War and Peace Themes
by Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download War and Peace Study Guide

Subscribe Now

War and Peace Themes

(Epics for Students)

Class Conflict
Although there is not much open conflict between members of the different classes of this novel, there is an underlying tension between them. Members of the older generation, such as Countess Rostova and Prince Nicholas Bolkonsky, verbally abuse the peasants who are under their command. In a patronizing manner, they openly discuss how lost the peasants would be without their guidance. At the same time, there are characters like Platon Karataev, a poor man who leads a simple and happy life.

The closest the novel comes to an open-class conflict is when Mary is confronted by peasants at Bogucharovo, near her family's estate, as she is planning to evacuate before the French arrive. Tolstoy is clear about the fact that they act, not out of resentment for the social privilege Mary has enjoyed at their expense, but because of their fear that they have no leader. They are starving but will not accept the grain that Mary offers them because they fear angering the French. The greatest danger that they pose to her is blocking her horse when she plans to leave. When Nicholas arrives, they automatically fall under his spell and comply with his demands without hesitation, apparently in recognition of his superior breeding and intelligence. He orders the leaders of the insurrection bound, and several men in the crowd offer their belts for that purpose. "How can one talk to the masters like that?" says a drunken peasant to his former leader as he is being led away. "What were you thinking of, you fool?"

Duty and Responsibility
The greatest motivation for the noble families in this novel is their duty to the serfs in their care. In other words, the upper classes believe that they have the responsibility to care for their serfs, looking after them as one would look after children. This assumption stems from the common perception that the serfs were not intelligent enough to survive without their help. To do this is an important part of the code of honor; any nobleman that violates this trust is recognized and punished by his peers.

In fact, this code of conduct controls almost every aspect of upper-class life. It dictates how a gentleman should act in any given situation; to deviate from it invited the censure of one's peers. After the drunken revelers at a poker party throw a policeman in the canal, the act is derided as improper for well-bred gentlemen:

And to think it is Count Vladomirovich Bezukhov's son who amuses himself in this sensible manner. And he was said to be so educated and clever. That is all that his foreign education has done for him.

Later, Bezukhov undergoes a series of transformations that raise his sense of social responsibility. He joins the Freemasons with the idea of working among society's elite to help the poor. He visits the army at the Battle of Borondino and tours the field; half-crazed, he decides he should get a gun and shoot Napoleon. In peacetime, he works with a secret organization to rearrange the social order and free the serfs from their oppression.

Art and Experience
Any historical novel such as War and Peace raises questions about the interplay between fiction and reality. The battle scenes in this novel are commended for their realism, but Tolstoy did not actually experience these battles; instead, they are drawn from his exhaustive research of the war against France and his own experiences in the Crimean War. At the end of the novel, Tolstoy dispenses of the fictional story altogether and talks directly to the reader about how historians impact history. Reality is too large and complex for humans to comprehend, Tolstoy contends, and so historians cannot cover all of the diverse aspects of historical events.

Success and Failure
A large part of what drives Tolstoy in the novel is his rejection of conventional historical perceptions of the war: Napoleon, who eventually lost in Russia, is viewed as a shrewd commander today, while the Russian commander, Kutuzov, is dismissed as a blunderer. As Tolstoy...

(The entire section is 1,340 words.)