Friday, August 19, 2016

War and Peace

Severe Spoilers Ahead

War and Peace is a historical fiction story set in around 1815 in Russia as Napoleon and his forces advance east.  There are many characters who go in and out of the story but there are three whom I consider to be the main characters: Pierre, Natasha, and Prince Andrey.  At the beginning of the story we meet Pierre, newly returned to Russia after studying abroad.  He is overweight, awkward, and unused to the high society and etiquette of Moscow.  No one gives him a second glance until he inherits a large sum of money from his estranged father.  At that point, Pierre is thrust into a world he is unaccustomed to, and which ultimately leads to a great deal of mistakes and pain.

Natasha is a young girl who is optimistic and free at the beginning of the story.  She dreams of getting married, but has a terrible reputation with relationships throughout the story.

Prince Andrey enlists to help fight against France in Austria.  He quickly learns that war is not as glamorous as he though and regrets his decision.  He also faces many family problems including the deaths of his wife and father.

The two main settings are Moscow, Russia, where Natasha and Pierre are from, and Austria where Pierre, Prince Andrey, and Anatole Kuragin--another influential character--each fight at separate times.

War and Peace is aptly titled because it focuses on several different versions of "war and peace".  The first is obviously the conflict between Russia and France.  Some (like Pierre early on in the story) are in favor of embracing French customs and assimilating into French culture, while others are fiercely protective over "Mother Russia" and her "superior" ways.  There is both the conflict between Russia's own in this matter, as well as the literal war taking place on the battle field in Austria, and later in the streets of Moscow itself.  This state of war is only interrupted briefly by short fragments of peace for the characters when they are either injured and can't fight, or Napoleon is backing down.

The second instance of "war and peace" is Pierre's own internal battle.  He marries a beautiful yet tricky princess (she married him only for the money) who promptly has an affair with his own friend.  He vows that he will kill her for this, but seems conflicted and never follows through.  Pierre is launched into a place of uncertainty and dismay.  He eventually enrolls in the Church and finds peace there, realizing it is not his job to seed vengeance upon his former wife.

The third conflict centers around Natasha.  Early on when she was just a little girl, she was "in love" with her cousin, Boris.  At first this causes her immense strife, because she knows they can never be together, but as she grows older, she and Boris drift apart, and she enters a time of peace.  Later on, however, she falls in love with Prince Andrey and the remain in love for a long time.  Prince Andrey proposes to her and she gladly accepts.  Prince Andrey's father doubts that the young Natasha truly wants to marry the already-once-widowed Andrey, and so forces them to wait a year before getting married.

At first his is unbearable for both Andrey and Natasha, but Natasha is hit on by the conniving bachelor, Anatole Kuragin.  Natasha gets caught up in his attention and they are on the brink of running way to get married together, when she is saved by her sister Sonya.  Natasha feels horrible after these events because she has betrayed Prince Andrey (whom she really did love) and has ruined her reputation.  She enters a long depression where she is constantly at war with herself.

Prince Andrey, seeing nothing left for himself, goes into war and is mortally injured.  As he is dying, he is taken to Natasha's refugee house.  Natasha is shocked to see him, but she is able to fully apologize and he forgives her.  Prince Andrey dies in peace there.  Natasha feels much better and finds her own peace when she and Pierre marry in the end.

I would whole-heartedly recommend this book.  It does a great job of portraying realistic and well-rounded characters.  Students should be warned that it is 1400+ pages and is a big time commitment.  I would give this book four and a half stars.  I take away half a star only because there are sometimes irrelevant and boring digressions.  Certain digressions I found interesting--those on philosophy and humanity--but others were (at least for me) unbearably boring because they were all about Russian and French history. These digressions, however, are much better than Victor Hugo's in Les Miserables so if you could handle those, you will be fine with this book.

One of my favorite parts of this book was how dynamic all the characters are.  Each character in the book is changed by the war, usually for the better.  This is illustrated perfectly by Prince Andrey, who is naive when the war starts, but quickly learns what war is really like:

"'What's happening?...I think I'm falling...My legs are going,' he thought, collapsing on his back.  He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the fight between the French soldiers and our gunner ended.  Was the gunner killed or not?  Did they get the canons or were they saved?  But he saw none of that.  Above him was nothing, nothing but the sky--the lofty sky, not a clear sky, but still infinitely lofty, with grey clouds creeping gently across.  'It's so quiet, peaceful and solemn, not like me rushing about,' thought Prince Andrey, 'Not like us, all that yelling and scrapping, not like that Frenchman and our gunner pulling on that cleaning-rod, with their scared and bitter faces, those clouds are different, creeping across that lofty, infinite sky.  How can it be that I've never seen that lofty sky before?  Oh how happy I am to have found it at last.  yes!  It's all vanity, it's all an illusion, everything except that infinite sky.  There is nothing, nothing--that's all there is.  But there isn't even that.   There's nothing but stillness and peace.  Thank God for that!'"

Later on, Prince Andrey accepts Anatole Kuragin and forgives him for trying to steal Natasha with one of my favorite quotes:

"'Yes, it's love...(his thoughts were lucidity itself), but not the kind of love that loves for a reason, a purpose, a cause, but the kind of love I felt for the first time when I was on my death bed and I saw my enemy and loved him.  I experienced the feeling of love that is the essence of the soul, love that seeks no object.  I can feel it now, that blessed feeling.  To love your neighbor and love your enemy.  To love everything, to love God in all His manifestations.  You can love someone dear to you with human love, but it takes divine love to love your enemy.  That's why I felt such joy when I knew I loved that man.  I wonder what happened to him.  Is he still alive?...When you love with human love, you can turn from love to hatred, but divine love cannot change.  Nothing, not even death, nothing can destroy it.  it is the essence of the soul.  How many people I have hated in the course of my life!  And there is nobody I loved and hated more than her.'...For the first time he caught an image of her in his soul.  And he could understand all her feelings, suffering, shame, and remorse.  'If I could only see her one last time...just once, to look into her eyes and say...'"

If these quotes sounded like good writing to you, then you are sure to enjoy War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.

Have you read War and Peace?  Which conflict do you find most fascinating?

Are you going to read War and Peace?  Which translation will you use?


  1. This sounds like a good story! I loved Les Miserables and didn't mind the digressions at all- in fact, I rather enjoyed them, being a history lover. :) I'll have to pick this book up someday.

    1. It was definitely a quality tale! I too love Les Mis, but personally I am not a fan of the digressions :)
      Oh you should definitely read War and Peace!!