"Gazing into Napoleon's eyes, Prince Andrei mused on the unimportance of greatness, the unimportance of life which no one could understand, and the still greater unimportance of death, the meaning of which no one alive could understand or explain"."
-Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
My Alternate Title:
War and Russia or Why Napoleon Wasn’t all he Was Cracked up to Be
I don’t know if it’s a small strain of masochism, a wild desire for conversation starters, a love of history and the classics, a past appreciation of Anna Karenina, or the wish to impress the next Russian I meet, but I finally buckled down and read the novel whose title is synonymous with length and boredom. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.
The book is every bit as long as everyone says, coming in at #14 on the list of the longest novels in Latin or Cyrillic alphabets with a word count of 560,000. It’s actually shorter than another book I’ve read—twice—and enjoyed, Atlas Shrugged, which is #11 with 645,000 words. W&P seemed much longer than Atlas, though, partly because Mr. Tolstoy has a habit of getting on soapboxes and chasing after rabbits. Perhaps he’s not as bad as Victor Hugo in Les Misérables (#17), but he does talk about history and battle sequences constantly. And he included two epilogues. Who does that?
Woven throughout are dozens of weighty themes: unconditional love and forgiveness of enemies, how marriages are painful and shallow when money is all that’s concerned, the meaninglessness of “society life”, the dignity of mankind, international policy, self-sacrifice, and longing for recognition, to name a few. There’s also a fair amount of pure, abstract philosophizing (You find yourself asking things like, “Is fire really an element or is it a phenomena?”). Loving, dueling, gambling, fighting, rescuing, sacrificing, eloping—they all have their place in W&P. You probably knew this already, but don’t pick this one up if you’re looking for a light summer read. Do pick it up if you’re looking for a thought-provoking, meaty classic that sets a very high standard.
This book follows the lives of fictional key characters—Pierre Bezukhov (an ungainly, honest, naïve man), the Bolkonskys (an ambitious man and his spiritual sister), the Rostovs (a close-knit aristocratic family), the Kuragins (shallow, depraved, and manipulative)—as well as famous historical names—Napoleon and Tsar Nicholas I. They all live in Russia at the turn of the nineteenth century (during the time when Napoleon was trying to squash the Russian empire into the snow), and all are influenced by and exert their influence on the world, whether in social soirees, family gatherings, or bloody battlefields. Some of them long for greatness, some for love, some for meaning; these are universal desires that we can relate to.
If I had to find a single “main” character among the 580 in this novel, it would be Pierre. Tolstoy actually wrote a bit of himself into the character, whose primary goal is to find meaning in life. Not an easy task when you’re surrounded by vapid convention, blatant immorality, hypocrisy, and carnage. He tries marrying a gorgeous woman, attending social events, retreating into religious mysticism, and striking out onto a battlefield, but only finds peace while a prisoner of the French and the friend of a simple peasant man. Here he learns that God is in control, He has a plan, and that is all that matters.
The Shallowness of Society
Drawing room chatter and fancy balls seem to have been the pinnacle of life to thousands of aristocrats during this time in Europe. Tolstoy massacres their pretty image with characters like Hélène and Anatol, who are really vicious snakes deep inside, as he applauds women like Maria—pious and loyal to a fault.
The Senselessness and Brutality of War
This is a major theme. Tolstoy was actually in an artillery regiment in the Crimean War and saw fighting firsthand. His epic novel questions the transitory nature of war when society women in Russian salons choose to speak in posh French, not long after the French stopped blowing up their family and friends. The battle scenes are a bloody, smoky chaotic mess with confused armies, corrupt officers, petty politicking and meaningless action.
Several characters start out with a hero-worship of “great men” of their day: Napoleon and Tsar Nicholas I. They have the same obsession with leaders that many of us have (think Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, or Jennifer Lopez). However, Leo beats it into the reader’s head that it is not the one or two leading figures who are responsible for the outcome of world events, it is the “spirit of men”—even little men—and the predestination of God that determines history. This could be seen as a thesis concerning the creation of history. Over and over again Tolstoy emphasizes that everything is “predestined from on high” and that Napoleon wasn’t really a genius, he was just a pawn in the hands of God (and not a very smart one at that). It takes the combined efforts of little guys like Prince Andrei, Natasha Rostov, and Platon Krataev to make great things happen. Hero worship falls away in the light of reality.
War and Peace has been described as one of the greatest novels ever written. Leo Tolstoy didn’t even see his massive work as a novel (he was a realist and considered a novel to be “a framework for the examination of social and political issues in nineteenth-century life”), but an epic in prose. This is an epic work, giving us a bird’s eye view as well as a microscopic analysis of love, loss, and the meaning of life. We are all small things in the hands of a great God. We are predestined to play our roles from eternity, and each one of us is precious, though flawed. A recurring theme in the book is the sky as a symbol for hope, a great reason for living—or dying—optimism, and love. It mirrors the truth of life. I think that that is what Tolstoy would like to be remembered for, rather than his ginormous word count.