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War and Peace | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


How does Andrei's vision of the infinite sky in War and Peace change his view of marriage to Lise?

Following Andrei's vision of the grandeur of the universe and the smallness—and insignificance— of human beings, he is less egotistical and more willing to see what is good about his life. Further he is more open to looking at his own shortcomings and realizes that he has not been fair to Lise. After all, he married her and should have figured out earlier that she was not his match intellectually or spiritually. He has feelings of guilt about his former coldness, and he feels love and compassion for her when he sees her struggling to give birth to his child. For the first time, he addresses her as "My darling." After she dies the narrator says Andrei "felt that something snapped in his soul, that he was to blame for something he could neither set aright nor forget." He wants to make a new beginning, but it is too late because the little princess dies, and he has no chance of righting the wrong of undervaluing her and taking her for granted.

How does Tolstoy create sympathy in the mind of the reader of War and Peace for a villainous character like Dolokhov?

Although Dolokhov has a lot of vicious tendencies, he is not all bad and is compelling as a character. Early on he is portrayed as wild and reckless, with intense emotions that are hard for him to contain. He has a wide mean streak that comes out when he is bored, angry, or dissatisfied. For example, he taunts Pierre at the banquet for Bagration for no reason, which leads Pierre to challenging him to a duel. After Dolokhov falls in love with Sonya and she rejects him, he cheats at cards to get back at Nikolai, putting the Rostov family in the position of carrying a burdensome debt. But Nikolai has been a good friend to Dolokhov, standing as his second in the duel and helping to nurse him back to health. Dolokhov intrigues with Anatole to seduce Natasha and even lends his pen by writing the love letter. Finally Dolokhov kills his prisoners of war rather than send them where they will be kept until the conflict comes to an end. Nonetheless Dolokhov is not all bad. First he has strong love and loyalty for his mother and his handicapped sister, and after he gets shot, the first thing he thinks of is how his death will affect them. He is highly patriotic and has extraordinary bravery, never hesitating to put himself in the line of fire or carry off a dangerous exploit, such as riding into the French camp to find out their plans. At Borodino, before the battle begins, he takes the opportunity to ask Pierre for his forgiveness with regard to their quarrel and duel. Thus Dolokhov has two sides, although his more tender side is dormant most of the time. In his portrayal of Dolokhov, Tolstoy shows himself to be a master of characterization because this somewhat villainous character is not completely bad—which is true to life.

How does Andrei change from the beginning to the end of War and Peace?

Andrei changes significantly over the course of the novel, although his essential character remains the same. When the novel begins, he is bored and looking for a path toward a meaningful life. His marriage has turned out to be a disappointment, and he feels disdainful of the frivolous people of his class who live only to have a good time. After Andrei joins the military, he seeks to live for others by sacrificing himself to war, but he also craves for himself glory and recognition for brave exploits. When he has a vision of the immensity of the universe, his attitude changes and he becomes less full of himself. Further he renews his commitment to personal life—specifically, family life—and puts aside dreams of glory. But something inside him remains dead after the trauma of the war and loss of his wife. When Natasha comes into his life, Andrei's heart is awakened and he again wants to participate in society. Thus he goes to Petersburg and gets involved in government. But once again his heart is broken—this time by the woman he loves passionately. Natasha's betrayal leads to Andrei's taking up his duty as a soldier again, since he feels he has nothing to lose. Andrei has another transformative moment on the battlefield and the brink of death and is able to open up his heart to pure compassion that encompasses even his enemy, Anatole. When Natasha comes back into his life, he extends that compassion and is able to forgive her and remember his love for her. But his life is basically a tragic one, and he resigns himself to death after their reconciliation. Thus Andrei is transformed through his suffering but does not get the chance to live out his larger understanding because he dies prematurely.

How does Tolstoy use epic similes in War and Peace to create vivid descriptions and showcase the heroic actions of the Russian people?

Tolstoy employs beautiful epic similes, sometimes also called Homeric similes, in War and Peace to emphasize the action and the heroism of the Russian people, but sometimes only with the purpose of creating a vivid image in the reader's mind. Among the epic similes in the novel are three particularly noted by critics: Tolstoy's comparison of Anna Pavlovna's orchestration of her salon to an owner running his spinning mill; the comparison of the start of war to a clockwork mechanism, and the comparison of the emptying of Moscow to an abandoned beehive. The clock metaphor begins by comparing the movement at the emperor's headquarters with the "first movement of the central wheel in a big tower clock." All the parts are connected, and when one part begins to move, it affects another part in a chain reaction: "Wheels whizz on their axles, cogs catch, fast-spinning pulleys whirr, yet the neighboring wheel is ... calm and immobile ... but a moment comes—the lever catches, and obedient to its movement, the wheel creaks, turning, and merges into one movement with the whole." Thus Tolstoy employs this extended simile to illustrate the movement of history, which is never one thing but innumerable small things that make up a whole. The simile also adds to the reader's feeling of momentousness about the actions that subsequently will be described.

Why does Andrei's enlarged understanding of life received on the battlefield change his view of Napoleon in War and Peace?

When Andrei is wounded on the battlefield, he looks up at the sky and suddenly realizes he hasn't been paying attention to the immense beauty of life. Further, the sky, which represents the infinite, makes Andrei feel that all man's petty concerns are insignificant next to the enormity of existence and nonexistence. When he finally sees his hero Napoleon passing by, Andrei thinks that "grandeur" and even life itself is insignificant, and that no one understands the meaning of either life or death. Previously Andrei longed only for glory and saw Napoleon as the archetype of the glorious hero. Now he sees that Napoleon is insignificant, with his petty vanity and his joy in victory, both meaningless when juxtaposed with eternity—which cannot be fathomed. In the end Napoleon, too, will die, and his words and deeds will eventually fall into oblivion.

Why does Pierre decide that he needs to kill Napoleon in War and Peace?

Pierre, like Andrei, is searching for the meaning of life and a set of principles to live by. He has tried marriage, drugging himself with food and sex, joining the Masons and attempting to live by their ideals and precepts, and finally, going to war. When he visits the battlefield at Borodino, he can do very little to help. At first he sees the battle as a spectacle, almost as if he were watching a movie, but then reality sets in and he is horrified by the carnage and loss of life. Thus Pierre suffers trauma by attending the battle, and in modern-day language it can be said that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He still wants to do something meaningful, however, and he hits upon the idea of killing the French devil who is responsible for the invasion of the fatherland—Napoleon. So Pierre decides to kill Napoleon partly as a last-ditch attempt to wrest some meaning from a world that has become completely chaotic, and partly as a symptom of something close to temporary insanity. However once he again feels some camaraderie with and sympathy from another human being—in this case, the Frenchman Ramballe, one of the occupying officers of the French army, he abandons his plan to shoot Napoleon.

In War and Peace, what is Pierre hoping to obtain from joining the Masons?

Pierre is at odds with himself and doesn't know what he should do to lead a good life. He thinks about how morality is relative and that one man's good is another man's evil. He notes that everyone has their own point of view, and people are often at odds. So who is right? And who is moral? Pierre doesn't believe in God, so he cannot simply follow the precepts of the Russian Orthodox Church and be at peace with following those rules. He is a deeply moral man, nonetheless. He doesn't know how to reconcile his new wealth and power with a reasonable system of ethics. Thus Pierre is looking for a spiritual guide—someone who can instruct him on how to live a meaningful life. He hopes the Masons will teach him how to live. However he is eventually disgusted by the corruption of the Masons, and their stilted, artificial society is not enough to keep him from falling back into dissolution. Eventually his moral and spiritual redemption has to come through suffering, and his true spiritual guide turns out to be Platon, a simple peasant who has learned the wisdom of detachment.

Why does Tolstoy insert the story of a wolf hunt in the middle of the action about the war in War and Peace?

In Volume 2, Part 4, Chapters 3–6, Tolstoy includes the wolf hunt as an example of a cultural experience that is quintessentially Russian. The wolf hunt brings together all the classes—the various classes of gentry as well as the serfs and servants—almost on an equal footing, for a common purpose. The servant Danilo can treat his master with disdain, for example, because he is the head kennelman and crucial to the hunt. At the same time, Count Rostov and Danilo are both aware that they are master and servant. The descriptions of the landscape as autumn turns into winter, the dogs, the hunted animals, and the progress of the hunt are all highly evocative and quite beautiful. While Tolstoy expresses his love of the hunt and the country in writing these sections of the novel, he is also drawing a parallel between the hunt and the larger war. Tolstoy loved hunting and hated war, although he participated in both. But hunting does mimic war, in that the dogs are like soldiers, while the hunters are their commanders. They have a specific purpose, which is to kill. While this is a group endeavor, the hunters also take pride in their animals and want them to be the heroes in making the kill. Thus Tolstoy is pointing out the blood lust of human beings and their desire to conquer and destroy, which exists in a human heart next to the desire to surrender and create. Given the nature of human beings, the reader cannot help but wonder whether war must always be an inevitable part of the human experience.

How does Natasha change over the course of War and Peace?

Natasha begins the novel at age 13, as a spirited, fearless, and spontaneous girl who is full of love and has a passion for life. By the time the second war with the French ends, she is about 20, and while she maintains her essential nature, she has been tempered in the crucible of suffering. Natasha's worst quality is her lack of steadfastness, which is the flip side of her spontaneity and willingness to engage with life on the terms that are offered. At all times Natasha is aware of her emotions and acts upon them, but that turns out to not always be a good thing. She proves herself to be fickle in love. She is initially in love with Boris and then transfers her affections to Denisov. These are more like crushes than passions, and her mother skillfully steers Natasha away from them. Nonetheless they show how easily Natasha can transfer her affections—unlike Sonya, who will not give up Nikolai, even when an excellent suitor appears. When Andrei comes into Natasha's life, she falls in love with him, but then Anatole awakens her sexuality, and she quickly changes her allegiance. Finally she determines that she loves Pierre not long after Andrei's passing. Natasha's shifting emotions are indicative of an overfull heart in which, to some degree, the object of her affection is immaterial. Natasha has so much love that she could probably love anybody. But she learns, after she breaks Andrei's heart, the consequences of her mercurial emotions and the necessity of committing to one person with both the heart and the mind. To a large degree, a long-term commitment to love another person is a decision that must be made with the intellect, and it requires moral fiber and a willingness to stick with one thing through changing circumstances. Natasha finally learns to do that after she commits to Pierre and marries him. And as her mother predicted, she channels her prodigious energies into wifehood and motherhood.

War and Peace demonstrates divergent methods of Christian practice. In comparing those views, which does the author seem to have most sympathy for?

Most of the people in War and Peace practice an external form of Christianity, in which they participate in the rituals of the Russian Orthodox Church but seem to have little understanding of the true meaning of Christianity or simply ignore the teachings of Jesus. Hélène is an extreme example of someone who simply uses religion as window dressing and hopes to manipulate the church so that she can get rid of Pierre and remarry. Tolstoy had a long-standing argument with organized religion that didn't come to a head until much later in his life—long after he wrote War and Peace. But even in this novel, the author shows the hypocrisy of practicing Christianity only as external ritual. For example, when Natasha turns to the church for comfort after her fall from grace, she enters deeply into the meaning of the teachings of Jesus. Thus when the priest calls on God to destroy Russia's enemies, she finds that she cannot pray for such a thing. Rather she prays for her enemies—even Anatole, thus following Jesus's admonishment to love your enemy and pray for those who curse you. The highest form of Christian practice is exemplified by Platon Karataev, who lives entirely for others and exhibits no violence or resentment, no matter how the people around him act. When Pierre distances himself from the little peasant, as he becomes less and less able to continue on the forced march, Platon accepts Pierre's rejection and understands he is simply trying to save his own life. Platon also experiences true disinterest or detachment, and in that sense he is a Christlike figure who mirrors Christ. Tolstoy's sympathies are clearly with Platon and Natasha.

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