War and Peace

by: Leo Tolstoy

Book One

Summary Book One

It is clear that the people in the society of War and Peace are on the attack, out for conquest. Moreover, we sense that those characters who are too naïve to recognize this warlike dynamic—as Pierre soon proves to be—will be defeated and plundered. Marya Dmitrievna even describes little Natasha as a “Cossack” warrior, using an admiring tone that suggests that the world of the novel is a place in which being called a warrior is a compliment. The idea that humans are fighting for their survival, holding off the enemy however they can, is a dominant motif throughout War and Peace, and one that Tolstoy examines from several angles. While the author never approves of extreme tactics, such as the cold-blooded ruthlessness of Helene Kuragina, it is arguable that he views love—and all of life, for that matter—as a battlefield upon which some sort of fighting is always necessary.

Tolstoy’s exploration of war in this novel also raises complicated issues about what it means to identify with one’s nation. The threat of a French war against Russia reveals the irony of a cultural situation in which, even in peacetime, the French-speaking Russian aristocrats already seem at war with the common, native Russian-speaking population. The division among nations during the Napoleonic wars also points to a division within Russia itself even before war begins. We hear, for example, that Hippolyte Kuragin speaks Russian like a foreigner. We wonder what the war against France might mean to this Russian who speaks only French. The cultural divide within the Russian nation in peacetime could, perhaps, simply become more noticeable in wartime, making the Napoleonic war an internal as well as an external threat.