War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy – Book Review

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy - Book Cover

Tolstoy’s monumental work titled “War and Peace,” widely regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces of world literature, looms before the average reader like a distant, unconquered peak. Many are daunted by its page count, others are plagued by fear, wondering how they will grapple with the profound thoughts of the great bearded philosopher. And surely, there are those (including the author of these lines with a holey memory) who fear they will constantly mix up Dmitry Ivanovich with Ivan Dmitrijevic. (Or with Timofey Polikarpovich.)

But everyone, please calm down!

Firstly, like many other things, the thicker the book, the better. Secondly, “War and Peace” is surprisingly easy to read. Thirdly, considering its length, it moves relatively few characters, perhaps barely a dozen main characters, if that many.

It Involves Russia!

However, “War and Peace” is not the most accurate title. Actually, it should be this: Peace, peace, peace, war, and war. This means that after the surprisingly vivid descriptions of the battles of Schöngrabern and Austerlitz, about 7 years pass before Napoleon’s campaign against Russia in 1812.

The story of these 7 years constitutes the vast majority of Tolstoy’s work, from the perspective of several aristocratic families whose fates are more or less intertwined. (The lower classes didn’t have a say in matters in Russia for about another hundred years. So it goes in this novel too.)

“I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”

Woody Allen says.

And how right he is!

This seven-year period provides insight into the everyday life of the Russian aristocracy in the early 19th century. It was likely very similar to what young Lev Nikolayevich saw while moving in similar social circles about 40 years later.: social life, balls, political intrigues, and the recurring party game of “How to find the richest spouse for our child.”

Princes, Cute Russian Girls, and… a Meatball

And then there’s the perpetual spleen that constantly afflicts the heroes of Russian literature (especially those who have nothing else to do), the sense of alienation and weariness with life. Both male protagonists of “War and Peace” suffer from this more or less. Prince Andrei Bolkonsky alternates between military service and farming to escape it (and his wife), while Count Pierre Bezukhov, like an ever-expanding meatball, just rolls back and forth between Moscow and St. Petersburg – while the reader increasingly wonders what on earth this chubby fellow is doing in this novel. (The answer to this question must be awaited until the very end of Tolstoy’s story. And even then, the answer may not be entirely satisfying.)

Count Pierre Bezukhov is like your average lottery winner who bags the billion-dollar jackpot but lacks the knowledge, courage, and even basic common sense to know how to behave in such an extreme situation; thus, he just goes wherever the wind blows.

The reader has better luck with Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, as he fits the classical novel hero archetype much better. He possesses the necessary complexity. His aloofness and detachment make him an ideal romantic hero. (Of course, his unquestionable masculinity doesn’t hurt either.) So, the reader can rightfully hope that all his troubles and sorrows will be resolved in love.

In short, “War and Peace,” if necessary, can be read as a romantic novel.

On the other hand, not quite, because in addition to being primarily a historical novel, in which sooner or later every major character comes into contact with the Napoleonic wars in some way, it primarily wears realist colors. If you don’t believe it, just observe, for example, Tolstoy’s character portrayal.

The three female protagonists, Maria, Natasha, and Sonya, couldn’t be more different in character. Absolute goodness; irresistible, naturally feminine charm; and absolute cuteness. If you were a young Russian aristocrat about to marry at that time, you suddenly wouldn’t know which one to choose. (Then, of course, common sense would prevail… after you’ve checked the bank accounts.)

The Russian master of the epic novel has plenty of time to tinker with his characters. And Tolstoy makes good use of this time. The characters doubt, waver, change their convictions; sometimes you’re a bit disappointed in them during questionable actions, or when they’re rude, but there are also moments when you nearly tear your hair out, seeing how little effort is required for a superficial cabbagehead to easily fool a decent, innocent lass. (Have you read “Game of Thrones”? Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy ALMOST writes about adolescent girls as well as J. R. R. Martin. And the latter is almost unbeatable in this regard.)

Be good, if you can!*

For “War and Peace,” it definitely required the unique depth of understanding of human nature, without which this novel monster of about 1400-1500 pages would have collapsed long before Napoleon set off towards Russia.

If someone knows their fellow human beings to such an extent, their way of thinking, their musings, their everyday desires, like Lev Nikolayevich, you might think they had long grown tired of the wretched human race. You couldn’t be more wrong! After a few hundred pages, you suddenly realize that in “War and Peace,” there are no negative characters at all, let alone villains.

Napoleon Bonaparte certainly doesn’t appear in the best light in this novel, but after all, he led a several hundred thousand strong army into Count Tolstoy’s homeland. And he didn’t come to Moscow just for sightseeing. The former Corsican artillery officer is depicted mostly as a restless, fickle cheese mite in the pages of this novel, but I would bet that his contemporary European peers judged him far less nuanced, especially when the emperor unleashed concentrated cannon fire on his current opponents in their narrower homeland.

Of course, in “War and Peace,” there are characters you’d like to kick. However, both Anatole and Dolokhov are far from textbook villains. Both are experts in seduction committed out of boredom among the upper echelons. But of course, this is only resented by those whose relatives they have successfully ensnared. Dolohov’s perpetual troublemaking can also be attributed to the aforementioned reason. Moreover, in the latter’s case, Tolstoy is not reluctant to further soften the soulless scoundrel image with his sense of duty towards his own family.

In any case, Tolstoy sees the good in EVERYONE. You might not even pay attention to Maria, the zealous, increasingly withering spinster, from yourself. Tolstoy beautifies her. Inside and out. He presents the bungling, financially irresponsible Count Rostov as a kind, exemplary family man. And even from such mediocre characters as Nikolai, he brings out the most good.

In summary, Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy deeply loves his fellow human beings. Reading his great work, you will constantly come to this surprising conclusion. And it might just be for this reason that this novel is such an outstanding read.

War and War

When I interviewed my Aunt Maggie about her opinion on the battle scenes, around a quarter of the way through War and Peace, the old lady said she could hardly wait for them to end. I, on the contrary, thought exactly the opposite. I couldn’t wait for the next one to come!

Then I was quite disappointed because I had to do without them until the second half of the book. Yet, it was precisely these scenes that initially drew me into the story. Reading the first two battle scenes, it immediately becomes obvious what a great writer Count Tolstoy is. You feel as if you were right there on the scene, with charging cavalrymen beside you, while cannonballs whizz overhead from the French positions. In the meantime, it’s like watching a documentary unfold before you, the landscape of the battlefield vividly painted. The only drawback to these tableau-like depictions of battles is that Tolstoy sometimes doesn’t provide a complete picture of each encounter; you only learn what is experienced from the perspective of certain characters. This might leave you feeling a serious lack—but only because you’d eagerly read more on the topic! 🙂 (If you enjoy the fantasy genre, Joe Abercrombie’s books can offer serious compensation in this regard. See The Trouble with Peace.)

The fact that as a reader you feel so much a part of the events is also aided by the Russian author’s constant reference to “ours” when talking about Russian troops. “We,” “ours,” “our troops.” However, it’s easy to imagine that a French, Polish, or even Ukrainian reader (although presumably there are far fewer of those since February 2022) might find this approach quite uncomfortable.

The Grande Armée – There and Back Again

If you have little knowledge of early 19th-century European history and nervously devour the pages wondering what will become of the French-Russian conflict, well, brace yourself, Count Tolstoy spoils the ending of the story well in advance! So if you have no clue about what Napoleon will do upon reaching Moscow, whether he will take a wife, say, Yelena Vasilievna (the hottest chick in War and Peace), and crown himself as the Russian czar, founding the Bonapartov dynasty, well, you’ll find out halfway through if that’s how it turns out…

However, you get a very thorough picture of what happened – at least according to Lev Tolstoy. The bumbling of the heavy-headed Russian high command, the continual Russian retreat, the perhaps bloodiest battle in world history up to that point, the Battle of Borodino, as well as the French occupation of Moscow, followed by the French Grand Army’s steadily dwindling rush back home, are all elaborately detailed.

Meanwhile, the male members of the Bolkonskys, Bezukhovs, and Rostovs are always in the thick of events, sometimes as active participants, sometimes as bewildered observers, and sometimes as potential heroically fallen. Meanwhile, the women experience firsthand what it means to live in a war-torn homeland.

A Practical Guide for the Amateur… Military Historian

Why do I emphasize above that according to Tolstoy? Well, the structure of War and Peace wobbles in the second half of the epic novel. Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, during his novel writing, successfully discovered the deeply buried military historian within himself. And once discovered, he let it blossom in full glory!

Tolstoy not only continuously foreshadows what will happen in the next chapters of his novel regarding the war, but also dedicates a separate essay to it. Therefore, from this point on, the reader might feel as if they are alternately reading a historical novel and a military history treatise. Moreover, if one compares these military thought experiments with the Wikipedia article on the Russian Campaign, they may discover some discrepancies between them.

In short: According to Tolstoy, the era of history-shaping “god-like” heroes has long passed. Events are collectively governed by the masses, ideas, and the environment of so-called “great individuals”; although the role of the latter is often merely nominal.

Now, according to this theory (which, by the way, is as holey as a cheese grater), the French actually didn’t even want to visit Russia, they had no particular reason to, but just found themselves suddenly beneath the walls of Moscow due to some sort of pressure from west to east. While it is well known, of course, that the campaign had numerous political antecedents, and Napoleon had already begun preparations for it in early 1811.

Moreover, Tolstoy imposed his own theory on poor, old Field Marshal Kutuzov. The Russian strategy of 1812 involved continuous retreat along with the constant harassment and attrition of the lengthy French supply lines. However, Kutuzov in “War and Peace” desires to wage war without ever engaging in battle. Never, under any circumstances! The plump, sluggish, and perpetually sentimental Field Marshal Kutuzov fully agrees with Tolstoy that the French will take care of themselves. Everyone else, for that matter, should just relax and chill out!

Tolstoy gets so wrapped up in telling everyone what’s what that he sometimes doesn’t hesitate to start a regular polemic on trivial tactical issues within the pages of his own novel, vehemently defending his own standpoint, such as about the unnecessity of enveloping maneuvers.

Now, I dare say that the occasional readers of historical novels would be perfectly fine without all of this, and would even be much happier if these lengthy analyses were integrated into the plot in a more subtle manner. Briefly, by implication. Not by repeating the same thing THREE TIMES in a row. But who am I to teach Lev Nikolayevich how to write a novel?!

Otherwise, it’s much easier to just flip through these parts in this form.

Platonic Worldview

Feeling out of place in the world? Unsure and indecisive? Mocked behind your back? Even the girls make a fool out of you? If you’d gobble less and move more, it would surely help. But there are those who need a war outright to bring about change!

Lev Tolstoy, besides writing novels, left his mark as a philosopher, weaving his moral worldview into his works. In the novel “War and Peace,” all of this found its way in under the alias of Platon Karataev.

You don’t have to think about big things, you know. Find inner peace! Just no panic! Longing for contentment? Well, then, do your work! Etc. It’s not revolutionarily new, but it’s easily digestible and not even too harmful.

Tolstoy’s ideal of humanity, Platon Karataev, the simple, peasant-born soldier, gets along with everyone, always kind, content, and helpful. And he thrives even in the harshest conditions. Nothing seems to bother him. Granted, he’s not the most sophisticated thinker, but that’s just the way it is.

Similarly, the same Tolstoyan outlook on life is carried, albeit with less decisiveness, by the unnamed uncle who appears during the hunting scene with the Rostov children. We can be grateful to the uncle for the most idyllic scene in the book thereafter.

You say it’s nonsense? The whole thing is just boring? Oh, come on! And what if there are people who need exactly this mindset to change the course of their fate? For those suffering from burnout syndrome, for example, this stuff might be warmly recommended. What’s more, a Hungarian indie rock band even plays under the name of this character of Tolstoy… You can check how successfully they’ve adapted Uncle Platon’s simple yet great worldview (see Ocean on YouTube).

Happily Ever After

Every war eventually comes to an end. And so does every novel. Ideally, these two coincide. However, in the case of War and Peace, it still continues. The Epilogue is quite similar to – please, no offense intended – some later installment of the Bridgerton family saga, where the sweet Bridgerton girl has been married to the prince for a long time, they have children, and they are all living on Cloud Nine.” (I don’t know, maybe ‘An Offer From a Gentleman.’) There’s not much wrong with it, but actually, there wouldn’t be much need for it.

However, what is really NOT needed is a 50-page, dull, repetitive, and strange essay at the very end of the book that comes to bizarre conclusions about the difficulties of historiography…

Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy’s grandiose novel “War and Peace” merely by its weight overwhelms similar historical and family sagas. Its realistic yet light narrative style, easily relatable and lifelike characters enable anyone to immerse themselves in this unparalleled historical tableau, which comprehensively portrays a whole nation’s defensive war in every detail. And you can always skip over the abysmally boring contemplative passages and military expositions.


War and Peace by Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy
1350 pages, Paperback
Published in 2010 by Oxford University Press

You may also be interested in:
Margaret Mitchell: Gone With the Wind
Joe Abercrombie: The Trouble with Peace

*Be Good, if You Can is a reference to the film State buoni se potete (IMDb)

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