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.
(The entire section is 1172 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of War and Peace Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
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...
(The entire section is 2467 words.)
Book 1 Summary
War and Peace is a massive, sprawling novel that chronicles events in Russia during the Napoleonic Wars, when the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte conquered much of Europe during the first few years of the nineteenth century. Bonaparte unsuccessfully tried to expand his dominion into Russia, only to be turned back in 1812. The novel opens in July of 1805, with Russia allied with England, Austria, and Sweden to stave off Bonaparte's aggressive expansion.
A member of a dissolute, upper-class crowd, Pierre Bezukhov is a troublemaker who criticizes governmental policies. At night he frequents drunken card parties with a fast crowd, including Anatole Kuragin and Fedya Dolokhov, whom Tolstoy describes as "an officer and a desperado." Another member of the group, Prince Andrew, is a patriot who is determined to defend his country and aristocratic way of life. The novel soon introduces the Rostov family as they prepare a celebration for their youngest daughter, Natasha.
The illegitimate son of a well-known, wealthy aristocrat, Pierre's life changes when his father dies and recognizes him as his son. Therefore Pierre is heir to his large fortune. Prince Andrew leaves to fight in the war against the French, leaving his pregnant wife with his father and sister Mary. Natasha's brother, Nicholas, gets into trouble in the army for threatening a superior officer whom he has caught cheating; later, in battle, Nicholas runs away from...
(The entire section is 276 words.)
Book 2 Summary
Nicholas Rostov is in love with his cousin Sonya, and she loves him; unfortunately, the family needs him to marry somebody with money because their wealth is dwindling. Pierre, reacting to rumors about an affair between his wife and Dolokhov, challenges him to a duel. When Pierre wounds Dolokhov, he runs away, questioning his own morals, and in an inn he meets an old acquaintance who introduces him to the Freemasons, a secret society that does good deeds. Pierre becomes an enthusiastic member, separating from Helene and arranging to give away his belongings to help humanity.
Prince Andrew returns from the war on the same day that his wife dies giving birth to their son. Nicholas encourages Sonya to accept Dolokhov's marriage proposal, but she refuses. Soon after his father puts him on a budget of two thousand rubles, Nicholas gambles with Dolokhov and loses forty-three thousand rubles, which the family has to sell more property to pay. While Pierre is busy freeing his serfs from their commitment to him, in accordance with his new Masonic beliefs, Prince Andrew is setting up new economic policies that will allow them to be self-sustaining after they earn their freedom.
In 1808, a truce is called in the Napoleonic War. Prince Andrew becomes disheartened with the difficulties of dealing with the army bureaucracy and Pierre becomes disenchanted with being a Mason. In 1809, when Natasha is sixteen, Pierre falls in love with...
(The entire section is 379 words.)
Book 3 Summary
The war begins again in 1812, when the French army moves into Russia. The novel narrates Napoleon's thoughts and impressions of the campaign, and then switches to Tsar Alexander, going back and forth between them. During the fighting, Nicholas comes to realize that his earlier cowardice was just a normal reaction to war and he forgives himself. Recovering from her suicide attempt, Natasha starts to attend morning mass and gains peace and serenity. Her younger brother, Petya, joins the army, but cannot find a way to tell his family.
As the French army advances toward their estate in the country, Mary's father has a stroke. After he dies, Mary rides into the town nearby to prepare to evacuate her household servants. When she sees the peasants starving, she offers them all of the grain stored on the family estate, but they become suspicious and think it is some sort of trick to get them to leave their land. They are on the verge of rioting against her when Nicholas rides up, saves her, and falls in love with her.
People flee Moscow to avoid the oncoming French army. Pierre travels out to Borondino, which is the last place where the French can be stopped. Much of Part III is concerned with different views of the Battle of Borondino—from Napoleon, Andrew, Pierre, and Kutuzov.
After the Russian defeat, Moscow has to be evacuated. Natasha insists that the wagons taking her family's belongings need to be emptied in...
(The entire section is 355 words.)
Book 4 Summary
Pierre's wife dies while he is a prisoner of the French army. During a long march, Pierre becomes even more at peace with himself. He meets Platon Karataev, a peasant who owns nothing but has a joyful outlook, and decides to be more like him.
Mary finds out that her brother, Andrew, is still alive. She travels to where Natasha and her family are caring for him, and the two women take turns nursing him until he dies.
Kutuzov, the Russian general, is pressured to overtake the fleeing French and kill them, but he knows his army does not have the energy. Petya Rostov admires Dolokhov's daring when he accompanies him on a scouting party into the French camp. The next day, they attack the French: Pierre is freed when the French soldiers flee, but Petya is killed. As the French menace fades, Pierre rejoins the Rostov family and he and Natasha console each other over their grief: she has lost her brother, Petya, and her lover Andrew; he has lost many friends in the fighting. They fall in love.
Nicholas and Mary marry, as do Pierre and Natasha. They all live at Bald Hills, the estate left to Mary by her father. On December 6, 1820, Pierre arrives home from a trip to Moscow, where he has been meeting with a secret organization. Pierre and Nicholas disagree about a citizen's responsibility to the state, but everyone is happy living together— especially Andrew's son Nicholas, who idolizes...
(The entire section is 283 words.)