War and Peace is the epic story of several Russian aristocratic families during Napoleon’s invasion. The book covers the period from about 1805 to 1812, with a bit in the epilogue jumping ahead to around 1819.
Tolstoy himself writes that his book is unlike anything that has been written before when it comes to its form. Many have described it as part novel, part history book, part philosophical treatise, and this is pretty accurate. Many characters and events are fictional creations, and this part of the book is chock full of family drama and meandering love stories that end in both happiness and heartbreak. Other characters and events are historically accurate (at least, according to Tolstoy’s research, which some historians disagree with). However, real historical figures (Napoleon, Alexander I of Russia, Kutozov) and their real, historical actions are part of the story, and Tolstoy conducted interviews and perused diaries and letters to inform his writing. This part of the book is stuffed with battle scenes, the minutiae of war, and ongoing commentary on how war really works. Towards the end of the book, Tolstoy more and more often drifts into asides describing his philosophical take on history and how we understand it. This culminates in the second epilogue with a 40-page treatise on free will vs. fate.
Overall, I was astounded by how very accessible and readable this book is. Is it long? Yes. A time commitment? Absolutely – my edition has over 1300 pages. But at least 90% of what’s inside is easy to follow and interesting to read.
Though there are tons of major characters, it wasn’t long at all before they distinguished themselves and I had no trouble remembering each one. They are lively and full of depth, and the major players change in ways over the course of the book that ring true. Without giving away any details: One character ultimately channels her obsessive emotional energy into family. Another moves past the distractions that have filled his life. A third finally stands up for herself. One story, however, was unfortunately brushed aside – I can’t help but feel that any healing or resolution for her is omitted because she is not really part of the aristocracy.
War and Peace has many themes, and while it is certainly rife full of tragedy, I can’t help but feel that the fictional portion of the book is ultimately about finding true happiness in life. Several key characters experience a transformation that helps them see how wonderful life is.
One character learns: “Compassion, love for brothers, for those who love us and for those who hate us, love of our enemies; yes, that love which God preached on earth … — that is what made me sorry to part with life, that is what remained for me had I lived.'”
For another: “She did not know and would not have believed it, but beneath the layer of slime that covered her soul and seemed to her impenetrable, delicate young shoots of grass were already sprouting, which, taking root, would so cover with their living verdure the grief that weighed her down that it would soon no longer be seen or noticed. The wound had begun to heal from within.”
For a third: “Now, however, he had learnt to see the great, eternal, and infinite in everything, and therefore — to see it and enjoy its contemplation — he naturally threw away the telescope through which he had till now gazed over men’s heads, and gladly regarded the ever-changing, eternally great, unfathomable and infinite life around him. And the closer he looked the more tranquil and happy he became.”
There are also lovely descriptions that are full of joyfulness. For example:
“The stars, as if knowing that no one was looking at them, began to disport themselves in the dark sky: now flaring up, now vanishing, now trembling, they were busy whispering something gladsome and mysterious to one another.”
My favorite moment came at the very end of the fictional part of the story. Two characters are married and very much in love. Tolstoy describes the way that they sort of speak their own language, and understand each other in a way that no one else can. I love this because it reminds me of myself and my husband, and the fact that love is one of life’s greatest joys.
I highly recommend War and Peace to any lover of classic literature. It’s not overrated, and it’s worth all the many hours it takes to experience it.