushin, can effectively save the army by fending the French off with cannon fire. During the retreat, Tushin rescues the wounded Nikolai.
Book One, Part Three: November 1805
Pierre is now a wealthy young count, and Prince Vasili schemes to marry Helene. Pierre is smitten with the beautiful Helene and pushed into marriage despite his doubts. Vasili then takes Anatole to Bald Hills hoping to marry him to Princess Maria, but she refuses. Meanwhile, in Austria, Nikolai watches the Austrian and Russian emperors review the troops and feels an ecstatic, patriotic love for the emperor, Tsar Alexander I. The troops are preparing for the decisive battle of Austerlitz, and Andrei dreams of battlefield glory. However, the morning of the battle only brings confusion. The battlefield is foggy, and the French have changed positions during the night. The Russian soldiers are shocked by the suddenness of battle; they panic and bolt. Andrei rallies them but is seriously wounded while attacking the French. Asked to deliver a message, Nikolai rides the length of the battlefield, witnessing the historic defeat. He sees his beloved emperor Alexander distraught and alone in a field but is afraid to help him. Andrei is lying wounded after the battle when Napoleon walks past and comments on Andrei's "fine death," unaware that Andrei is still alive. The book ends with Andrei seriously wounded in a French military hospital.
Book Two, Part One: 1806
Nikolai goes home on leave after the defeat, taking fellow soldier Hussar Denisov with him. Another soldier, the rogue Dolohov, is rumored to be having an affair with Helene. Pierre rashly challenges Dolohov to a duel. He wounds Dolohov in the fight and then leaves for St. Petersburg. Dolohov recovers and falls in love with Sonya. He offers her marriage, but she refuses because of her love for Nikolai. Angered by her rejection, Dolohov swindles Nikolai out of forty-three thousand rubles in a card game. This forces Nikolai to ask his father, who is already in financial trouble, to repay the debt. Meanwhile, the dashing Denisov is enthralled by fifteen-year-old Natasha. He rashly proposes to her but is politely refused. At Bald Hills, there is initially no word of Andrei, and his father presumes he is dead. On the night that Lise goes into labor, Andrei suddenly returns. Lise dies giving birth, and Andrei christens his newborn son Nikolai the day after Lise's funeral.
Book Two, Part Two: 1807
While traveling, Pierre meets Osip Alexeyevich Bazdeyev, a leader among the Freemasons (a secret society). Pierre is searching for direction in life, and he joins the group, becoming a prominent member. He travels around his estates, hoping to implement reforms based on his new ideals. He stops at Andrei's Bogucharovo estate to find that Andrei, now recovered from his wound, has removed himself from society. He and Pierre have a long talk that reveals Andrei's depression and newfound cynicism. Nikolai Rostov is back with his regiment, happy to be away from Moscow. Denisov gets in trouble after illegally commandeering desperately needed supplies, and Nikolai tries unsuccessfully to petition Emperor Alexander on Denisov's behalf. The emperor, meanwhile, has made peace with Napoleon. Nikolai witnesses their famous meeting at Tilsit, and—having fought against the French—he is angered by the truce.
Book Two, Part Three: 1808–1810
While Andrei is on a business visit at the Rostov country estate, he sees Natasha, now seventeen, for the first time. He is charmed by her, and that night he overhears her romantic exclamations about the moon. This moment restores his interest in life. He rejoins society and travels to Petersburg to work on military reform. Though Pierre is a leading Freemason, his idle life in Petersburg continues. He reconciles with Helene, who is now the center of an intellectual elite. While in Petersburg, Natasha and Sonya attend their first big ball and—at Pierre's insistence—Andrei asks Natasha to dance. He falls in love with her and immediately thinks of marriage. Pierre is jealous, however. He secretly loves Natasha, but his own marriage prevents his declaring it. Andrei proposes to Natasha on the condition that, at his father's insistence, they wait one year to marry. Natasha says yes, and Andrei departs for a year abroad. In declining health, Old Prince Bolkonsky grows even more cruel towards the long-suffering Maria.
Book Two, Part Four: 1810–1811
Nikolai hears about the financial trouble at home as well as Natasha's engagement and travels to the Rostov country estate for Christmas. On a clear winter morning, he goes hunting with Natasha, and they meet Uncle, a distant relative of the Rostovs. They hunt down a wolf together. That evening at Uncle's house, Nikolai and Natasha get a glimpse of traditional Russian rural life: a simple meal, folk music, and Natasha's impromptu performance of a folk dance. Countess Rostov presses Nikolai to marry Julie Karagin, a wealthy heiress, but Nikolai refuses, remaining faithful to Sonya. At Christmas, the young people dress up and travel around the estates, performing. Nikolai realizes the depth of his love for Sonya and commits himself to her against his mother's wishes.
Book Two, Part Five: 1811–1812
Pierre, still jealous of Andrei's engagement to Natasha, loathes life and Moscow society. Old Prince Bolkonsky and Maria travel to Moscow where anti-French feeling is developing as relations between the two nations sour. Natasha becomes frustrated by Andrei's absence, especially after she is treated coldly by Andrei's family. She is then seduced by the dashing and immoral Anatole Kuragin, a seduction aided by Helene. Despite the fact that he is secretly married, he plans an elopement with Natasha. Sonya finds out and threatens to expose Natasha, who impetuously writes to break her engagement with Andrei. The elopement fails, however, because Sonya exposes Natasha's affair, and Natasha, upset upon learning the truth about Anatole, swallows poison. She becomes ill but then recovers. Pierre seeks out Anatole in a rage and sends him away with money. He then tries to persuade Andrei to forgive Natasha. Andrei refuses, and Pierre, while consoling Natasha, suddenly confesses his own love for her.
Book Three, Part One: May, June, July 1812
On June 12, 1812, Napoleon's forces enter Russia without a formal declaration of war. Andrei searches unsuccessfully for Anatole, hoping to challenge him to a duel to avenge Natasha's seduction. He goes to work for Kutuzov again, who has been appointed as head of the army. Andrei attends a war council where he is disillusioned by the fighting among the generals. He leaves Kutuzov's staff to serve in the infantry. Nikolai, now experienced in battle, leads a charge at the French and is decorated as a hero. Countess Rostov travels to Moscow to tend to Natasha, who is suffering from melancholy. Pierre is the only person welcome to visit her, but he stops due to his unrequited love. Sixteen-year-old Petya, the youngest Rostov, joins the Hussars, much to his mother's dismay. Fearing that the war will reach Moscow, the nobility meet with Alexander I, pledging money and serfs to defend Russia.
Book Three, Part Two: August 1812
In the Bolkonsky house, the Old Prince dismisses the invasion threat, unaware that the French are only days away in Smolensk. Andrei sends a note to Maria telling her to take the household to Moscow. He stops at Bald Hills as the army retreats and finds the family gone, not knowing that they have only gone to nearby Bogucharovo and that his father is dying. Maria stays with the Old Prince, and against her own conscience, feels a sense of freedom at his approaching death. After the Old Prince dies, she decides to go to Moscow, but the local peasants refuse to leave the land and block her passage. Nikolai—who is passing nearby with the Hussars—stumbles upon the situation and saves Maria. She then departs for Moscow, having fallen in love with her protector.
Kutuzov is convinced he can beat the French, telling Andrei that all he needs is "patience and time." Residents of Moscow begin leaving the city, but Pierre refuses to go. He rides out to observe the imminent battle at Borodino. He meets Andrei on the eve of battle and is shocked by Andrei's bitterness. Andrei rages about generals and military planning and offers his theory of warfare. In the morning, Pierre watches the fight from a hilltop before joining a group of soldiers. He is horrified by the savagery of war. When the position is lost, Pierre fights off a French soldier and flees. Despite the heavy casualties, Kutuzov feels the battle is won and that the French army is mortally wounded. He wants to launch a counterattack, but with half of his army lost, he is forced to retreat. Andrei, meanwhile, is seriously wounded and taken to a field hospital. While there, he watches while Anatole, the man who ruined his engagement, screams in pain while having his leg amputated. Instead of bitterness, however, Andrei feels compassion for the dying Anatole and a universal love for all life, even as he feels it slipping away from him.
Book Three, Part Three: September 1812
Kutuzov decides he will have to abandon Moscow to save the army. Far removed from the war, Petersburg society life continues as usual. Helene lobbies for a divorce so she can marry one of the two men courting her. Her love life is a popular topic of conversation in the city; criticism of Kutuzov for his handling of the military is a common subject, as well. Helene writes to Pierre, but he is so shattered by his war experience that her letter means little to him. He remains in Moscow, devising a plan to assassinate Napoleon. While the Rostovs are packing, Natasha invites wounded Russian soldiers into their home, unaware that Andrei is among them. Later, at Natasha's insistence, family members unload their own property and transport the wounded away. Sonya learns of Andrei's presence and lets the news slip to Natasha. As the Rostovs leave, French troops enter the city and begin occupying empty houses. Pierre saves a French officer's life and reluctantly befriends him. Fourteen miles away, Natasha, now aware of Andrei's presence, goes to him in the night, and the lovers reconcile. Meanwhile, Moscow begins burning. Pierre rescues a child from a burning building but is arrested as an arsonist when he protects a woman from a French soldier.
Book Four, Part One: August 1812
In Petersburg, Helene becomes ill and dies from an overdose of medicine. Nikolai travels to Voronezh to buy horses for his regiment and meets Maria there. While debating whether or not to marry her, he receives a letter from Sonya freeing him of his obligation to her. Maria travels to Yaroslavl to see Andrei, who is staying with the Rostovs; upon arriving, she learns that he has taken a turn for the worse. Andrei is dying and greets the world mechanically, as though one step removed from life. He sees his seven-year-old son one final time, then dies with Natasha and Maria at his side. Pierre, now a prisoner of war, witnesses five prisoners being executed. He is spared, but the scene shatters his failing nerves. He is thrown into an old church with twenty other prisoners and there meets Platon Karatayev, a peasant soldier whose direct and simple acceptance of life saves Pierre from despair.
Book Four, Part Two: October 1812
After four weeks as a prisoner, Pierre feels a strange freedom in his captivity, thanks primarily to Karatayev. The French army retreats suddenly in disarray, taking Pierre and the other prisoners with it. Kutuzov weeps upon learning that the French have abandoned Moscow, feeling that Russia is saved. He considers further fighting to be wasteful and unnecessary, but his generals are determined to win easy victories and gain honors, and they press him to attack the retreating French.
Book Four, Part Three: October-November 1812
Denisov and Dolohov now each lead a guerrilla group striking at the retreating French. Petya Rostov takes a message to Denisov and—against orders—stays with him for a morning raid. The raid is successful, but Petya is killed. Pierre is among the prisoners freed by the raid, though the French have killed the ailing Platon. The French army is "melting away" now; men are dying of cold, hunger, and exhaustion as the army retreats rapidly.
Book Four, Part Four: November-December 1812
Natasha is still mourning Andrei's death when news of Petya's death arrives. Countess Rostov is distraught, and Natasha's need to help her mother helps her to overcome her own grief. Natasha then grows ill and Maria takes her to Moscow. Pierre, having recovered from his time in prison, is a new man. He is free and at peace, patient and loving. He returns to Moscow and begins rebuilding his life. When he visits Maria, he does not recognize Natasha at first because she has grown thin and pale. When he does finally recognize her, he is unable to hide his love for her. Later, he speaks privately with Maria, who is convinced that he and Natasha can be happy together. The novel ends with Natasha anticipating her marriage to Pierre.
Epilogue, Part One: 1813–1820
The year following the invasion, Natasha and Pierre marry. Count Rostov then dies, forcing Nikolai to resign from the military to manage his father's debts. He has to sell the estates and take a job. Princess Maria visits Nikolai, but he greets her coldly, embarrassed by his poverty. They eventually marry, however, and move to Bald Hills, where Nikolai thrives as a farmer. Seven years later, in 1820, Natasha is a devoted wife and the mother of four children. Pierre returns from Petersburg and talks of secret societies and calls for reform. It is the first hint of the radical Decembrist movement that erupted in 1825. Nikolai is angered by the treasonous talk but Andrei's son, now fifteen years old, worships Pierre. Part One of the epilogue ends with young Nikolai Bolkonsky dreaming of his father.
Epilogue, Part Two
The second epilogue is Tolstoy's extended essay on his view of history and an analysis of power as the force that moves nations. He defines power as the relations between the commander and the commanded, and he believes that nations are moved by the collective acts of all people, not by the orders of one person. He says that historians should analyze the causes of power, not the individuals who implement that power. He finishes with a discussion of free will (human being's ability to choose for themselves) and the relation of free will to necessity (the requirement to do things regardless of choice or desire).
The Battlefield as Chaos
From its first publication, critics have agreed that the battle scenes in War and Peace are uncompromisingly authentic. Few writers have described battle so accurately and so vividly. What sets Tolstoy apart, however, is the interior monologues that accompany his battle scenes. He does not merely describe the excitement of flank movements and charges, but he also takes the reader inside the minds of generals, soldiers, and even their horses at times. In these interior monologues, one usually finds the chaos of battle. Tolstoy had seen war as a soldier and knew how the mind races and reacts during a charge or a retreat; his descriptions rely on his own experience.
But this chaos is not included simply for accuracy's sake or to convey the horrors of battle. It also reveals Tolstoy's theory about how battles are won or lost and why military campaigns succeed or fail. Through the Prince Kutuzov's musings and the author's own commentary, the reader clearly sees Tolstoy's contempt for the idea that generals win battles with elaborate plans, feints, or flanking movements. Kutuzov sleeps through a war council on the eve of Austerlitz, uninterested in troop placement or talk of what the enemy might do because he knows such planning is useless. This philosophy of war is developed mainly through Prince Andrei Bolkonsky's eyes. At the battle of Schon Graben, Andrei witnesses how one person—the artillery man Captain Tushin—saves the army with his energy and spirit. Through his later experiences, Andrei develops this notion more fully, and he offers Pierre his theory of battle on the eve of the battle of Borodino:
Success never has and never will depend on position, or equipment, or even on numbers-least of all on position…. A battle is won by the side that has firmly resolved to win. Why did we lose the battle of Austerlitz? The number of French casualties was almost equal to ours, but very early in the day we said to ourselves that we were losing the battle, and we did lose it. And we said so because we had nothing to fight for then: we wanted to get away from the battlefield as soon as we could.
With this philosophy, Tolstoy not only denies Napoleon Bonaparte's battlefield genius but also suggests that Napoleon's planning was a hindrance, not a help. The message is clear: leaders who try to control the chaos of war are fated to fail. Battles are won by what Tolstoy calls the spirit of the army, not by generals trying to plan that which cannot be planned. This is the secret that Kutuzov knows and that Andrei learns. It is also one reason why a smaller Russian army is ultimately able to repel Napoleon's gigantic invading force.
Heroes and Leaders
Tolstoy also depicts the difficulties faced by those far from the battlefield when they try to understand what happens in war. Specifically, he contrasts the reality of war with the way it is reported in Petersburg or Moscow. For example, despite the defeat at Austerlitz, General Bagration—the general at the front during Austerlitz—is welcomed home as a hero. He is treated to a high-society dinner complete with empty phrases, witty quips, and bad poetry, merely because the Russian people need a military hero to soothe the wound of Austerlitz. Bagration's role in the battle was dubious at best. He refused to attack and, in fact, made sure that he would get no orders to do so. But in Petersburg, he is welcomed as a hero. A similar story is told about Lieutenant Berg. Berg received a minor hand wound at Austerlitz and, out of necessity, switched his sword to his other hand to fight. By the time it reaches Russia, this story has grown into a tall tale of Berg's heroics. A simple act performed out of necessity and to no obvious effect is treated as a tremendous act of courage for which Berg is lavishly praised.
In contrast to these alleged heroics, Russian high society has little good to say about Kutuzov, the man who ultimately saves Russia in War and Peace. The emperor himself dislikes Kutuzov, an opinion echoed by Prince Vasili Kuragin before Kutuzov is again appointed commander-in-chief:
How could they possibly appoint a man commander-in-chief who cannot sit a horse, who drops asleep at a council—a man, too, of the lowest morals!… I don't speak of his capacity as a general, but at a time like this how could we nominate a decrepit, blind old man, yes, positively blind? A fine idea to have a blind general!
Comically—and with the hypocrisy typical of Petersburg's society set—Prince Vasili offers the opposite position days later, after Kutuzov has been confirmed as commander-in-chief. Petersburg's social elite are even more dismissive of Kutuzov after he abandons Moscow to the French, unaware that the French army has been "mortally wounded" at Borodino. Tolstoy seems to be suggesting that those at the greatest remove from war are often the quickest to offer opinions about its progress and conduct, even though they know little about it. Tolstoy clearly would have agreed with American politician Hiram W. Johnson's statement that "the first casualty when war comes is truth." In fact, Tolstoy's work anticipates this claim.
Historians and War
Tolstoy is critical of the historians who wrote about the Napoleonic Wars, believing that their distance from the war—in terms of both time and physical space—impaired their ability to see the truth of it. In his essay "Truth and Lies in Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace," critic Fraser Bell reports that Tolstoy visited the tomb of Napoleon in 1857 and was infuriated to find that Moscow was listed as one of Napoleon's great victories. For Tolstoy, the battle for Moscow was the fatal blow to Napoleon's army. Though Moscow fell to Napoleon, this "victory" ultimately brought about his defeat. One of Tolstoy's aims in War and Peace is to refute nearly all of his period's commonly held opinions about Napoleon and the invasion of Russia.
He goes even further than this, however. He analyzes why historians interpret events incorrectly, and more generally, he explores why they are wrong to believe that wars turn on the decisions of so-called great men. According to Tolstoy, history is like a military battle, for its outcome flows from the combined efforts of everyone involved, not just a few decision-makers in high places. Tolstoy is angered by historians' tendency to explain sweeping events with simple causes, such as the choices made by leaders. Through battle scenes and analysis, he shows why he believes the historians are wrong, about both war and Napoleon.
Success in War and Happiness in Peacetime
Ultimately, Tolstoy ties war and peace together via his ideas about heroism and history. Perhaps surprisingly, Tolstoy sees important similarities between these very different states of affairs. Generals plot and maneuver to no avail because battles refuse to follow a preconceived plan, and people in society—especially the members of the social elite—do the same in peacetime. The farther a general is from a battle, the less he understands it. The more he tries to control the uncontrollable, the less success he will have.
Similarly, a person who is removed from a natural and simple life uncorrupted by high society has difficulty understanding life and finding happiness. The more one tries to control life, Tolstoy believes, the more unhappy one will become. Happiness is only attainable when reason is subdued, and one lives immediately and is open to every possibility. Pierre spends the novel searching for meaning in life. It is no accident that he survives the brutality of war and learns how to be happy from Platon Karatayev, a simple peasant who lives in the moment, at peace with himself and the world. As odd as it may sound, Pierre's war experiences are ultimately a source of inner peace.
Nobles and Serfs
In the first half of the nineteenth century, Russian society operated according to an economic system called feudalism. In feudal society, a small number of landowners, or nobility, were granted estates in return for military or state service. Serfs, or agricultural workers, were bound to the estate and included in these grants. Serfs could be bought and sold and were effectively owned by the nobles. In turn, landowners were obliged to provide basic support to the serfs in exchange for their labor. As a result of this system, a relatively small number of people lived in extravagant wealth while most Russians worked as farm laborers or servants.
Much of War and Peace takes place among the nobility, on their landed estates or in their homes and salons in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Some liberal-minded landowners in the novel, such as Prince Andrei and Count Bezuhov, attempt to improve the lives of their serfs. When the French invade Russia, though, the nobility of Moscow pledge to send a percentage of their serfs to serve in the army. War—specifically, the approach of the French army—also leads to a small rebellion among serfs who refuse to leave the land with Princess Maria. Serfdom was a major source of political turmoil in Russia, and it led to a variety of revolutionary activities. In 1861, two years before Tolstoy began writing War and Peace, Tsar Alexander II abolished the feudal system, freeing the serfs and changing the way land and labor were organized.
The Napoleonic Wars
At the turn of the nineteenth century, the ruling houses of Europe found themselves filled with uncertainty concerning Napoleon Bonaparte of France. As a general in the French army, Napoleon had overthrown the French government in 1799 and established himself as ruler, or first consul. In 1804, the year before the events of War and Peace begin, he declared France an empire and named himself emperor. Napoleon had risen to power in the wake of the French Revolution of 1789, which had ended with the execution of King Louis XVI in 1793 and the subsequent Reign of Terror. During this period, thousands were executed, especially nobles and landowners. These events terrified the nobility of Europe, who feared similar uprisings could occur in their own countries.
Napoleon supported many ideals of the French Revolution, including freedom of religion, universal access to education, and constitutional rule. As a result, many liberals, even among the nobility, supported his rule. At the start of War and Peace, Pierre Bezuhov argues in favor of Napoleon, and Prince Andrei considers Napoleon to be a hero. By 1809, Napoleon ruled nearly all of Europe, though England and Russia were major exceptions. Then in 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia with an army of more than half a million soldiers. This invasion and its subsequent failure are depicted in War and Peace. Over the course of the novel, Tolstoy suggests that Napoleon was neither a military genius nor a humane ruler. Napoleon's failed invasion of Russia cost an estimated three hundred thousand French soldiers their lives and led to his exile on the island of Elba.
Age of Unrest
By the time Tolstoy began writing War and Peace, the military events depicted in the novel were fifty years in the past. Those fifty years had been turbulent ones in Russia. Upon the death of Tsar Alexander I in 1825, a group of military officers tried to prevent his brother Nicholas I from taking the throne. They wanted to install a constitutional monarchy to replace the absolute monarchy of the Romanov family, and they wanted Alexander's other brother, Constantine, to rule. This revolt, later referred to as the Decembrist's Rebellion, was violently crushed, though the group's efforts inspired later revolutionary movements in Russia. Before starting War and Peace, Tolstoy had planned to write a long novel about the Decembrists.
In 1848, a series of nationalistic revolts swept across Europe. Fearing further instability, Tsar Nicholas I created a state security police force in Russia. Political debate was stifled and literature was censored before publication, but the unrest continued. Tolstoy's contemporary, novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, was arrested in 1849 for belonging to a socialist group. He was imprisoned for five years and later forced to serve in the army in Siberia. As Tolstoy was writing and publishing War and Peace, some of Dostoyevsky's most notable work was also appearing, books such as Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Idiot (1868). Dostoyevsky even depicted the revolutionary fervor of this period in his novel The Possessed (1871–72).
Censorship was not a major problem for Tolstoy, however. He was generally conservative, a member of the nobility, a well-to-do landowner, and a Russian patriot. He disagreed with the revolutionary spirit of writers like Dostoyevsky, though he believed in educating and providing for the serfs. When the tsar died in 1855—just as Tolstoy was making his name as a writer—censorship eased somewhat and longer works were allowed to appear without government approval. Literature thrived, primarily in the so-called fat journals. These were lengthy periodicals focusing on politics and literature that regularly published lengthy works in serialized form. The early books of War and Peace were published in this kind of journal.
Few books can claim the critical heritage of War and Peace. As critic Harold Bloom writes in the introduction to Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace,
The representation of persons in War and Peace has the authority and the mastery of what we are compelled to call the real that Tolstoy shares with only a few: Homer, the Bible, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, perhaps Proust.
The first volumes of the book appeared in 1865 and 1866 in the Russian Messenger, a literary journal. Although the book was an instant success with the Russian public, critics offered mixed reviews. One reason for their response was the critical atmosphere of the time. Russian writers and critics tended to fall into two camps: one group felt that literature should be instructive and focused on society, while the other group sought pure artistic quality. Tolstoy, always the independent thinker, managed to anger or disappoint both groups. As Tolstoy scholar A. V. Knowles notes in Leo Tolstoy: The Critical Heritage, "The political views of the critics were taking increasing precedence at this time over their literary judgments."
Knowles goes on to note that readers interpreted War and Peace in a variety of ways. Conservatives criticized Tolstoy for portraying the upper class as empty and superficial. Radicals criticized his portrayal of estate owners as benign rather than oppressive. Some veterans of the 1812 campaign complained that Tolstoy misinterpreted military history, while others thought his view to be perfectly accurate. The extensive use of French in the book complicated matters further, because French was the language often used in Russian high society. In the first edition of War and Peace, large chunks of dialogue appeared in French and were translated into Russian in the footnotes. Many felt this form to be an unnecessary irritant and, in later versions, the French was removed.
Another complaint leveled at War and Peace takes Tolstoy to task for his so-called fatalism. Fatalism is the idea that events are destined to reach predetermined outcomes, regardless of individual choices. Tolstoy is similarly accused of determinism, which is the idea that all events are caused by previous events; on this view, individual choices cannot affect anything because they cannot counteract those earlier events. Critic Edward Wasiolek notes in his essay "War and Peace: The Theoretical Chapters" that "the word 'fatalism' used to describe Tolstoy's theory of history has not left the lips of critics from the time of publication until today." In particular, this complaint is directed at the book's second epilogue, in which Tolstoy analyzes free will.
However, the book's size and form raised the biggest question for critics of War and Peace. Knowles writes: "'What is War and Peace?' became as much a 'question of the day' as the position of the peasantry, the reorganization of local government, the reforms of the legal system and the place of women in society." Was it a novel, a history, a prose epic, or a philosophical work? What exactly was it? Many saw it as a formless mass, lacking artistic unity, yet many people saw the greatness of the book right away. Novelist Ivan Turgenev admired the work, and critic Nikolai Strakhov wrote three favorable essays about it. The work certainly restored Tolstoy's reputation as an important voice in Russian literature.
War and Peace was first translated into English in 1886, but it only gained a wide English-speaking audience in the early twentieth century. Writers such as Ernest Hemingway, E. M. Forester, and Virginia Woolf commented on the greatness of the work. Since then, its reputation has continued to grow. In Tolstoy: A Biography, A. N. Wilson points out that the novel even had the distinction of transcending the difficult and oppressive atmosphere of the Soviet Union in the 1930s: "Stalin would not allow it to be suppressed. As the Bolshevik paradise unfolded, and many literary reputations (notably Dostoyevsky's) went underground, Tolstoy mysteriously survived." Further, Wilson reports that when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had sections of War and Peace reprinted and posted publicly. So, in what may be the ultimate irony of the book's history, the great pacifist Tolstoy was once used as wartime propaganda.
In the following excerpt, Boyagoda traces the spiritual development of Prince Andrey Bolkonsky, showing how experience in war leads Andrey from a position of skepticism to one of faith and suggesting that such personal stories should not be forgotten among the pain of war.
Soldiering to Damascus
No character in War and Peace endures as painful a series of tribulations as does Prince Andrey Bolkonsky; scarred by the horrors of the Battle of Austerlitz, he returns home just in time to see his wife die in childbirth. After losing his new fiancee, Natasha, to a married man and desperate for distraction and, perhaps, vengeance, he chooses military duty once more. While in service, his father dies and his home is plundered. Thereafter, he is wounded at the Battle of Borodino and hovers upon the brink of death. Not surprisingly, another character sees in Prince Andrey's experience a far wider significance: "'To think what we have been brought to!' Kutuzov cried suddenly, in a voice full of feeling, Prince Andrey's story evidently bringing vividly before him the position of Russia." What we are brought to, vividly, by Tolstoy's brutally balanced development of this character, is the knowledge that we cannot focus solely upon one source of difficulties in anyone's life, no matter how tempting or justified this may be.
Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev wrote an opera based on War and Peace, which debuted in 1946 and was revised by the composer in 1952. One popular version, conducted by Richard Hickox, is available as a box set on CD from the Chandos label.
In the 1960s, Russian Sergei Bondarchuk directed a nine-hour film of War and Peace in which he also plays the role of Pierre. The film was released in four parts from 1965 to 1967. An edited version of this epic production won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1968. It is available on DVD from Ruscico, the Russian Cinema Council.
In 1973–74, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) produced a television miniseries of War and Peace starring Anthony Hopkins as Pierre. It is available on six videocassettes from BBC Studio.
In 1996, Britain's Royal National Theatre staged Helen Edmundson's dramatic adaptation of War and Peace. Edmundson's adaptation was published that same year by Nick Hern Books, London.
Andrey's development from seeing that war "was all so strange, so unlike what he had been hoping for" after Austerlitz to meditating upon "that strange lightness of being" as he nears death, depends upon the joining of his private life with his military exploits. In the most charged moments, Tolstoy proves this connection to be natural and necessary for redemption. Thus when he lies among the many other wounded of Barodino, Andrey feels a sudden surge of feeling for the man being operated upon next to him: "Hearing his moans, Prince Andrey wanted to cry. Either because he was dying thus without glory, or because he was sorry to part with life, or from these memories of a childhood that could never return, or because he was in pain, or because others were suffering, and that man was moaning so piteously, he longed to weep childlike, good, almost happy, tears."
There are multiple reasons besides his physical pain contributing to Andrey's longing to connect with the man lying beside him. With a series of catalysts generating Andrey's answer to a fellow man's hurt, Tolstoy forces us to complicate our understanding of wartime pain; to see it as only inflicted upon the battlefield is to substitute a soldier for a full human being.
Military ambition, childhood remembrance, and existential despair intensify when Andrey realizes that the man for whom his heart is breaking is Anatole Kuragin, the man who has stolen away Natasha and thus is responsible for his own recent heartbreak. Suddenly and unavoidably, two worlds collide. This is more than an instance of the nineteenth-century novel's reliance upon unanticipated coincidences for easy melodrama; Tolstoy here reveals how antagonisms can lead to religious insight. After his initial shock, instead of resorting to bitterness or even taking perverse pleasure in watching the man who stole his Natasha bloodily beg for water, Andrey has his Damascus moment: "Prince Andrey remembered everything, and a passionate pity and love for that suffering man filled his happy heart … 'Sympathy, love for our brothers, for those who love us, love for those who hate us, love for enemies; yes, the love that God preached upon earth.'"
Andrey's varied experiences leading up to this moment directly correlate to his own gadfly-like ability to turn from one interest to the next, evident throughout the novel. He is always, as A.V. Knowles observes, "enraptured by his latest passion and [giving] himself over to it in his customary way." If this is simply the way Andrey lives his life, why, then, is there a greater permanence in his moment of religious insight, especially in light of its odd combination of provocations? In his Essays in Criticism, Matthew Arnold offered a moving explanation of Tolstoy's grasp of how religious conversion operates and draws our attention to the qualities that ensure in Andrey's case a lasting effect:
Count Tolstoi sees rightly that whatever the propertied and satisfied classes may think, the world, ever since Jesus Christ came, is judged; "a new earth" is in prospect … And the ideal in prospect has to be realized. "If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them." But they are to be done through a great and wide-spread and long-continued change, and a change of the inner man to begin with. The most important and fruitful utterances of Jesus, therefore, are not things which can be drawn up as a table of stiff and stark external commands, but the things which have most soul in them; because they can best sink down into our soul, work there, set up an influence, form habits of conduct, and prepare the future.
His heart breaking forth with love in the face of his fellow man's suffering, Andrey is far removed from the atheist who had politely allowed his sister to affix a silver cross around his neck prior to his going to war; this development has taken a great deal of time and a series of harrowing events to transpire. Moreover, Andrey is moved by what Arnold persuasively describes as those commands of Christ that "have most soul in them," specifically, as he stares at Anatole, a total love for one's brother as oneself.
Thus Andrey's revelation at Borodino prepares the way for the future, as Arnold observes. While nursed by his former love Natasha, he make amends with her that in turn lead him to make a strange and ultimately unfulfilled promise: "if he were to live he should thank God for ever for his wound, which had brought them together again." A battle involving the slaughter of thousands seems an altogether wrong phenomenon for which to give thanks and yet, recalling Levin's comments from Anna Karenina and according to a Christian worldview, Andrey is here presenting his suffering as positive because it allowed him to gain deeper insight into the meaning and value of life. When we think of war only in terms of the tens of thousands caught up by it as a means of underlining its horror, we inadvertently ignore the specific individuals involved who, as is the case with Andrey, can be paradoxically saved through their experience of it. Andrey's gratitude to God for his wound matches the author's sense of the relationship between war, suffering, and personal revelation.
In Tolstoy's Art and Thought, Donna Orwin proposes an ethical achievement where some may see folly: "Tolstoy did more in War and Peace, however, than demonstrate the place of destruction in the cycle of life. He argued that death and even war are good, because without them there would be no morality. This is essential to the success of Tolstoy's whole endeavor." This large-scale success depends upon the personal. We understand the totality of Andrey's life set against the totality of the world's relations—a difficult balance to maintain in a war setting, where it is always easier to focus solely on the person to the exclusion of the world swirling about him, or oppositely.
Source: Randy Boyagoda, "Finding Faith in War and Peace," in World and I, Vol. 19, No. 5, May 2004, p. 288.
W. Gareth Jones
In the following excerpt, Jones explains that War and Peace shows that soldiers do not exaggerate war time exploits merely out of self-aggrandizement but because their audience expect them to and that such tales often serve a larger purpose.
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Source: W. Gareth Jones, "A Man Speaking to Men: The Narratives of War and Peace," in Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace," edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1988, pp. 65-86.
Bell, Fraser, "Truth and Lies in Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace," in Queens Quarterly, Vol. 109, No. 2, Summer 2002, p. 221.
Bloom, Harold, ed., Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, Chelsea House Publishers, 1988, p. 2.
Knowles, A. V., ed., Leo Tolstoy: The Critical Heritage, Routledge, 1997, p. 21.
Tolstoy, Leo, War and Peace, translated by Rosemary Edmonds, 1957, revised in 1978, Penguin Books, 1982.
Wasiolek, Edward, "War and Peace: The Theoretical Chapters," in Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1988, p. 91; originally published as "War and Peace" in Tolstoy's Major Fiction, University of Chicago Press, 1978.
Wilson, A. N., Tolstoy: A Biography W. W. Norton, 2001, pp. 234-35.
War and Peace
War and Peace
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) is arguably the world’s greatest epic novel. Written and published in the monthly Russkij Vestnik from 1863 to 1869, the work depicts the years leading up to and including Russia’s wars with Napoleon from 1805 to 1812. The novel immortalizes the quiet heroism and spiritual strength of the Russian people in a time of national crisis and historical transition. War and Peace began as a social novel called The Decembrists about a Russian Decembrist returning from Siberian exile in the 1850s. As Tolstoy worked he realized that in order to describe his hero he would first need to understand his formative years during the Napoleonic wars. A lasting trace of this original conception is the character of Pierre Bezukhov, the hero of the original novel (named Pyotr Labazov) and a main protagonist in War and Peace. What began as a contemporary social study grew into a vast, vivid tableau of early-nineteenth-century Russian life that goes beyond historical fact to capture the emotional, psychological, and moral fabric of the time.
War and Peace reflects the deep imprint of French culture on nineteenth-century Russian life, not least in the aristocratic characters’ frequent use of French. And yet just as the vast Russian countryside in the novel engulfs the invading French army, so Tolstoy’s massive literary landscape assimilates French and other cultural influences into a synthetic creation that encompasses all of life.
In War and Peace characters are born, they marry, they decay, and they die. These events occur on a clock that ticks on with slow, implacable calm. This has led some readers to sense in the novel a spirit of fatalism. But War and Peace is also a freshly inspiring vision of the world’s physical plenitude and of the meaningful moral choices it offers. Many of the novel’s greatest scenes, such as Natasha Rostova’s first ball, the Rostovs’ wolf hunt, and Prince Andrei’s vision of the “lofty infinite sky” as he lay wounded on the battlefield at Austerlitz, are among the most enthralling moments in world literature.
Almost all of the main protagonists in War and Peace find happiness in a balanced, mature view of the world as a place where joy and tragedy, moral choice and providential design, are present in equal measure. These characters discover that their individual lives are both finite and full of possibility, both solitary and also part of an organic tapestry of human evolution and history. Only Prince Andrei is unable to reconcile his noble ideals with reality. He is the novel’s one tragic hero.
If there is an overt ideological thesis in War and Peace, it is that great men do not move history but are its slaves and that free will is an illusion, albeit a necessary one to help us get through everyday life. Tolstoy takes particular aim at Napoleon, who arrogantly believes that he shapes events; at historians who accept the great man theory of historical evolution; and at all manner of strategists, military and otherwise, who believe that rational planning affects the outcome of events.
In Tolstoy’s novel those characters who live spontaneously are wise and productive because they are in sync with the forces of history and nature. Kutuzov defeats Napoleon not because of strategic planning (he sleeps before the Battle of Austerlitz while his military strategists quibble) but because he instinctively senses the inevitable course of events. Pierre grows wise and finds happiness after he gives up his Utopian schemes and accepts the world in its beautiful unpredictability.
Tolstoy’s initial work on The Decembrists and the early drafts of War and Peace occurred when he was growing concerned about the impending Great Reforms of Alexander II, begun in 1861. Tolstoy, an aristocrat, believed that the centuries-old system of aristocratic privilege and serfdom, while imperfect, was superior to the chaos—political, social, and spiritual—that the reforms would unleash. Tolstoy’s social conservatism is evident in the work’s idealized depiction of the landlord–peasant relationship at the beginning of the century. According to prominent Soviet scholar Viktor Shklovsky, Tolstoy distorts historical facts to further his ideological agenda. A prominent example of this described by Shklovsky is the author’s suppression of the real reason that Princess Marya’s peasants at Bogucharovo rebel in book three, part two, when she offers to take them with her to Bald Hills: because they believed that, by staying at Bogucharovo, they would be freed by Napoleon. Rather, Tolstoy’s portrayal of the peasants gives the impression that their uprising was a senseless, isolated event, motivated by their eccentricity instead of their deep-seated dissatisfaction with the social status quo.
Although Shklovsky and some other scholars rightly discover strains of social conservatism in the novel, they reduce the great epic to a web of self-serving artistic illusions. A more likely source of Tolstoy’s idealized portrayal of the peasant–landlord relationship is the author’s lifelong attraction to the ideals of national unity, social harmony, and universal fellowship of human beings. We may read War and Peace as Tolstoy’s heroic attempt to create for his discordant Russian society of the 1860s a mythical past in which Russians were secure in their collective identity and unified in their response to a national crisis.
When it first appeared, War and Peace was a radical departure from the traditional form of the European novel. The work combines elements of the psychological novel, historical novel, family chronicle, epic, and Bildungsroman. It has astonished and confounded readers with its deluge of detail, its vast array of characters who seem to appear and disappear at random, and its inclusion of historico-philosophical essays throughout. Scholars differ about whether the work’s idiosyncratic form was intended or “a splendid accident,” as American writer and critic Henry James called it. Twentieth-century scholars suggest that the novel’s unconventional form intends to show that real life, like history, does not unfold in neat, narrative patterns. Other scholars argue that despite its strangeness the work contains concealed artistic patterns and unifying aesthetic principles.
Despite its sprawling canvas (approximately 365 chapters, or 1,500 pages in the original publication), War and Peace focuses the reader’s deepest sympathies on Pierre Bezukhov and the novel’s other four main aristocratic protagonists: Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, Nikolai Rostov, Natasha Rostova, and Princess Marya Bolkonskaya. Tolstoy presents their journeys with extraordinary lifelike realism, and he describes how their personal destinies become intertwined with the encroaching forces of war and history.
So interconnected do the “peace” and “war” sections of the novel become that it appears virtually impossible to disentangle them. Power politics, schemes, and stratagems are as present in the St. Petersburg drawing rooms as on the battlefield, and characters are as apt to achieve spiritual illumination in the throes of war as in the joys of family life. The “peace” of the novel’s title refers not only to peacetime but also to the spiritual tranquility characters seek amid the confusion of modern life.
War and Peace has inspired generations of Russian writers and artists, who have tried to recreate Tolstoy’s expansive vision and have regarded Tolstoy’s masterpiece as a model for recording the unique destiny of the Russian people. Among the works that War and Peace has influenced are Mikhail Sholokhov’s novel The Quiet Don (1928–1940), Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (1957), and Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (1959). Sergei Prokofiev’s operatic version of War and Peace, a masterpiece in its own right, beautifully transports to the stage the deep patriotic currents of Tolstoy’s novel, as well as the majestic calm of Tolstoy’s omniscient narrative voice. Tolstoy’s novel remains required reading in Russian schools, and ordinary Russians frequently can recite by heart passages from their adored classic. Even Joseph Stalin, infamous for his ability to harness the power of art for political purposes, recognized the potency of War and Peace when he ordered the book to be included in a propaganda series called “Books for Victory” during World War II (1939–1945).
SEE ALSO Aristocracy; Conservatism; Feudalism; Landlords; Monarchism; Napoléon Bonaparte; Naturalism; Peace; Peasantry; Planning; Stability, Political; Stalin, Joseph; Utopianism; War
Berlin, Isaiah.  1993. The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.
Christian, R. F. 1962. Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”: A Study. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Clay, George R. 1998. Tolstoy’s Phoenix: From Method to Meaning in War and Peace. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
Eikhembaum, Boris. 1982. Tolstoi in the Sixties. Trans. Duffield White. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis.
Feuer, Kathryn B. 1996. Tolstoy and the Genesis of War and Peace, eds. Robin Feuer Miller and Donna Tussing Orwin. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Morson, Gary Saul. 1987. Hidden in Plain View: Narrative and Creative Potentials in “War and Peace”. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Shklovsky, Viktor. 1996. Lev Tolstoy. C.I.S.: Raduga Publisher.
Tolstoy, Leo. [1863–1869] 1996. War and Peace. Trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude. Ed. George Gibian. New York: Norton.
Andrew D. Kaufman
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Introduction to War and Peace …119
Women Carrying Peace Banner … 120
No-Conscription League Manifesto … 122
Emma Goldman, 1917
The Bonus Army … 124
Norwegian Anti-Nazi Protest … 126
Promoting the Maintenance of International Peace and Security in Southeast Asia … 132
Lyndon B. Johnson and U.S. Congress, 1964
Counterprotesters Heckle Anti-War Demonstrators … 135
The Associated Press, 1965
Fortunate Son … 138
John Fogarty, 1969
Draft Card Burning Protest … 140
The Great Silent Majority … 142
Richard M. Nixon, 1969
Kent State Shootings … 146
John Filo, 1970
Proclamation 4483 …150
Jimmy Carter, 1977
NATO London Declaration … 152
Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council, 1990
Major Combat Operations in Iraq Have Ended … 157
George W. Bush, 2003
No Military Recruiters in Public Schools, Scholarships for Education and Job Training …160
Todd Chretien, 2005
Praise Mingles with Anger as Hundreds Turn Out for Rally to Support Troops … 163
Elisabeth Goodridge, 2005
Cindy Sheehan Leads Protest Against the Iraq War … 165
Evan Sisley, 2005
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