War and Peace
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Irrationality of Human Motives
Although a large portion of War and Peace focuses on war, which is associated in our minds with clear-headed strategy and sensible reasoning, Tolstoy constantly emphasizes the irrational motives for human behavior in both peace and war. Wisdom is linked not to reason but to an acceptance of how mysterious our actions can be, even to ourselves. General Kutuzov emerges as a great leader not because he develops a logical plan and then demands that everyone follow it, but rather because he is willing to adapt to the flow of events and think on his feet. He revises his plan as each stage turns out to be vastly different from what was expected. Similarly irrational actions include Nicholas’s sudden decision to wed Mary after previously resolving to go back to Sonya, and Natasha’s surprising marriage to Pierre. Yet almost all the irrational actions we see in the novel turn out successfully, in accordance with instincts in human life that, for Tolstoy, lie far deeper than our reasoning minds.
The Search for the Meaning of Life
Several characters in War and Peace experience sudden revelations about the absurdity of existence. Andrew, for instance, has a near-death experience at Austerlitz that shows him a glimpse of the truth behind the falsity of earthly life. While Andrew needs a brush with death to bring about this spiritual vision, Pierre spends most of the novel wondering why his life is so empty and artificial. The immediate cause of Pierre’s philosophizing is his marriage to the wrong woman, but his pondering goes beyond Helene alone, to include the vast mystery of why humans are put on Earth. Pierre’s involvement with the mystical practice of Freemasonry constitutes his attempt to give meaning to his life. Tolstoy, however, shows the inadequacies of this approach, as Pierre grows bored with the Masons and dissatisfied with their passivity. Pierre’s involvement with politics, shown in his short-lived, crazy obsession with assassinating Napoleon, is equally shallow. What finally gives meaning to Pierre’s life is the experience of real love with Natasha.
The Limits of Leadership
Tolstoy explores characters on both the highest and lowest rungs of the social ladder in War and Peace, giving us realistic portraits of peasants and tsars, servants and emperors. Consequently, we not only get a close look at lofty leaders like Napoleon and Alexander, but also a chance to view them against the backdrop of society as a whole, an opportunity to assess these leaders’ overall usefulness and role on a general level. In this regard, Tolstoy gives us a no-nonsense, democratic evaluation of princes, generals, and other supposed leaders—and the result is not very flattering. Nicholas’s first glimpse of Alexander produces surprise at the fact that the tsar is just an ordinary man. Our view of Napoleon is even worse: when we see him in his bathroom getting his plump little body rubbed down, it is hard to imagine him as the grand conqueror of Europe. Tolstoy’s philosophy of history justifies his cynicism toward leaders, for, in his view, history is not a creation of great men, but is rather the result of millions of individual chains of cause and effect too small to be analyzed independently. Even emperors, though they may imagine they rule the world, are caught in these chains of circumstance.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
War and Peace is full of romantic mate-choices made without a full grasp of their consequences, some of them with disastrous results. Pierre marries the beautiful Helene in a daze of sexual passion and naïve trust, and his life almost immediately becomes a constant torment as Helene cheats on him with his friend. Natasha is smitten with the rakish Anatole and prepares to elope with him without seeing that his irresponsible ways would bring her to misery. Her crush on Anatole costs her a chance with Andrew, who cannot forgive her lapse. In both cases, an unreasoned romantic impulse ends up being destructive. Yet Tolstoy does not condemn irrational love. The two great love stories that conclude the novel—between Natasha and Pierre and between Mary and Nicholas—both take their lovers, and us as readers, by surprise. It suddenly occurs to all of them that they are in love, despite having very different expectations in mind. Unexplained love can be a horrible mistake, but it can also be wonderful. At its best, unpredictable love is a symbol of the mysterious forces of human life and instinct that cannot be denied.
The loss of substantial amounts of money or property is a recurrent motif throughout the novel, and is associated in particular with the Rostov family. The family’s fortunes are already in decline at the beginning of the novel, as the irresponsible Count Rostov has dissipated his children’s inheritance through careless spending. Nicholas’s gambling losses accelerate the decline, and then the family is forced to abandon their Moscow home and most of their belongings as the French invade the city. But these financial losses are not necessarily signs of failure. Tolstoy, who himself gave away possessions in search of spiritual regeneration later in life, shows in War and Peace the positive side of the Rostovs’ material misfortunes. Count Rostov’s gracious payment of Nicholas’s debts shows a powerful connection between father and son, a connection that Nicholas affirms by vowing to repay his debt in five years. His early financial losses appear to leave him wiser, and later in life he becomes a savvy landowner. Moreover, the Rostov spirit for life, unhindered by compromised finances, ends up breeding charismatic children who marry into two of the largest fortunes in Russia—that of the Bolkonskis and that of the Bezukhovs. In a sense, Tolstoy may even be hinting that financial carelessness has the capacity to ultimately produce a spiritual richness worth far more than the mere material wealth.
Death as a Revelation
Death in War and Peace is never just a biological end, but almost always a moral event that brings some philosophical revelation. The first major instance of death as a revelation is Andrew’s near-death experience at Austerlitz, when he lies on the field blissfully aware of how little the external world matters and rejoicing that its burden has been lifted from his shoulders. Andrew does not even care that Napoleon himself passes by and comments on him, as earthly values of rank and power have lost all their meaning to him. Tolstoy’s portrayals of death’s revelatory power also include epiphanies some characters experience upon the deaths of others. One example is Pierre’s powerful reaction to the execution of the Russian prisoners of war in the French army camp, which leads him to radical thoughts on the insanity of war and the brotherhood of mankind. Pierre’s reverence for the inspirational Platon makes the latter’s execution prompt an existential crisis in Pierre. Similarly, Andrew’s death leads Natasha to a profound change in her outlook, making her far more reflective and serious than ever before. Perhaps Natasha, without the experience of grieving for Andrew, would never become mature enough to marry Pierre in the end. In this sense, death is not merely the end of life, but a powerful lesson in faith and philosophy.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Battle of Borodino
The Battle of Borodino is far more than a decisive military turning point in the clash between Napoleon and the Russians. Abundantly overlaid with Tolstoy’s philosophy of history and free will, Borodino becomes a symbol of the conflict between two very different conceptions of human life and action. The French imagine that they obey reason and strategy in maneuvering troops and plotting battles, and they are confident that they will win because of their logical advantages, such as their superior manpower and supplies. The Russians, by contrast, follow more instinctive and less rational principles. They fight spiritually, with their whole beings, just as Kutuzov is said to lead them spiritually. When Kutuzov kneels before an icon after the Battle of Borodino, we see that faith, rather than reason, is his guiding light. Tolstoy depicts this spiritual victory at Borodino as a kind of minor miracle, inexplicable in rational terms—an event that, for Tolstoy, illustrates the superiority of Russian spirit to European reason.
The French Occupation of Moscow
On a basic level, the French occupation of Moscow is a tragic event in the history of the Napoleonic wars. Tolstoy, however, makes the occupation of the city into a symbol of the European cultural invasion of Russia, using it to criticize Russian dependency on foreign styles and institutions wrongly deemed superior to native ones. In cultural terms, the French takeover of Russia was underway long before Napoleon burst onto the historical scene. We see that the French-Russian conflict is a deep and complex one, as Tolstoy opens War and Peace with a conversation between two Russians chatting in French about their fears of a war with France. The threat is both external and internal, as the Russian nobility, in many ways, appears far closer to the French than to their own Russian peasantry. Though we hear of Prince Golitsyn taking Russian lessons to avoid speaking French, we sense that this measure will not be enough to give the Russian gentry a truly native cultural identity. Therefore, it is highly symbolic that Pierre—referred to using the French form of “Peter” rather than the Russian “Petr”—receives spiritual illumination not from a Western source, but from a homegrown Russian peasant, Platon Karataev. The answer to the French occupation of Russia, Tolstoy implies, lies in greater appreciation of native Russians like Platon.
Nicholas’s Rebuilding of Bald Hills
At the end of the Napoleonic wars, Nicholas’s finances are in ruins: his father is dead and has left huge debts, while his mother expects to live in the same luxury she has always enjoyed. Nicholas’s Moscow home was left to French marauders, and it is doubtful whether anything of value will remain after the Rostovs return. Nicholas’s marriage to the wealthy Mary Bolkonskaya, then, comes as a sweet relief—both an emotional and a financial regeneration. His rebuilding of Mary’s family’s old estate, Bald Hills, is symbolic not just of the restoration of his own financial well being, but of the continuing prosperity of the old Russian spirit. The Rostovs may have appeared to be in decline, but at the end of the novel they are stronger than ever, enriched by Natasha’s Pierre and Nicholas’s Mary. The old Russian aristocracy may be less grand than before—Nicholas rebuilds Bald Hills on a smaller scale and with simple peasant-made furniture—but at least the estate continues, as a symbol of the indomitable old Russian traditions.
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