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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.
Tolstoyan Wisdom In War And Peace
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.
The Novel In An Age Of Social Unrest
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.
Form Of The Work
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).
- 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 Mea Press.
- Eikhembaum, Boris. 1982. Tolstoi in the Sixties. Trans. Duffie 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.
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