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*See discount terms and conditions.
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?
The short answer is that historical novels always merge
fact and fiction, as the contradictory terms “historical” and “novel”
remind us. But the deeper and more interesting answer as to why
Tolstoy chose a historical context for this particular story—unlike
his later Anna Karenina, which is completely fictional—involves
his complex theory of history. As Tolstoy repeatedly shows us in War
and Peace, historians do not give us the whole truth about
what happened on the battlefield, or anywhere else for that matter.
They give us only their particular slant on what happened, distorted
by their own prejudices, interpretations, and fantasies. The historian
is, then, much more akin to a creative writer than he would likely
admit. By writing an account of Napoleon’s war with Russia from
the Russian perspective, which had not yet been attempted at the
time of the novel’s publication (or so Tolstoy tells us), Tolstoy
is suggesting that a fictional work may do the job of recording
history just as well. Literature may tell the truth as effectively
as supposedly objective history books that are in fact not objective
Moreover, fiction has the power to reconstruct the lowly
figures of history that the historian must necessarily leave out,
as history itself forgets small individuals in its focus on great
men and great leaders. Tolstoy’s philosophy of history insists that
great men are illusions, and that the high and the low alike are
swept along by networks of circumstances. Therefore, he has a vested
interest in depicting the significance of nobodies like Platon Karataev
or Pierre’s executed prison mates. History books may be forced to overlook
these small figures, but the novelist has the power to conjure them
up before our eyes, to restore their rightful importance in the
overall scheme of things.
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?
Tolstoy indeed values love and courtship,
which in War and Peace appear just as important
in the overall scheme of things as battles and diplomacy. The choice
of spouses is a very serious matter for Tolstoy, a philosophical
statement about who one is and what one wants out of life. Pierre’s
greatest disappointment in life, for instance, his greatest spur
to find the positive meaning in existence, is his bad decision to
marry Helene. Tolstoy emphasizes that a good partner is a prerequisite
not just for contentment at home, but for fulfillment as a person
overall. Precisely for this reason, he emphasizes how characters’
choices of mates change over time as their personalities develop
and their lives unfold.
If Nicholas married Sonya at the end, and Natasha wedded Boris,
the novel would suggest that the growth of these four characters
has led them all full circle, back to their childhood crushes and early
fantasies. At the opening of the novel, Nicholas is a boy full of illusions
who loses forty-three thousand rubles in a card game, but by the
end he is supporting his mother on a meager salary. He has changed
greatly, and it is inevitable that his criteria for a good wife have
changed as well. Similarly, at the beginning, Natasha is a mere girl
who becomes attached to Boris partly in imitation of her cousin Sonya’s
attachment to Nicholas. Such love is child’s play, an early romantic
infatuation. But after the loss of her home and the death of her
fiancé, Natasha understands that life is no game, but rather is full
of pain and suffering. Boris, even in adulthood, does not appear to
have suffered much, but Pierre has. In this regard, Tolstoy implies that
Natasha’s union with Pierre is a merging of spirits who have matured
in the same direction over time.
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
Tolstoy was certainly aware that the events
of 1812 would, for a Russian reader, hold
great patriotic significance. Russia had been under the sway of
French culture for more than a century, to the extent that some
Russian noblemen—like Prince Golitsyn mentioned in the novel—only
spoke French, and could not even speak the Russian language. Economically,
diplomatically, and culturally, France had been deemed superior
to Russia for so long that a war between the two nations raised
profound questions about who Russians really were, and whether they
had a culture of their own. In the 1860s,
when Tolstoy wrote War and Peace, this topic was
a subject of hot debate between two groups in Russian intellectual
society. The Westernizers believed that Russia should continue looking
to Europe for guidance, whereas the Slavophiles argued that Russia should
drop the West as a role model and follow its own unique path instead.
The war between western Europe and Russia in Tolstoy’s novel plays
out this cultural conflict dramatically. The final victory for the
Russians had a timely meaning for many readers and critics in the
context of the 1860s, symbolizing hope for
Russian cultural independence. The fact that the greatest moral
voice in the novel is a Russian peasant, Platon Karataev, points
to Tolstoy’s interest in affirming native Russian folk wisdom.
Yet, as Tolstoy never ceases to point out in War
and Peace, history is never simple, but is composed of
inextricable networks of tightly linked factors. Indeed, the French
and Russians are bound too closely to be fully separated. Platon
is Russian, but perhaps Pierre would not have grasped the peasant’s
genius if he had not read so many French books and lived in Paris.
Tolstoy emphasizes the interconnection between France and Russia
in his insistence on consistently calling Pierre by his French name,
never by his Russian name, Petr—even though other characters are
named in both French and Russian (Anatole addresses Natasha as Natalie,
for example). Tolstoy may be subtly pointing out that even people
as appreciative of Russian culture as Pierre is have been indelibly marked
by French culture. Tolstoy thus implies that cultural interdependence
is inevitable, and not necessarily detrimental. Patriotism, meanwhile,
requires precisely the opposite belief: that one national group
must be wholly separated from another, and that they must be pitted
against each other. Tolstoy values the notion of interconnected
humanity, and the deep brotherhood of all humankind, too much to
indulge in patriotic divisions.
Ace your assignments with our guide to War and Peace!