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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1172

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 such as Pierre, who were searching for the meaning of life. Pierre eventually becomes disillusioned with his fellow Freemasons’ shallow altruism.

As a last resort, he stumbles onto the battlefield of Borodino to see what war is like. Deeply upset by the carnage that he sees around him, Pierre resolves to assassinate its perpetrator, Napoleon. Believing that their destinies are linked, Pierre, in search of Napoleon, wanders around in Moscow, which is burning after the Russian army has abandoned it. Pierre is captured as an incendiary by the French, who now occupy Moscow. Spared from execution at the last moment, Pierre meditates on his fate in the company of other prisoners of war. He is particularly struck by the peasant Platon Karatáev, who is “the personification of everything Russian.” Karatáev intuitively seems to know the right way to live, and Pierre wants to learn from his example.

When Karatáev dies, Pierre has a vision of a globe whose surface consists of drops of liquid:God is in the midst, and each drop tries to expand so as to reflect Him to the greatest extent. And it grows, merges, disappears from the surface, sinks to the depths, and again emerges. There now, Karatáev has spread out and disappeared.

Pierre’s epiphany teaches him not to fear death: death is merely a reabsorption into the flow of life. Prince Andrew, mortally wounded at the battle of Borodino, discovers this same truth, unfortunately, on his deathbed:Everything is, everything exists, only because I love. Everything is united by it alone. Love is God, and to die means that I, a particle of love, shall return to the general and eternal source.

Besides their common philosophical beliefs, Pierre and Andrew are further linked by their relationship to Natasha, a character who intuitively experiences these notions of love. Both fall in love with her and propose marriage. Andrew and Natasha are ill suited to one another. Natasha, full of exuberant, youthful spontaneity, cannot endure the year’s postponement of their marriage that Prince Andrew requests in deference to his father’s wishes. They do reconcile briefly after Andrew is mortally wounded. Too late, Andrew learns to live by the heart rather than the head. His realization, “Death is an awakening,” can only remain an abstract thought, because he cannot experience it.

Pierre’s compassion saves Natasha from her grief following Prince Andrew’s death. They are the two characters, in particular, who have an inborn generosity and kindness of spirit. They have the capacity to forget themselves when others are in distress. At some risk to himself, Pierre saves the lives of several people during the burning of Moscow. Natasha throws the family’s possessions out of the moving carts in order to transport wounded soldiers to safety. Most important, though, Pierre and Natasha save each other by marrying. Natasha, whose emotional life has been undirected toward any goal, can now focus her energies on Pierre and their children. She devotes “her whole soul, her whole being” to them. Pierre, too, finds in his home a setting in which he can live his vision of the cosmic globe.

Tolstoy ends War and Peace by rising above the Bezukhov’s domestic scene and surveying the big picture. In the second epilogue, he asks such profound questions as the following: What does this all mean? Why did it happen? What force made people act so? He meditates on Napoleon’s power and how easily his soldiers transferred their power to him. Yet, Tolstoy reminds his readers, “A tsar is the slave of history.” What freedom therefore does any person possess in the face of such determinism? Tolstoy answers the question by saying that each person has two faculties: reason, which teaches humans the laws of inevitability, and consciousness, which makes them feel free. He goes on to say, “Only by uniting them do we get a clear conception of man’s life.” Natasha and Pierre both develop their sense of consciousness and, thus, experience freedom. The memorable moments in which they are the most free occur when they are the least aware of themselves. Their example, Tolstoy implies, demonstrates the right way to live.

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