War and Peace
Study Questions & Essay Topics
1. War and Peace is a historical novel. Tolstoy made great efforts to ensure the accuracy of his facts and dates, and the characters of Tsar Alexander I, Napoleon, Speranski, and other dignitaries generally respect historical factuality. Yet almost all the important and interesting characters in the novel are fictional. Why does Tolstoy merge fact and fiction in this fashion?
2. Early in the novel, Tolstoy takes great care in depicting two pairs of childhood sweethearts: Nicholas and Sonya, and Natasha and Boris. As the love stories in the novel are key, we expect these two relationships to blossom and develop over time, and to culminate finally in marriage. Yet oddly, neither does. Why does Tolstoy set up these two pairs so carefully, only to drive them apart in the end?
3. Tolstoy was fully aware that Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia would be a subject dear to the hearts of patriotic Russian readers. Though War and Peace depicts a Russian victory, the novel is not nearly as patriotic as it could be. Indeed, at times Tolstoy even makes an effort to downplay the patriotic dimension of his story. Why does he choose a historical moment brimming with nationalistic potential, but then refuse to trumpet a patriotic message?
Suggested Essay Topics
1. Why is Pierre initially satisfied with Freemasonry as a framework for meaning in his life, but then ultimately disappointed? What does Pierre’s later spiritual development provide that the Masons could not offer?
2. Andrew seems to love Natasha genuinely, yet he obeys his father by waiting a year to marry. Andrew’s duty to respect his father’s wishes does not seem to fully explain his decision, as he defies his father on other occasions. Does Andrew use his father’s command as an excuse for stalling Natasha? If so, why is Andrew conflicted about marrying her?
3. Tolstoy characterizes General Kutuzov as an admirable leader who is wise, devout, humble, and patient. But near the end of War and Peace, Kutuzov loses support and is widely criticized. Why does Tolstoy make this great leader into a neglected and unappreciated figure at the end of the novel?
4. Though the Kuragin family is highly successful in the early parts of the novel, the family’s fortunes turn sour by the end, as Helene and Anatole meet untimely deaths. What is the significance of Tolstoy’s representation of the sudden shift in the Kuragin fortunes?
5. At the beginning of the novel, Natasha is a bold, lively girl with a passion for life. By the end, however, Tolstoy emphasizes her stodginess—even dullness—and her careless disregard for her personal appearance. Is the final image of Natasha as a Russian matron a positive development, or a deterioration from her earlier liveliness?
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