Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Although a large portion of War and Peace focuses on war, which is associated in our minds with clear-headed strategy and sensible reasoning, Tolstoy constantly emphasizes the irrational motives for human behavior in both peace and war. Wisdom is linked not to reason but to an acceptance of how mysterious our actions can be, even to ourselves. General Kutuzov emerges as a great leader not because he develops a logical plan and then demands that everyone follow it, but rather because he is willing to adapt to the flow of events and think on his feet. He revises his plan as each stage turns out to be vastly different from what was expected. Similarly irrational actions include Nicholas’s sudden decision to wed Mary after previously resolving to go back to Sonya, and Natasha’s surprising marriage to Pierre. Yet almost all the irrational actions we see in the novel turn out successfully, in accordance with instincts in human life that, for Tolstoy, lie far deeper than our reasoning minds.
Several characters in War and Peace experience sudden revelations about the absurdity of existence. Andrew, for instance, has a near-death experience at Austerlitz that shows him a glimpse of the truth behind the falsity of earthly life. While Andrew needs a brush with death to bring about this spiritual vision, Pierre spends most of the novel wondering why his life is so empty and artificial. The immediate cause of Pierre’s philosophizing is his marriage to the wrong woman, but his pondering goes beyond Helene alone, to include the vast mystery of why humans are put on Earth. Pierre’s involvement with the mystical practice of Freemasonry constitutes his attempt to give meaning to his life. Tolstoy, however, shows the inadequacies of this approach, as Pierre grows bored with the Masons and dissatisfied with their passivity. Pierre’s involvement with politics, shown in his short-lived, crazy obsession with assassinating Napoleon, is equally shallow. What finally gives meaning to Pierre’s life is the experience of real love with Natasha.
Tolstoy explores characters on both the highest and lowest rungs of the social ladder in War and Peace, giving us realistic portraits of peasants and tsars, servants and emperors. Consequently, we not only get a close look at lofty leaders like Napoleon and Alexander, but also a chance to view them against the backdrop of society as a whole, an opportunity to assess these leaders’ overall usefulness and role on a general level. In this regard, Tolstoy gives us a no-nonsense, democratic evaluation of princes, generals, and other supposed leaders—and the result is not very flattering. Nicholas’s first glimpse of Alexander produces surprise at the fact that the tsar is just an ordinary man. Our view of Napoleon is even worse: when we see him in his bathroom getting his plump little body rubbed down, it is hard to imagine him as the grand conqueror of Europe. Tolstoy’s philosophy of history justifies his cynicism toward leaders, for, in his view, history is not a creation of great men, but is rather the result of millions of individual chains of cause and effect too small to be analyzed independently. Even emperors, though they may imagine they rule the world, are caught in these chains of circumstance.