Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a panorama of Russian life in that active period of history known as the Napoleonic era. The structure of the novel indicates that Tolstoy was not concerned with plot, setting, or even individual people, as such; rather, his purpose was to show that the continuity of life in history is eternal. Each human life has its influence on history, and the developments of youth and age, and war and peace, are so interrelated that in the simplest patterns of social behavior vast implications are recognizable. Tolstoy wanted to present history as it is influenced by every conceivable human force. To do this, he needed to create not a series of simple, well-linked incidents but an evolution of events and personalities. Each character changes and affects others; these others influence yet others, and gradually, imperceptibly, the historical framework of the nation changes.
War and Peace is a moving record of historical progress, and the dual themes of this vast novel—age and youth, war and peace—are shown as simultaneous developments of history. Tolstoy wrote both this novel and Anna Karenina (1875-1877; English translation, 1886), two of the greatest works of fiction in Russian literature, when he was at the height of his powers as a writer. He enjoyed a happy marriage, and he was busy managing his country estate as well as writing. His life had a healthy, even exuberant, balance between physical and intellectual activities. War and Peace, in particular, reflects the passionate and wide-ranging tastes and energies of this period of his life—before domestic strife and profound spiritual conversion led him to turn away from the world as well as from art. The novel is huge in size and scope; it presents a long list of characters and covers a splendid variety of scenes and settings. At the same time, however, it is carefully organized and controlled.
The basic controlling device involves movement between clusters of characters surrounding the major characters Natasha, Kutuzov, Andrey, and Pierre. The second ordering device is thematic and involves Tolstoy’s lifelong investigation of the question, What is natural? This theme is offered in the first chapter at Anna Scherer’s party, where readers encounter the artificiality of St. Petersburg society and meet the two chief seekers of the natural, Andrey and Pierre. Both Andrey and Pierre love Natasha, who is an instinctive embodiment of the natural in particularly Russian terms. Kutuzov is also an embodiment of Russian naturalness; only he can lead the Russian soldiers in a successful war against the French. The Russian character of Tolstoy’s investigation of the natural, or the essential, is the main reason War and Peace is referred to as a national epic. Tolstoy’s characters, however, also represent all people.
Natasha’s group of characters centers on the Rostov family, and the novel is, among many things, a searching study of family life. Count Ilya Rostov, a landowning nobleman, is a sympathetic portrait of a carefree, warmhearted, wealthy man. His wife is somewhat anxious and less generous in spirit, but they are happily married, and the family as a whole is harmonious. Natasha’s brothers and sisters are rendered with great vividness: the passionate, energetic Nikolay; the cold, formal Vera; the youthful Petya; the sweet, compliant Sonya, cousin to Natasha and used by Tolstoy as a foil to her. Natasha herself is bursting with life. She is willful, passionate, proud, humorous, and capable of great growth and change. Like all the major characters, she seeks the natural. She is the natural; her instincts are right and true. All of book 7, particularly chapter 7, when she sings and dances, dramatizes the essential Russianness of Natasha’s nature. Her nearly consummated love affair with Anatole Kuragin, her loss of Andrey, and her final happy marriage to Pierre show how intensely life-giving she is. One of the great experiences of reading War and Peace is...
(The entire section is 1,485 words.)