Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
War and Peace, arguably the greatest novel ever written, chronicles the alternating periods of war and peace in Russia during the first two decades of the nineteenth century. Tolstoy intended to write the story of a man returning home from exile in Siberia in 1856. The man had been a Decembrist, a member of an enlightened revolutionary movement seeking constitutional reform in Russia before czarist forces suppressed the movement in December, 1825. In order to understand his hero, Tolstoy decided that he first had to write about the man’s youth: thus, the story begins in July, 1805.
The reader first meets the unlikely hero, Pierre Bezukhov, at a soirée in St. Petersburg. He has just returned to live in Russia after studying abroad. Awkward, yet brash, his naïve idealism leads him into a political argument, during which he asserts his belief that Napoleon I is the “greatest man in the world.” After the soirée, Pierre retreats to the home of his old friend, Prince Andrew Bolkonsky, and the conversation about Napoleon continues.
Meanwhile, war talk is also in the air nearby in the Rostov household. The young son of Count Rostov, Nicholas, has decided to join the hussars, thus increasing the adoration of his cousin Sonia, who is in love with him. After a spat over Nicholas’s harmless flirtation with another girl, they kiss. Observing the scene is Nicholas’s impish thirteen-year-old sister, Natasha.
These early scenes of social frivolity and domestic happiness led Tolstoy in the early stages of composition to title his book, “All’s Well That Ends Well.” Once he reached the sections of the novel that deal with the ravages of the Napoleonic Wars, however, he became more philosophically introspective. Drawing on his own experiences during the Crimean War, Tolstoy shows how war in its wake sweeps aside individual aspirations, disturbs familial bonds, and changes the destiny of nations forever. No wonder, then, that an important theme of the novel is the search for meaning in lives whose order has been completely overturned because of war.
The novel centers on Pierre’s search. He is a good man who is still basically unformed. The fact that he was illegitimate underscores his uncertain sense of identity. His strength as a character is that he searches for his identity down several varied paths.
At the beginning of the novel, he explores the life of dissipation by allowing himself to fall into debauchery with wild companions. Next, he lives the life of the flesh by marrying the cold, beautiful Helene Kuragin. When she can do nothing to assuage his inner emptiness, a chance encounter with a Freemason attracts Pierre to this movement. Freemasonry, a mystical brotherhood based on the ritual and structure of medieval trade guilds, was popular in Russia at the time and appealed to intelligent men...
(The entire section is 1172 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
In 1805, it is evident to most well-informed Russians that war with Napoleon is inevitable. Austria and Russia join forces at the Battle of Austerlitz, where they are soundly defeated by the French. In the highest Russian society, however, life goes on as though nothing of tremendous import were impending. After all, it is really only by a political formality that Russia has joined with Austria. The fact that one day Napoleon might threaten the gates of Russia seems ridiculous. Soirees and balls are held, old women gossip, and young women fall in love. War, though inevitable, is being waged on foreign soil and is, therefore, of little importance.
The attraction that military service holds for the young noblemen of Russia is understandable enough, for the Russian army has always offered excellent opportunities for ambitious, politically inclined young men. The army provides a wholesome release for their energies. Young Nikolay Rostov, for example, joins the hussars simply because he feels drawn to that way of life. His family idolizes him because of his loyalty to the czar, because of his courage, and because he is so handsome in his uniform. Natasha, his sister, weeps over him, and Sonya, his cousin, promptly falls in love with him.
By contrast, Pierre Bezuhov, a friend of the Rostov family, is looked upon as somewhat of a boor. He has just returned from Paris, where he studied at the university, and he has not yet made up his mind what to do with his life. He will not join the army, for he sees no sense in a military career. His father gives him a liberal allowance, and he spends it frivolously at gambling. In truth, he seems like a lost man. He starts long arguments, shouting loudly in quiet drawing rooms, and then suddenly lapses into sullen silence. He is barely tolerated at soirees until his father dies and leaves him a fortune; then, suddenly, he becomes popular. He attributes his rise to some new personality development of his own, and he is no longer sullen; rather, he loves everyone, and it is quite clear that everyone loves him. His most dogged follower is Prince Vassily Kuragin, the father of a beautiful, unmarried daughter, Hélène, who is recognized everywhere as a prospective leader of St. Petersburg society. Pierre is forced into marrying her by the crafty prince, who knows a good catch when he sees one. The marriage, however, is not a success.
Pierre Bezuhov’s closest friend is Prince Andrey Bolkonsky, an arrogant, somewhat cynical man who despises his wife, Lise. The “Little Princess,” as Lise is called, is pregnant, but Prince Andrey can endure the bondage of domesticity no longer. When he receives a commission in the army, he leaves Lise at the family estate, Bleak Hills, in the care of his sister Marya and his tyrannical old father and goes off to war. During his absence, Princess Lise gives birth to a son but dies during childbirth. Prince Andrey returns after the Battle of Austerlitz to find himself free once more, but he enjoys no feeling of satisfaction in his freedom. He seeks out Pierre and turns to his friend for answers to some of the eternal questions of loneliness and despair that torture him.
Pierre has joined the brotherhood of freemasons and, through his association with the group, has arrived at a philosophy of life that he sincerely believes to be the only true philosophy. Had Pierre realized that the order initiated him solely because of his wealth, he would never have adopted the members’ ideals. Pierre restores some of Prince Andrey’s lost courage, however, by means of his wild if unreasoning enthusiasm. In the belief that he is now an unselfish, free individual, Pierre frees his peasants and sets about improving his estate; having absolutely no sense of business administration, he loses a great deal of money. Finally, with his affairs in hopeless disorder, he leaves an overseer in charge and retires to Bleak Hills and Prince Andrey’s sane company.
Nikolay Rostov is in the thick of the fighting. Napoleon overcame the Prussian forces at Jena and reached Berlin in October, 1806. The Russians once more go to the assistance of their neighbors, and the two opposing armies meet in a terrible battle at Eylau in February, 1807. In June, Nikolay enters the campaign at Friedland, and when the Russians are beaten, he naïvely thinks the war is over. Napoleon and Czar Alexander sign the Peace of Tilsit, and Napoleon, who possesses a remarkable gift for flattery, promises, with no intention of keeping his word, that Russia will be given a free hand with Turkey and Finland. For two years, Nikolay enjoys all the privileges of his post in the army without having to endure any of the risks. Napoleon has gone to Spain.
After having served in minor skirmishes as an adjutant under General Kutuzov, leader of the Russian forces, Prince Andrey returns to the country. He has some business affairs to straighten out with Count Rostov, marshal of his district, and so he goes to the Rostov estate at Otradnoe. There Andrey almost immediately falls under the spell of Count Rostov’s lovely young daughter, Natasha. He fancies himself in love as he has never loved before. Once again, he turns to Pierre for advice. Pierre, however, has experienced an unfortunate quarrel with his wife, Hélène. They are now separated, and Pierre has fought a senseless duel with an innocent man because he suspected his wife of being unfaithful. At the sight of Prince Andrey so hopelessly in love, Pierre’s great heart is touched. He has always been fond of Natasha, whom he has known since childhood, and the match seems to him ideal. With love once more flowing through his heart, he takes his wife back, feeling very virtuous at his own generosity, and he encourages Prince Andrey in his suit.
Natasha has ignored previous offers of marriage, but when the dashing and wealthy Prince Andrey comes on the scene, she loses her heart to him instantly. He asks her parents for her hand, and they immediately consent to the match, an excellent one from their point of view....
(The entire section is 2467 words.)