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War & Peace: Themes & Analysis

Instructor: Maria Cochran

Maria has taught Composition, Communication, Literature and Intro to Humanities since 2000. She holds a doctorate in Rhetoric and Professional Communication

War and Peace (1869) is a historic epic novel about the life Russian socialites at the beginning of the 19th century set against the backdrop of the French invasion of Russia. The book's major characters mirror the spiritual biography of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, as they search for the meaning of life and death in a world shaken by Napoleonic wars.

War and Peace

As the title of the novel War and Peace (1869) by the 19th century Russian writer Leo Tolstoy promises, the book develops in two dimensions. The 'war' dimension relates to the 1812 French invasion of Russia, while the 'peace' concerns the life of the Russian society against the backdrop of that invasion. The word 'peace' ('mir') in Russian has multiple meanings: 'mir' as the state of no-war, 'mir' as society, and 'mir' as the world. Indeed, the narrative shifts between the world of the Napoleonic wars, the world of the Russian society, and the inner spiritual worlds of the novel's main characters, Russian aristocrats Andrey Bolkonsky, Natasha Rostova, and Pyotr (Pierre) Bezukhov. The key themes in War and Peace develop through all the above worlds, creating a complex and multilayered texture.

Spirituality

Two central male characters of the novel, Andrey Bolkonsky and Pierre Bezukhov, mirror Tolstoy's own spiritual biography. These characters question everything and hold themselves to the highest moral standard.

In his search for meaning, Pierre concludes that most people live 'like soldiers under fire,' distracting themselves from thoughts of death by gambling, horses, and parties. At the end of the book, Pierre finds his life's purpose in working on his land and raising a large family.

When we first meet Prince Andrey, he is a handsome and ambitious young officer, ready to sacrifice everything for a minute of glory. A near-death experience at the battle of Austerlitz makes him recognize his vanity. Going through multiple transformations in his spiritual search, towards the end of the novel, dying from war wounds, Andrey achieves complete harmony with the world.

Love and Family

In the system of values Tolstoy creates, love has a power to awaken the characters to a new life. Countess Natasha Rostov , the heroine of the only love drama in the book, brings such awakening to Andrey Bolkonsky, but only for a short while. Tolstoy leads Natasha, his favorite female character, through trials of love, disillusionment, public shame, war deprivations, and, ultimately, maturity. At the end of the novel, Natasha, married to Pierre Bezukhov, is a down-to-earth mother of a large family with soiled baby sheets in her hand, revealing the transformative aspects of love.

Each family in War and Peace is a separate microcosm, reflecting Tolstoy's beliefs in love and marriage. The Rostovs are warm, hospitable, and unpretentious. They stand by their children through their mistakes and delusions, such as Natasha's failed elopement on the eve of her wedding and her brother Nikolai's gambling. On the other end of the spectrum, the Kuragin family Vasilii Kuragin and his children are cold-hearted and calculating, interested only in increasing wealth and enhancing their social status.

At the end of the novel, the family of Natasha and Pierre Bezukhov illustrates Tolstoy's belief that happy marriage is the best outcome of a spiritual search. After years of suffering, Natasha and Pierre complete each other in a happy union, raising children, and taking care of their estate.

Andrey, Pierre, and Natasha at the Grand Ball
Natasha, Andrey, and Pierre at the Grand Ball

The People's Idea

While most readers of War and Peace prefer to follow the dramas in the lives of the Russian aristocrats, Tolstoy argues that the main theme of his novel is 'the people's idea,' meaning the role of the Russian people in the war. While portraying the destructive nature of the war, Tolstoy also paints war as a unifying force that brings together all the classes of the Russian society in the fight against the French invaders.

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