At the beginning of Book Three of War and Peace, Tolstoy writes about the laws of historical movement: “Only by taking an infinitesimally small unit for observation (the differential of history, that is, the individual tendencies of men) and attaining to the art of integrating them (that is, finding the sum of these infinitesimals) can we hope to arrive at the laws of history.” Throughout his many commentaries on history in War and Peace, the author rejects the idea that it was a single great man, like Napoleon or Alexander I, that caused the French invasion of Russia and the army’s resulting destruction. The entire second epilogue, for instance, is dedicated to Tolstoy’s thoughts on the study of history as he explores concepts like liberty, grandeur, power and religion and how they come to bear on the examination of past events; it is a shame that many don’t read this section and that it is not included in certain editions of the English translations. As I reflect on the work as a whole, two of Tolstoy’s themes keep coming to mind: war and love. He examines both of these subjects on a grand scale but it is equally important for him to focus his text on the lives of individuals, getting down to the level of the “infinitesimals.”
The male protagonists in War and Peace, Prince Andrei, Nicholas Rostov, and Pierre, go through significant transformations in their thinking about warfare after they experience it firsthand. Early in the story, Prince Andrei and Nicholas both, as I discussed in a previous post, display a great deal of bravado and desire to go to war to attain fame and honor. Their horrific experiences on the battlefield, however, cause both men to lose their naïve and callow views of battle. They come to the realization that individual glory is not important but that they are part of a much larger and important whole. But it’s really Pierre, a pampered and privileged count, whose view of life and war change most dramatically because of his experiences of watching men fight and die. Pierre doesn’t join the army as a soldier like Andrei or Nicholas, but his desire to experience the events of a battlefield and his ensuing hardships as a result of his curiosity force him to have a dramatic existential shift in his worldviews. When placed under situations of extreme duress, Pierre shows himself to be a good, decent man and even a hero.
The most surprising theme for me that I encountered in War and Peace is that of love; one encounters examples of many different types of love throughout Tolstoy’s epic—romantic love, erotic love, conjugal love, patriotic love, familial love and even love of one’s enemy. Due to traumatic events they suffer while serving in the Russian army, Prince Andrei and Nicholas also come to the conclusion that human connections and love are more important than anything in life, including glory. (Achilles would have been horrified by both of them.) Nicholas, when he meets the woman that he will eventually marry has an epiphany; even though she is rather plain, it is her gracious and beautiful soul that attracts him. Prince Andrei becomes, I think, a softened and much more likeable character when he is overcome with love for a woman. I was glad to see that, in the end, this woman (I don’t want to give her name away) grows to make herself worthy of his love.
The beginning parts of War and Peace are difficult to read because of Pierre’s confused notions of love. He awkwardly speaks to his fiancée the moment they become engaged, “‘Je vous amie‘! he said, remembering what has to be said at such moments: but his words felt so weak that he felt ashamed of himself.” It is not so much love Pierre feels but lust. In the epilogue of War and Peace, Tolstoy presents us with a very different Pierre who has settled into a tranquil and happy domestic life during his second marriage. Tolstoy’s epic ends on a positive note for his characters as far as love is concerned but his view of conjugal love is realistic, attainable by anyone. These final scenes are captivating and unexpected in their depiction of a couple engaging in mundane, everyday, family activities; Tolstoy provides a realistic view of love in which mutual kindness, a deep love and unconditional acceptance are attained.
I have that empty, restless feeling one has when one finishes a truly great book. I am still not quite sure what reading I will settle into next; nothing seems to have captured my attention since I have completed Tolstoy’s masterpiece.