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 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.