After many brutal months slogging through the vast stretch of Russia during the Napoleonic age, trudging through endless tangents on the nature of history, while distressed by the sad fates of my companions, and overjoyed with the happier outcomes for some my other dear friends, I have finally conquered War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.
It is a story about how the lives of various members of the nobility change during the Napoleonic Wars. There is Pierre who is the illegitimate child of a nobleman and considered vulgar when he first appears in society, whose life changes forever after the Emperor legitimizes him and he inherits one of the greatest fortunes in all of Russia. Pierre marries into a loveless marriage with Helene, a beautiful and fashionable woman who lives mostly for her own pleasure, and has many affairs with other men. Throughout the novel he struggles to find a deeper meaning and happiness to his life, joining the freemasons, and eventually attempting to assassinate Napoleon, believing it to be part of some greater destiny. Then there is Prince Andrew, the son of a once great general turned eccentric old man, whose world-weariness leads him to join the military. He, too, has an unhappy marriage and feels guilty when his wife dies during childbirth. Then there is Natasha, a young romantic girl full of vitality, searching desperately for love and the happy family life in which she was raised. Her brother, Nicholas Rostov, is a young man of proud spirit who joins the military. At times, his pride gets him into trouble like when he gambles a large amount of money away right after his father told him the family is having money problems because his pride won’t let him withdraw from the game with a former friend turned enemy. There are too many other members of Tolstoy’s wide and vast cast to talk about them all.
One of the primary goals of the novel is to question the Great Man Theory of History. He challenges the idea that history should be seen as a series of great men and it moves primarily around their genius. However, his own ideas about history appear equally confusing. At times it seems Tolstoy is suggesting the events of history, especially battles, transpire due to the decisions of the smaller forces, the little guys and commanders in the trenches. According to Tolstoy, there are too many variables in battle for there to be such a thing as military genius or strategic planning. Often the outcomes of battles are determined by decisions conceived in the heat of the moment rather than any sort of pre-planning or direction from the higher ranks. At other times, Tolstoy seems to be suggesting destiny or providence or G-d is controlling history, and that the events that unfold are inevitable.
“Every act of theirs, which appears to them an act of their own will, is in an historical sense involuntary and is related to the whole course of history and predestined from eternity (344).”
Sometimes, Tolstoy also seems to be saying history is a product of multiple events of the past coming together so that the present cannot help but take a certain direction. As much as I loved the novel in certain parts, these meditations on history get to be a bit excessive and redundant.
War and Peace is much like Tolstoy’s later novel, Anna Karenina, in that the characters’ struggle to find happiness and purpose in their lives. The Napoleonic War serves as a wonderful backdrop to explore this question as many of the characters join the military in their quest for meaningful activity (glory or ambition or the transcendental joy of giving your life for a greater cause).
Pierre begins to suffer from the hypocrisy of the world. People think his cheating wife is the height of wit and intelligence, despite the fact that she cares only about the beauty and pleasures of the body and is actually quite stupid. The religiosity of the Free Masons and the Church is more for appearance’s sake than out of deep feeling and belief. The supposed meaningful actions of the world such as participation in government, military, women, ambition in general are really just attempts at “seeking refuge from life (305).”
After a failed relationship with Natasha and the invasion of the French into Russia, Prince Andrew also reexamines what he once found meaningful in life.
“Glory, the good of society, love of a woman, the Fatherland itself—how important these pictures appeared to me, with what profound meaning they seemed to be filled! And it is all so simple, pale, and crude in the cold white light of this morning which I feel is dawning for me (438).”
Does having money and a beautiful wife make one happy? Well, as Pierre’s story and experience shows us, apparently not. Does caring for the welfare of others and not more intimate love make for happiness? Princess Marie’s part of the tale implies otherwise.
Characters find happiness only through the love of humanity and finding their soulmate. Pierre finds this with Natasha in the end, as does Princess Marie with Nicholas Rostov. Prince Andrew finds a deeper truth about life through his slow death after a battle injury.
“But not love which loves for something, for some quality, for some purpose, or for some reason, but the love which I—while dying—first experienced when I saw my enemy and yet loved him. I experienced that feeling of love which is the very essence of the soul and does not require an object. Now again I feel that bliss. To love one’s neighbors, to love one’s enemies, to love everything, to love G-d in all His manifestations. It is possible to love someone dear to you with human love, but an enemy can only be loved by divine love. That is why I experienced such joy when I felt that I loved that man (524).”
The characters find happiness only when they discover the deeper nature of the world’s interconnectedness. Pierre finds the deeper love in Natasha that he was missing in Helene and also ascertains the true nature of the Christian message, which comes back to the interconnectedness of all people and to take loving thy enemy literally. Only when he and Prince Andrew realize this do they no longer fear death. So is Tolstoy advocating Christianity?
The impression I get from War and Peace and Anna Karenina is that Tolstoy is critical of Christianity and other religions (such as freemasonry) that focus on ritual. He also is critical of mystical speculations, a perversion of religion that seeks only metaphysical secrets about the world with no goal to transform one’s own behavior and change the world for better; it is esoteric knowledge for the sake of esoteric knowledge. His Christianity seems centered on the idea of love and the interconnectedness of all men, great or small. When Pierre and Prince Andrew undergo these epiphanies, their entire behavior and attitude is transformed by the experience. Basically, Tolstoy wants us to take the ethical messages he finds in the Gospels quite seriously; stop focusing so much on the details of ritual and searching for secret truths hidden in the words, and start loving thy neighbor and thy enemy as thyself, only then can we be truly happy.
Tolstoy also envisages good relationships as a transformative experience on a person’s character and virtue. Pierre’s initial marriage to Helene is based on physical attraction, while Nicholas’s initial promise to marry Sonya and refusal to change his mind when it becomes inconvenient stems from his pride. Helene barely spends time with her husband, preferring the company of other men and the various social circles of society. Later, we see that Natasha’s entire life revolves around Pierre and her children, disconnecting from society and even disparaging it. When understand that Nicholas marries Princess Mary because he admires her deep spirituality and obvious kindness. In a sense, he realizes that she is a better person than him. However, through their relationship she helps him become a better man and overcome his pride. A true relationship isn’t about physical attractive, but an attraction between souls that improve one another by being together.