War and Peace Critical Overview
by Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download War and Peace Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Critical Overview

(Epics for Students)

Much of the earliest critical reaction to War and Peace focused on how well Tolstoy had accurately portrayed historical events in Russia. Although Tolstoy took great pains to research the historical documents, he did not feel obliged to stick firmly to the common historical interpretations. Still, since many critics had lived through the events described, while many others had grown up hearing about them, it was difficult for critics to not talk about how Tolstoy's version related to their own. In general, they found the novel to be quite accurate.

Some critics took exception with the way that Tolstoy had presented the military commanders as less instrumental in the outcome of the war. At the other extreme were those critics who faulted Tolstoy for failing to improve the social consciousness of the time. Edward Wasiolek explains that radical critic Dmitry Pisarev commented that the first half of the book, which was all that was published before his death, was "a nostalgic tribute to the gentry."

Wasiolek also relates the comments of N. K. Strakhov, whose criticism of the novel he describes as "the best criticism on War and Peace at the time, and possibly the best in Russian since." He credits Strakhov for his appreciation of the psychology of the novel and for recognizing the fact which is commonly accepted today, that Tolstoy's greatness was in being able to render a full character in just a few words. Strakhov appreciated the novel, but he could not fully account for its greatness: as he noted, "among all the various characters and events, we feel the presence of some kind of firm and unshakable principle on which the world of the novel maintains itself."

The ambiguity of that "firm and unshakable principle" was what earned the book a lukewarm reception when it was translated into English. Matthew Arnold, in his review for Fortnightly Review, noted that Tolstoy wrote about "life" but not "art." Perhaps the most lasting criticism by an English-speaking author was that of novelist Henry James. In his introduction to the book, The Tragic Muse, as in the introductions to most of his works, James considered philosophical matters of art. Considering Tolstoy and Alexandre Dumas, the French author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo , James wondered, "What do such large loose baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary, artistically mean?" He went on to assert that "there is life and life, and as waste is only life sacrificed and thereby...

(The entire section is 636 words.)