War and Peace

by: Leo Tolstoy

Symbols

Main ideas Symbols
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.