I read War and Peace for fun…


Jojo Dalwadi

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is book that most readers shy away from. And for good reason too, as it can be seen here to easily equal the size of three other books all the size of 300 pages.

I have a hatred for fictional books with a burning passion– and always have. I’ve always rendered them useless. Although my logic is nowhere near sound and could be easily refuted by anyone, I don’t see fictional books as helpful to the real world. They include: fake characters, a fake plot, and sometimes even a fake setting. How is one supposed to learn a lesson from a book that is all made up? I do read books, but only self-help books on various topics. I read neutral political “manifestos”, books written by famous coaches, and even about war. I read those types of books because I know for a fact I can learn a lesson and translate it into the real world– I know that because they are based on stories that actually happened, not made up fairytales where the author rigs the plot so there is some type of ending that suits them. Despite all of that, I decided to read one of the largest works of fiction in human history.

War and Peace. One of those books you shouldn’t read before falling asleep in bed because if you doze off, the sheer size of it alone could give you a concussion. An exaggeration of course, but the book is no joke considering that it can range from being 900-1,200 pages in length depending on who translated your book.

The title itself was the only thing needed to lure me in. I talk about how fictional books offer no guidance in the real world, but the words “war” and “peace” get you thinking. Is it a novel about one character who gradually progresses his life between wartime battles and a normal citizen? Or is it about how war aims to attain peace? So I began watching youtube videos and reading articles about Leo Tolstoy’s monster of a book and was immediately hooked. After about 8 months of reading the book, I can finally say I read it. Here’s my number one tip for you, do your research! The book is primarily based on real-life events and if you have zero background knowledge of them, you will truly get lost within the pages. I’ll help you out with the paragraphs that follow.

Is it a novel? A tone? An Epic? Whatever it might be, it’s author, Leo Tolstoy, examines some of the most realistic fictional characters and history at the same time. Starting to write the book in 1863, Tolstoy’s first objective was to write a short novel about a Russian group returning from exile in Siberia. And 5 years later, he wrote a 1,200-page book on everything but, what he had originally planned for.

Instead of writing about a political refugee returning from Siberia, he instead managed to write about love stories, war, the burning of Moscow, and above all– a drunk bear? How did Tolstoy go from one simple idea to one of the most complex and intertwining novels ever made?

Tolstoy settled into his family mansion in Russia named, “Yasnaya Polyana,” to write about the return of the Decemberist, who were a group of revolutionaries that tried to overthrow Tsar Nicholas I in 1825. Come 30 years later, the Tsar had pardoned the revolutionaries, and Tolstoy began writing. But then Tolstoy thought to himself, how could he possibly tell the story of the Decembrist, without telling the story of why they revolted in 1825 in the first place? And how was he supposed to tell that story, without adding context for the reader about Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia in 1812, which was the reason Tsar Nicholas I was so authoritative following those years. But how would he just jump into a war with Napolean, without talking about 1805 when he first posed a threat to Russia?

Tolstoy thought the best way of doing that, was to not solely make War and Peace a history textbook but to add fictional characters whose lives were affected due to the real events taking place. He focused his writing on the Russian aristocratic class, the social class he knew best– because he was one of them. The epic barely mentions the serfs (or the majority of the Russian population). Keep in mind there is absolutely no way of me being able to do this 1,200-page book any justice with a simple summary, but here is a general breakdown of what you could expect.

The beginning of War and Peace starts in 1805 on an evening in July with a well-known figure in the book, and the maid of honor on that specific night, Anna Povlovna welcoming her guest at her palace for her soiree (just a fancy word for an evening gathering that Tolstoy uses a lot). She welcomes princes, generals, princesses, and other prominent figures in the Russian aristocratic classes. The first dialogue is between Anna Povlovna and Prince Vasily Kuragin, who start off talking about the “antichrist” himself, Napoleon Bonaparte. They talk about the threat of war and also the affect Napolean has had on western Europe up until that point. And then they change their topics of discussion to what aristocrats in that era know best– sex, money, and politics. This opening dialogue between Anna Povlovna and Prince Vasily sets the tone of what the reader can expect from the book: of how it intertwines between the political and personal (war and peace!).

There are no main characters and there is no set plot for the book either. The reader is instead gifted with an omnificent role in various characters’ thoughts and relationships. Will the illegitimate son of Count Bezukhov, Pierre, marry a rich but machiavellian princess? Will Pierre, a social reject, lose his only friend left in the world, Prince Andrey, during a battle between Russia and France? But what about Natasha Rostov, the girl that is falling-in-love with both Prince Andrey and Pierre at the same time? What does that do to the brotherhood relationship Pierre and Prince Andrey share?

Tolstoy teaches the readers of War and Peace to try to understand and get in the minds of characters who are in the wrong. For example, I’ll use Natasha. At the start of the book, she is engaged to Prince Andrey, who is seen as a kind man who loves her deeply. But when he is sent off to the battlefields, Natasha meets his best friend, Pierre, who uses his charm to make Natasha fall under his spell. Pierre almost ends up seducing Natasha into a life of romance and almost runs off with her. But the Rostov’s get ahold of this plot set up by Pierre and put a stop to it completely. This sort of action is egregious and inexcusable, especially considering that Natasha’s actions brought shame to the entire aristocratic Russian family, the Rostovs.

But let’s look at this situation from how Tolstoy wanted us to. By the standards set by the world, Natasha has failed. If we caught wind of such a story about a prominent woman in the news today, we would come to the conclusion that she is a liar and whatever punishment she gets for her actions, she deserves. But Tolstoy wants us to understand that if we looked at things from Natasha’s point of view, we would understand and be less hateful towards her. In truth, she isn’t self-indulgent, machiavellian, or lacking devotion. She is just a hopeless romantic who felt abandoned by her fiance, Prince Andrey, who was busy at war. She has an impulsive and warm nature and is easily carried away by the thoughts of eternal happiness and joy. She is also extremely worried about letting other people down, which is why she even gets into a relationship with Pierre.

As a reader, Tolstoy somehow manages to keep you on Natasha’s side. By doing so, he inadvertently makes us examine a move that he believes is fundamental to life: if we started to try to understand the inner lives of the people we are close with, we would without a doubt, treat them with kindness and forgiveness they deserve.

Tolstoy also adds real historical figures to mingle will all of these fictional characters throughout the book. And while the drama within the characters is gripping to the reader, Tolstoy doesn’t shy away from taking a break from the storyline to ask real-world questions. Why do wars start? What are good battlefield tactics? Do nations fall on the actions of great men? Or do they fall because larger economic and cultural forces are at play?

If you managed to finish the task of finishing War and Peace, you’ll notice that Tolstoy has spanned the entirety of the book from 1805 to 1820– which is 36 years before the events he had originally set out to write about. In trying to understand his own times, he had lost his goal with the years piled up behind him. That resulted in a mass examination into human culture, psychology, philosophy, and the response to war.