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?
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 at all.
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.
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?
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.