The Peace, the War, and the Lives In Between
Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”: A Review
Due to the structure of the book, the review is divided into three sections: “The Peace”, “The War”, and “The Theory of History”. However, when we read the book we will discover that all of the characters’ lives are touched by the Napoleonic Wars, hence the division is not always clear.
The book opens with a soiree at a socialite’s salon in 1805, and for some pages it continues to dwell on the said soiree. To our surprise, we will find that the conversations are largely spoken in French, because Russian aristocrats spoke and wrote in French since Catherine The Great’s era. These conversations are full of Russian and other foreign names as well as related political events. Not surprisingly, many non-Russian readers are turned off by these aspects. However, the key to enjoy this part of the story is perceiving it as an invitation to an evening of edifying talks — which admittedly does not come often in modern life , what with our endless pursuit of entertainment.
Salons played an important role in shaping the political and philosophical discourse of their time. As evident in the case of Anna Pavlovna Scherer and Helene Kuragina, the hostesses of two notable salons in early 19th century St.Petersburg, salons also elevate the status of everyone in them. Women, normally overlooked in everyday decision-making (although in 19th century Russia they are already allowed to inherit a property), became media of bridging the discourse and experienced an upward mobility in their social status.
Moving on from the soiree, Tolstoy proceeds to introduce us to several key characters, most notably the gauche Pierre Bezukhov, the scheming Vassily Kuragin, the brooding Andrei Bolkonsky, the open-hearted Natasha Rostova, as well as four notable families: the Kuragins, the Bolkonskys, the Drubetskoys, and the Rostovs.
Over the course of the story, we are shown how the relationships between the families were built, broken, and amended as their members interacted one another. The constant themes in the scenes are friendship, love (familial, romantic), desperation, manipulations, and oppression.
The friendship is steady and rewarding in the case of Andrei and Pierre, as well as of Pierre and Natasha, or disappointing in the case of Nikolai Rostov and Boris Drubetskoy.
Love blinds people to one another’s faults. It forces Countess Rostova to forgive her profligate husband from time to time. It drives Anna Mikhailovna Drubetskaya to curry favor with every important person for her son’s sake — and the son, tired of these endless humiliations, learned to move more subtly than his mother did.
Manipulations are rife whenever desperado Fyodor Dolokhov — nicknamed “Fedya” by his adoring mother —entered a scene with the ignorantly dangerous Anatole Kuragin. Helene Kuragina manipulated her gullible husband into giving her control over their wealth, and yet she is unhappy. God-fearing Marya Bolkonskaya, Andrei’s sister, was oppressed by her father, who in a way manipulated her to live as a spinster.
Tolstoy has the characters married, engaged, broken their engagements, widowed as his story progresses. The elderly die, the young grow older, wiser, more disillusioned with the world and with the people in it. They find and lose their grasp of the meaning of life repeatedly. In short, the characters are humane and their range of emotions is a continuum.
By the end of the novel, Andrei had died for some eight years or so. Four characters find happiness in their respective marriages. Ironically, after finding peace, the bumbling Pierre was about to make another severe mistake in his life by joining the future Decembrists.
Since the story is set during the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon himself, the Tsar Alexander I, and general Mikhail Kutuzov are among the prominent characters in the war section. Other Russian and French generals and soldiers also grace — or disgrace , forgive my bad pun — the pages. Their interaction dynamics are shown, and we are familiarized with camaraderie in a soldier’s life, as well as intrigues in a general’s.
By approaching the so-called historical figures as humans instead of as monuments, Tolstoy pierces the myth surrounding them and sheds lights on their faults. Kutuzov fell asleep during strategic meetings, and read novels instead of battle reports. The Count Bennigsen spied on the old general’s every move, and is ready to undermine his enemy by any means necessary, including badmouthing him to the Tsar. Joachim Murat was rebuked severely by Napoleon for his peacemaking initiative in an earlier part of the war section, yet L’Empereur derided a Russian delegation some time before the Battle of Borodino takes place.
The soldiers’ spot in the section is laudable and clearly stated. With Nikolai Rostov, Boris Drubetskoy and other young characters who entered the military service in 1805 (and before), we are ushered in the soldier camps. Their hardships are made known to us: equipment, logistics, and healthcare were inadequate. Treatments for the injured were so appalling that soldiers might die not from their injuries but from diseases contracted at unsanitary makeshift hospitals.
Two battles from the Napoleonic Wars are depicted in the book: The Battle of Austerlitz and The Battle of Borodino. Some of the main characters take part in both battles, others are absent in one of them, still others do not take part at all. Nevertheless, even the characters in the homefront are affected by the war. Natasha met the wounded soldiers who came to Moscow when the city was about to be abandoned. The Countess Rostova was stricken by grief from the death of a loved one: she would never be the same again.
Other historical events that Tolstoy portrays in the book are consequences of the war. The first was the abandonment and the burning of Moscow. Here Tolstoy differs from historians of his era in his opinion regarding the fire. He maintains that neither the Russians nor the French burned the city. Arson will not benefit any of them. The city’s largely wooden structures were burned because they were abandoned.
The second is the fateful retreat of the French Army out of Russia. Failing to obtain any welcome from the Russians, the army was forced to retreat in harsh winter with very poor logistics and equipment, resulting in horrifying number of casualties. Tolstoy hints that that Kutuzov and other Russian generals probably neither intended to retreat so far out of Moscow nor to leave the French to their deaths. They were forced to do so by necessity, because it was difficult for the Russian forces to regroup after the Battle of Borodino. On the other hand, Napoleon and his generals made a grave mistake by choosing to retreat along a destroyed and beaten down route.
The Theory of History
Perhaps we can excuse Tolstoy for writing lengthy passages on the theory of history, knowing the painstaking research of historical and autobiographical documents that he conducted.
In those passages he laments the historians’ focus on ‘important’ individuals, which consequently overlooks the role of lay people. According to Tolstoy, Napoleon, Tsar Alexander I, and other figures seemed perfect because historians chose to ignore their inconsistencies. When Napoleon gave his instructions in a battle he could not even witness (allegedly due to cold), the French disposition was not what the emperor envisioned.
It is a testament to Tolstoy’s masterly skills that the seemingly far apart worlds of the aristocrats and the soldiers are brought together seamlessly. He had succeeded in capturing the facets of humanity.
Russian names commonly consist of first name, patronymic, and surname. In addition, the male and female forms of the latter two are different, and terms of endearment may vary depending on the degree of familiarity between persons. As a result, I was confused until I used my primary-school-level knowledge of Arabic to surmise that the second name must be patronymic — somewhat similar to the “ibn” or “bin” (for males) and “bint” (for females) in Arabic names.
As for political events, reading an annotated edition will enable us to catch up on these.
Detailed analysis on The Battle of Borodino is here.