War and Peace | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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War and Peace | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Leo Tolstoy's epic, 1,200-page novel War and Peace, published serially between 1865 and 1869, tells the story of four aristocratic Russian families during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century, moving from battlefield to bedroom to ballroom to forest to field. Addressing the struggles, triumphs, and failures of both individuals and nations, the novel is a sprawling, realistic study of the forces of history and the lives that contribute to it.

War and Peace is considered a literary masterpiece and has been translated into many languages and adapted for film, television, radio, and stage. Russian journalist and author Isaak Babel noted about the novel, "If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy."

1. There are nearly 600 characters in War and Peace.

Though War and Peace focuses mainly on the events affecting four aristocratic Russian families, Tolstoy introduces nearly 600 characters in all—from royalty to serfs—in his novel. Many of these characters have nicknames, making it even more difficult to keep track of who's who.

2. War and Peace was Nelson Mandela's favorite novel.

During Nelson Mandela's 27 years in prison in South Africa, he read and reread War and Peace, claiming it was his favorite novel. Other advocates of nonviolent protest who were admirers of Tolstoy included Mahatma Gandhi, who received letters from Tolstoy, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

3. Some well-known writers of the time despised War and Peace.

Russian writer Ivan Turgenev said that some of Tolstoy's work was "an impassable morass," while French writer Gustave Flaubert accused him of repeating himself. And Henry James called War and Peace a "loose, baggy monster."

4. Tolstoy's wife copied the manuscript eight times.

Sophia Tolstoy wrote out the full text of War and Peace eight times, along with numerous rewrites of pages and chapters. She did this all by hand, long before computers or even typewriters. During one revision, she was ill, having developed an infection during childbirth. Her husband, who was squeamish about pregnancy and delivery, had a special tray installed for her so she could work in bed.

5. Tolstoy claimed War and Peace was not a novel.

Tolstoy did not want his great work categorized as a novel—or categorized at all. He claimed, "It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed."

6. Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church.

In 1901 the Russian Orthodox Church issued a ruling that excommunicated Tolstoy because of his conversion in the late 1800s to his own form of Christianity and his outspoken criticism of the church. In 2001 Tolstoy's great-great-grandson asked the church to reconsider, but it refused, stating that Tolstoy "purposely used his great talent to destroy Russia's traditional spiritual and social order."

7. Late in life, Tolstoy disowned his own work.

After rejecting the Russian Orthodox Church—and, later, all organized religion—and focusing on his own version of Christianity, Tolstoy wrote essays about art. He divided works of art into categories of good and bad depending on how they affected their audiences in moral terms. This led him to condemn his own earlier novels as well as Shakespeare's plays and most of his friend Anton Chekhov's dramas. He did, however, approve of some biblical stories and some of Chekhov's tales.

8. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin used the novel as a propaganda tool.

As soon as the Soviet Union entered World War II, dictator Joseph Stalin ordered select passages from War and Peace printed to give to soldiers and post in Moscow for civilians to read. He used the Russian triumph of 1812 over Napoleon's forces to rouse nationalistic feeling among the populace in the face of the German invasion. Tolstoy, who was a fervent pacifist, probably would have been appalled.

9. War and Peace has been adapted for film and television many times.

A 1956 film version of War and Peace starred Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda. In 1967 the Soviet Union sponsored a film version in which the army was actually played by the Red Army. A BBC television version in 1972 had 20 parts, while a 2007 TV production was divided into only four episodes. A 2016 British-American six-part television series received wide acclaim.

10. Sergei Prokofiev's opera version of the novel was highly controversial.

Prokofiev's opera War and Peace premiered in 1944 and faced Soviet government involvement. Prokofiev wanted to focus on the personal relationships in the story, but the government wanted the opera to be patriotic and nationalistic. Prokofiev was forced to change lyrics and heighten the battle scenes. He never saw the revised version of his opera, which debuted in 1957, four years after his death.

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