War and Peace | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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War and Peace | Themes

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Horror of War

War's horrors are shown throughout the novel. Leo Tolstoy shows there is nothing glorious, honorable, or good about hundreds of thousands of people slaughtering and maiming one another on a battlefield. War is an irrational pursuit that human beings are forced to engage in through the mechanism of historical movement. Numerous scenes in the novel describe, in graphic detail, the horror of war. The irrationality of war is evident when the French and Russian soldiers are joking with one another on the eve of the Battle of Schöngraben. Andrei's notions of glory are debunked after he is first injured at Austerlitz and realizes that Napoleon is an insignificant, petty man and that nothing can rival the immensity of the sky. Even Nikolai, the man of action and Russian patriot, questions the purpose of war—first when he sees Napoleon with Alexander at Tilsit and reflects on all the blood that was spilled so that these two rulers can now shake hands, and then when he captures a French soldier and realizes that he has no quarrel with him.

Adversity and Growth

People's purpose is to learn from their experiences and hardships and grow in wisdom and understanding. Pierre, the main character of the novel, takes both physical and psychological journeys. From the beginning of the book, he is searching for a meaningful way to live. He tries pursuing a simply physical life—food, drink, and sex—but that doesn't satisfy him. He joins the Masons and attempts to advocate for larger reforms in society. But ultimately he sees them as hypocritical. Finally he takes off his aristocratic clothing and takes a spiritual journey while he is imprisoned, with a Russian peasant as his guide. He realizes that looking for some method or solution is pointless; rather, he learns that happiness consists of living in the present and cultivating compassion for others.

Love

Salvation occurs through caring for fellow beings, but most effective and transformative is unconditional love. Love is transformative in the novel, along with suffering. People can redeem one another through forgiveness and love. This is most clearly seen, first when Andrei is filled with love right after he is hit with a shell at Borodino. When he sees Anatole in the medical tent, he cannot help but feel for this former enemy that same universal love and compassion that suffuses his being. When he grants Natasha forgiveness, she is also transformed, and her love for him at the end of his life is also redemptive for her. Through her experience with Andrei, Natasha moves from an immature to a mature understanding of love.

Transformation through Suffering

All the major characters in War and Peace are transformed—radically changed—through suffering. Pierre suffers through marriage, his duel with Dolokhov, his disillusionment with the Masons, the loss of loved ones, and finally his imprisonment. He changes gradually. After being disappointed by Hélène, he accepts that he will have to live with the mistake of his marriage and make the best of it, where at first, he rejected her. When he becomes a prisoner of war, Pierre accepts his suffering and learns that freedom is an internal rather than an external state. Certainly he is looking forward to physical freedom and now appreciates all of the comforts he previously took for granted. But at the same time he realizes that even in the worst of circumstances, one can choose happiness.

Andrei is also transformed through suffering. After suffering through the first war, he learns that war is not glorious but destructive. He returns to the battlefield as a matter of duty. After the first war he is softer and open to love—which is why he can respond to Natasha. After the second war he is transformed through his experience of universal love, which affects his relations with Natasha. In the end physical suffering leads to his transformation into a detached consciousness that can calmly "awaken" to his death.

Illusion of Free Will

In the nonfiction sections of the novel, Tolstoy develops the theme that freedom is mostly an illusion and that people are compelled in their public lives to do what they do because of the movement of history. One of the major ideas that he debunks is "the Great Man Theory," which proposes that gifted and charismatic leaders guide the direction of history. Tolstoy says that these leaders are as much at the mercy of historical movement as are everyday people. Historical movement is the sum total of the wills of all of the people, and the best human beings can do is try to understand the laws that govern history and acknowledge how little free will comes into play in the collective actions of human beings.

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