War and Peace

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WAR AND PEACE, once read, impresses on the mind a vast tapestry, rich in color and variety that seems the very stuff of life; it shows not only relationships among people in society both in and out of family groups but also relationships between people and families and a nation’s destiny.

Eschewing the “great man” theory of history, Tolstoy shows how events are determined by large numbers of people whose actions coalesce at any moment in history to determine the course of events. Arguing that the closer people are to a situation the more they believe they have exercised free will, and the farther away people are from that situation the more they realize that their actions were already determined by past events, Tolstoy demonstrates the theory by means of the characters and actions of his immense novel.

True to the theory, WAR AND PEACE has no single protagonist. Rather, from among the more than five hundred and fifty characters, both real and imagined, several major families interact with one another: the Rostovs, the Bolkonskys, the Kuragins, the Drubetskoys, and Pierre Bezuhov, the natural son of a Russian nobleman. From among these families, a few male and female characters emerge who become focal points for the narrative: the men--Nikolay Rostov, Andrey Bolkonsky, Boris Drubetskoy, Anatole Kuragin--and the women--Natasha Rostova, Marya Bolkonskaya, and Helene Kuragin. If the reader must narrow the cast of characters even further, the two who stand at the very center from the beginning of the novel to its end are Pierre and Natasha, who after many tribulations are finally married at the novel’s conclusion. Other important characters are Kutuzov, the great Russian general who drives Napoleon (the French) out of Russia by understanding that he must allow events to happen as they will, and the Russian peasant, Platon Karatayev, who teaches Pierre much the same lesson.

As the title suggests, the novel is built upon a series of contrasts. Tolstoy balances nonmilitary actions with military actions even to the point of interweaving peaceful interludes during the time that all Russia is at war. Balanced also are alternations in mood: Rapture is balanced with despair, joy with care and trouble, and death with birth.

In the novel, Tolstoy makes the point that there can be no beginning to an event, for one event always flows without interruption out of another. Consequently, WAR AND PEACE begins in medias res and concludes with youthful dreams for the future.


Citati, Pietro. Tolstoy. Translated by Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Schocken Books, 1986. Gives a full explanation of Tolstoy’s youth and background that led to the writing of his novels. A huge section is devoted to War and Peace, with attention to the portrayal of historical Russia. Gives sketches of the major characters of the novel.

De Courcel, Martine. Tolstoy: The Ultimate Reconciliation. Translated by Peter Levi. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988. Explains the research Tolstoy did for writing the historical novel War and Peace and his marital situation at the time of writing it. A long and complete study of Tolstoy.

Noyes, George Rapall. Tolstoy. New York: Dover, 1968. Connects the many works of Tolstoy and refers to biographical information important to them. Draws heavily on Tolstoy’s published writings, diaries, and letters. Discusses the preparations for writing War and Peace.

Rowe, William W. Leo Tolstoy. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Gives background on the writing of War and Peace and includes a thorough discussion of the characters. Other chapters include biographical information and treatments of other novels and stories.

Simmons, Ernest J. Tolstoy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973. Focus is on Tolstoy as a major thinker of his time, a religious, social, and political reformer. Describes Tolstoy’s childhood and life as a writer. Explains the reception of War and Peace and early criticism. Includes notes from Tolstoy’s diary during the time he wrote War and Peace.

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