Is there any significance to War and Peace?
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I think that you are probably going to have to give more detail in your question. From the most general point of view, I think that Tolstoy’s work is significant in that it represents the prototypical attempt to merge history and literature together. Tolstoy is as much artist as historian. There are only a handful of thinkers who are able to pull both off in a very significant manner and Tolstoy’s attempts with War and Peace put him in this category. Another reason why individuals make frequent mention of Tolstoy’s work is because it represents significant reading. Part of the lexicon or dialogue about “the great works of literature” revolves around those works that are universally recognized as “great works of literature.” Tolstoy’s work, rightly or wrongly, is placed in this category. People nearly across the world recognize its value. Many who extol its virtue have not even read it, yet are able to fully grasp its depth and intellectual prowess. When Woody Allen once remarked how he took a speed reading class and was successful in it when he realized that War and Peace was “something about Russia,” he spoke for many who simply recognize without much in way of question the significance of Tolstoy’s work. For these reasons, it is recognized as something that contains literary and historic merit.
The above post is correct that many people often speak of War and Peace without having read it, because of its sheer length. The reference to Woody Allen is significant as Allen produced and starred in a spoof of the novel entitled Love and Death. Tolstoy does in fact blend together great literature and a history of warfare, particularly the effect of that warfare on the individual. Tolstoy himself was a veteran of the Crimean War which is not often studied at length but was in itself a terrible war with tremendous loss of life both from battle and disease. One of his first famous works was a result of that experience: The Sevastopol Sketches.Literary critics have argued that it combines strong patriotism with an element of pacifism. The same might be said of War and Peace. It is a long (though not necessarily difficult) read; but at the end, one gets the message of the horrors of war and its effects on the individual.
I would say there is definitely significance in this great work from Tolstoy. Do not be put off by the way that it is regarded by contemporary culture today. The fact that it is still read and still set as a kind of literary milestone (in the same way that reading Ulysses by James Joyce is) indicates its importance and value. Tolstoy is an amazing writer and this book is certainly no exception.
One point of significance to War and Peace is Tolstoy's brilliant study of human nature as found in Russia in the 1800s, which is, by extension, a study of elements of universal human nature. Of course, one of the marks of great literature is that it reveals differences between cultures and individuals existing between eras that overlay the universal similarities equally revealed.
I'd like to offer a suggestion here that is similar to suggestions I've offered to similar questions about the relevance of literary works: The major relevance of a literary work depends on how well that work is written. Apparently Tolstoy's novel was so well written that for generations people around the world (but especially in Russia, sinces the Russians could appreciate the true power of its language) considered it very much worth reading. If it was artistically compelling then, there is a presumption that it can still be artistically compelling, although only time will tell.
Certainly the opening sentence of the novel is compelling and creates all kinds of curiosity about the speaker and situation and all sorts of suspense about the events described:
"Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes. But I warn you, if you don't tell me that this means war, if you still try to defend the infamies and horrors perpetrated by that Antichrist- I really believe he is Antichrist- I will have nothing more to do with you and you are no longer my friend, no longer my 'faithful slave,' as you call yourself! But how do you do? I see I have frightened you- sit down and tell me all the news."
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