This Tolstoyan masterpiece is one of the best-written books on War and its effect on people’s lives. The War is the Napoleonic war where Russia was invaded by a strong French army conquering Moscow, and the subsequent defeat and flight of the conquering army. Although some of the previous battles such as Austerlitz have been included, the story’s “War” was mainly centered on the 1812 Napoleonic campaign. The Peace is somewhat ambiguous but can be surmised as the everyday life of the upper-class Russian nobles and the effect of war on them. Tolstoy interlaces both these parts well and brings to the readers a memorable story.
If one sections out the story, one finds three distinctive yet interconnected parts: the war, the peace, and Tolstoy’s musings. The war occupies most of the book and dominates the story. Tolstoy with his brilliant writing brings out the brutal side of the war in detail. The atrocities committed by both sides of the army – Russian and the French, the callous and cold-hearted actions of the two opposing camps against one another forgetting that they are, after all, human brothers, and the absolute butchery that takes place in the name of fame and glory are spilled from Tolstoy’s pen without any scruple. It was hard to stomach it all, knowing that somewhere in history, those deeds were actually committed. However, Tolstoy is determined to show the moments of humanity, in between battles, when the men of war are relaxed and can think for themselves rather than following the commanding orders. It seems that he wanted to counter the hellish side of the war by showing that the men preserved humanity to some extent without totally turning themselves into monsters in the heat of the action.
When the parts of the war are taken out the rest of it occupies the lives of the upper-class Russian nobles. Their ambitions, hopes, and dreams, and their love, loyalty, and betrayal are all portrayed in a fascinating bundle. The Rostovs – Natasha and Nikolai, the Bolknoskys – Andrei and Marya, and the Bezukhovs – Pierre (mostly) and Helene run the show while few other interesting characters – Dolokhov, Denisov, Vasily, and the villain Anatole Kuragin brings up the rear. This is a work of countless characters both historical and fiction, but it still can be narrowed down to a considerably small number for the purposes of the story. The inter-relationship between Natasha, Andrei, and Pierre is instrumental in exposing the themes of love, loyalty, tolerance, and the need to forgive. With sensitivity and a clear mind as to true human nature, Tolstoy has voiced efficiently on his favourite themes. However, I had trouble connecting with the characters. Although I didn’t dislike them, I couldn’t embrace them with my whole heart either. They were distant and a little cold, and at times, inconsistent. The only steady character was Andrei (to me at least) and his role doesn’t run through to the end.
Finally, Tolstoy’s musings fill in the gaps wherever a gap can be found. And it is quite often, I assure you. 🙂 As in all Tolstoy literature, the meaning of life runs as an undercurrent here too. It is quite relevant given that death is an expected consequence of War. Some of his thoughts are quite interesting, although he can be exceedingly preachy. His thoughts also run on the deterministic nature of history and a detailed analysis as to the causes that determined the historical events are presented in the form of a second Epilogue! E. M. Forster has once said that Epilogues are for Tolstoy. If you read this complete Epilogue of War and Peace, you’ll understand what he meant. 🙂
I’m really happy to have read this masterpiece of Tolstoy. It was by no means an easy read, but I made it in a little more than two months. The credit goes entirely to Tolstoy’s writing. It is simply breathtaking. Tolstoy is a great master of creative compositions, yet, in my view, War and Peace is the best literary product of Tolstoy when it comes to writing.