War and Peace Summary
by Leo Tolstoy

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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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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...

(The entire section is 1,172 words.)