As a child, hearing a reference to Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” conjured an image in my mind of an insurmountable tomb of a book. The imposing title led me to believe it was a novel about all war and all peace – essentially the history of the world. And even after I learned the actual plot of the book, even after I read Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” I still balked at reading it, no doubt intimidated by its reputation and cultural weight. Imagine my surprise when I finally summoned the courage to read it and found myself immersed in a page-turning, boundary-pushing novel that absorbs and clings to the reader.
Written in the late 1860’s, “War and Peace” is a historical novel that tells the story of five aristocratic families in Russia – the Bezukhovs, the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs, the Kuragins and the Drubetskoys – during the Napoleonic Wars from 1805 to 1812. While not as intimidating as the entire history of the world, many readers will likely find this subject matter of epic war, family drama, and historical events fairly formidable. However, Tolstoy eases readers into this grand scope by placing peace before war, introducing his large cast – including Pierre Bezukhov, Andrei and Marya Bolkonsky and Natasha and Nikolai Rostov – in an intimate, domestic light.
To paint his characters in this light, Tolstoy uses an ingenious technique of repeatedly drawing attention to a character’s particular physical trait until merely mentioning it becomes shorthand for that character’s essence. Watch as Tolstoy acquaints the reader with Princess Lise, conveying much about her personality through the mere description of her lip:
“The young princess Bolkonsky came with handwork in a gold-embroidered velvet bag. Her pretty upper lip with its barely visible black mustache was too short for her teeth, but the more sweetly did it open and still more sweetly did it sometimes stretch and close on the lower one. As happens with perfectly attractive women, her flaw – a short lip and half-opened mouth – seemed her special, personal beauty… Anyone who talked with her and saw her bright little smile at every word and her gleaming white teeth, which showed constantly, thought himself especially amiable that day.”
Tolstoy paints his characters in quick and complete strokes so the reader can understand them fully: he need only note Princess Lise’s upper-lip, old Prince Andrei’s shrieking voice, or Princess Marya’s beautiful eyes for the reader to fully remember these characters, even more remarkable given that the scope of the story can separate readers from characters for a hundred pages.
The characters that fill “War and Peace” to the brim are hard not to love, despite their complex and often flawed nature. Tolstoy shows the beauty and darkness of humanity in equal measures and keeps it true to life, comfortable enough to leave behind familiar tropes of the steadfast, reliably moral hero or heroine. There is Pierre – idealistic and loving, but infuriatingly and harmfully naïve as he blunders his way through society, projecting on everyone the best of intentions. And what reader doesn’t admire Prince Andrei’s valor and strength on the battlefield yet find him unkind in his domestic situations? Tolstoy’s writing of women is also refreshingly insightful, without a hint of simplification or condescension: Natasha Rostov may be a bit silly and vain in society, yet she is filled with bravery and compassion when war asks it of her.
Once the reader is comfortable with these characters and their social dramas, Tolstoy returns to the first word of the title and opens up the novel to the war. He moves massive armies over vast spaces and places the characters at the scenes of famous historical moments, focusing on scenes of battle and pulling in real historical characters like Napoleon and his Russian counterpart Kutuzov. The shift never overwhelms a reader though, but draws them in: they want to see how the characters they have come to know and love will be affected by war. It also helps that these parts of the novels are fascinating and readable: Tolstoy brings historical events to life, making them immediate and full of action and suspense while threading it with the same life and atmosphere that fills the first parts of the book.
Like “Anna Karenina,” “War and Peace” is notable for its memorable, moving scenes. A reader won’t easily forget the costumed, nighttime sleigh ride of the Rostov children, or the passage in which Pierre, captured by the French and thrown in prison, hears in the darkness the voice of a fellow prisoner addressing him:
“’So you’ve seen a lot of misery, master? Eh?’ the little man suddenly said. And in the man’s melodious voice there was such an expression of tenderness and simplicity that Pierre wanted to reply, but his jaw trembled, and he felt tears rising. The little man, in that same second, not giving Pierre time to show his confusion, spoke in the same pleasant voice.
“’Ah, don’t grieve, little falcon,’ he said with that tenderly melodious gentleness with which old Russian women speak. ‘Don’t grieve, little friend: you suffer an hour, you live an age! So it is, my dear. And we live here, thank God, with no offense. There’s bad people, and there’s good,’ he said and, while speaking, shifted his weight to his knees in a supple movement, got up, and, clearing his throat, went somewhere.”
For all its merits, however, “War and Peace” is not without its challenges, the most obvious of which is its length of over 1,200 pages: a reader will need to devote a good two or three months to its completion. Additionally, many of the historical references will be unknown to most readers unless they are scholars of the Napoleonic wars, but most editions should have footnotes explaining their context, such as the 2008 translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
Perhaps the biggest obstacles readers will face, however, are the long sections of historical and philosophical analysis. Tolstoy conceived of his book as more than a novel: a combination of traditional story, historical fact, and philosophic argument, it contains passages where the narrator stops the forward movement of the plot to advance the argument that a single person cannot be responsible for important historical events.
“As long as histories of separate persons are written – be they Caesars, Alexanders, or Luthers and Voltaires – and not the history of all the people, all without a single exception, who participate in an event, it is absolutely impossible to describe the movement of mankind without the concept of a force that makes people direct their activity towards a single goal.”
These sections are interesting at first, as they serve to underline the plot themes and illuminate patterns in the characters’ thoughts and actions. However, they eventually grow maddeningly redundant and plodding, and readers are so eager to return to the story that they grow frustrated with this philosophizing.
In the end, however, despite these detractions, most will follow through to the last word. It would take a truly heartless reader to not want to see what will become of the characters they have grown to know as well as family members.