War and Peace is a story about how the lives of various members of the nobility change during the Napoleonic Wars. Pierre is the illegitimate child of a nobleman and considered vulgar when he first appears in society, whose life changes forever after the Emperor legitimizes him and he inherits one of the greatest fortunes in all of Russia. Helene, a beautiful and fashionable woman who lives mostly for her own pleasure, ensnares Pierre into a loveless marriage as she engages in many affairs with other men on the side. Throughout the novel Pierre struggles to find a deeper meaning and happiness to his life, joining the freemasons, and eventually attempting to assassinate Napoleon, believing it to be part of some greater destiny. Then there is Prince Andrew, the son of a once great general turned eccentric old man, whose world-weariness leads him to join the military. He, too, has an unhappy marriage and feels guilty when his wife dies during childbirth. The third main character is Natasha, a young romantic girl full of vitality, searching desperately for love and the happy family life in which she was raised. Her brother, Nicholas Rostov, is a young man of proud spirit who joins the military. At times, his pride gets him into trouble like when he gambles a large amount of money away right after his father told him the family is having money problems. There are so many interesting characters in Tolstoy’s wide and vast cast that it is impossible to talk about them all.
One of the primary goals of the novel is to question the Great Man Theory of History. Tolstoy challenges the idea that history should be seen as a series of great men causing important events. He extends this idea to military battles, suggesting that too many variables exist for strategic planning among the higher ranks or a single military genius like Napoleon to affect the final outcome, and what transpires is ultimately due to the decisions of the little guys, the commanders and fighters in the trenches. So according to Tolstoy, even if Napoleon was a military genius that isn’t really the reason his early campaigns proved successful. There are points in the narrative that Tolstoy goes further and suggests it isn’t a matter of the little guys in the trenches either, but present history unfolds because of the way the past happened.
“Every act of theirs, which appears to them an act of their own will, is in an historical sense involuntary and is related to the whole course of history and predestined from eternity (344).”
Tolstoy seems to be saying history is a product of multiple events of the past coming together so that the present cannot help but take a certain direction. This highly philosophical idea potentially calls into question freewill and implies our decisions are the product of previous historical occurrences. I am here right now because events before me transpired a certain way and those events happened because events before them happened a certain way, in an endless chain of cause and effect. This is hard to reconcile with other ideas in the novel, so it could be Tolstoy is implying that larger historical events unfolds this way, but in our personal individual lives there is room for us to make some choices and freewill. On the other hand, events in the novel such as an illegitimate child like Pierre inheriting a vast fortune, then being trapped into a loveless marriage, suggests that the choices in our personal lives too are controlled by outside forces and a series of causes-and-effects. As much as I loved the novel in certain parts, these meditations on history get to be a bit excessive and redundant.
War and Peace is much like Tolstoy’s later novel, Anna Karenina, in that the characters struggle to find happiness and purpose in their lives. The Napoleonic War serves as a wonderful backdrop to explore this question as many of the characters join the military in their quest for meaningful activity (glory or ambition or the transcendental joy of giving your life for a greater cause).
Pierre comes to see the hypocrisy of the world. People think his cheating wife is the height of wit and intelligence, despite the fact that she cares only about the beauty and pleasures of the body and is actually quite stupid. Most of the Free Masons and those who advocate for the Church are doing so for appearance’s sake rather than out of a genuine religious feeling and belief in the doctrines. Pierre comes to believe that supposed meaningful actions in life such as participation in government, military, women, and ambition are really just attempts at “seeking refuge from life (305).”
After a failed relationship with Natasha and the invasion of the French into Russia, Prince Andrew also reexamines what he once found meaningful in life.
“Glory, the good of society, love of a woman, the Fatherland itself—how important these pictures appeared to me, with what profound meaning they seemed to be filled! And it is all so simple, pale, and crude in the cold white light of this morning which I feel is dawning for me (438).”
Characters find happiness only when they transcend nationalism, choose to love all of humanity and find their soul mate. Pierre finds this with Natasha in the end, as does Princess Marie, Prince Andrew’s sister, with Nicholas Rostov. While Prince Andrew finds a deeper truth about life through his slow death after a battle injury.
“But not love which loves for something, for some quality, for some purpose, or for some reason, but the love which I—while dying—first experienced when I saw my enemy and yet loved him. I experienced that feeling of love which is the very essence of the soul and does not require an object. Now again I feel that bliss. To love one’s neighbors, to love one’s enemies, to love everything, to love G-d in all His manifestations. It is possible to love someone dear to you with human love, but an enemy can only be loved by divine love. That is why I experienced such joy when I felt that I loved that man (524).”
The characters find happiness only when they discover the deeper nature of the world’s interconnectedness. Pierre finds the deeper love in Natasha that he was missing in Helene and also ascertains the true nature of the Christian message, which comes back to the interconnectedness of all people and in taking “love thy enemy” literally. Only when he and Prince Andrew realize this do they no longer fear death. So is Tolstoy advocating Christianity?
The impression I get from War and Peace and Anna Karenina is that Tolstoy is critical of Christianity and other religions (such as freemasonry) that focus on ritual. He also is critical of mystical speculations, a perversion of religion that seeks only metaphysical secrets about the world with no goal to transform one’s own behavior and change the world for better; it is esoteric knowledge for the sake of esoteric knowledge. His Christianity seems centered on the idea of love and the interconnectedness of all men, great or small. When Pierre and Prince Andrew undergo these epiphanies, their entire behavior and attitude is transformed by the experience. Basically, Tolstoy wants us to take the ethical messages he finds in the Gospels quite seriously; stop focusing so much on the details of ritual and searching for secret truths hidden in the words, and start loving thy neighbor and thy enemy as thyself, only then can we be truly happy.
Tolstoy also envisages good relationships as a transformative experience on a person’s character and virtue. Pierre’s initial marriage to Helene is based on physical attraction, while Nicholas’s initial promise to marry Sonya and refusal to change his mind when it becomes inconvenient stems from his pride. Helene barely spends time with her husband, preferring the company of other men and the various social circles of society. Later, we see that Natasha’s entire life revolves around Pierre and her children, disconnecting from society and even disparaging it. We understand that Nicholas marries Princess Mary because he admires her deep spirituality and obvious kindness. In a sense, he realizes that she is a better person than him mostly due to his weakness of pride. However, through their relationship she helps him become a better man and overcome his pride. A true relationship isn’t about physical attraction, but an attraction between souls that improve one another by being together.