Reflections on War and Peace

Leo Tolstoy aged 20, 1848

It’s been three months since I finished reading Tolstoy’s epic work War and Peace and I find that elements of it have remained with me.

When I first started the book I thought how very like Jane Austen it was: drawing room society, the same class of people, observations on the manners and social etiquette of the time (War and Peace covers the years 1805-1815; Austen was writing from roughly 1811-1816). But, crucially, being a man, Tolstoy is able to write about the battles whereas Austen can only refer to the regiments stationed nearby (in Pride and Prejudice, etc.). Tolstoy was a soldier and as a participant he writes well on the themes of the folly of older generals, the impetuosity of youthful cadets, etc.

I wondered whether Tolstoy’s writing of male characters was better than his female ones? Because of the numerous battle scenes we get to see more of his male characters in action and for this reason perhaps they seem more rounded, e.g. Rostóv’s opinion of Bolkonski, how he feels about the Emperor are formed by how they appear in and out of battle. Thus we get a better impression of what Rostóv is really like. By comparison his female characters can seem like stereotypical ciphers: Hélène is beautiful, cool, aloof – a pawn in her father’s plans to acquire wealth; Countess Rostóva is delicate, too highly-strung to be told about her son’s minor injury; Princess Mary is plain. Devout yet passionate; desirous of earthly love, marriage and children. 

It is on the subject of War that Tolstoy is at his best. I was struck by the way in which he writes about the year 1812 in the same way that current historians write about 1914:

An event took place opposed to human reason and human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts, forgeries, issues of false money, burglaries, incendiarisms, and murders, as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not regard at the time as being crimes.

(War and Peace, Book IX, Chapter I, p.663)

That at the time the causes seemed reasonable but that to the descendants it seems unfathomable that “millions of Christian men killed and tortured each other” because of them (p.664). “We are forced to fall back on fatalism as an explanation of irrational events…” (p.665). “They kill and maim tens of thousands, and then have thanksgiving services for having killed so many people…

Sound familiar? An estimated 80,000 men died at the Battle of Borodinó on the 26th of August 1812. Just over a century later similar numbers would be killed on the Somme.

Here describing the start of the Battle of Borodinó from Pierre’s point of view:

Pierre looked at the scene before him, spellbound by its beauty… the whole place was full of troops and covered by smoke-clouds from the guns, and the slanting rays of the bright sun… cast upon it through the clear morning air penetrating streaks of rosy, golden-tinted light and long dark shadows. The forest at the farthest extremity of the panorama seeme carved in some precious stone of a yellowish-green colour… Nearer at hand glittered golden cornfields interspersed with copses. There were troops to be seen everywhere, in front and to the right and left. All this was vivid, majestic, and unexpected.

(War and Peace, Book X, Chapter XXX, pp.872-3)

As a historian I found his views on the ‘laws of history’ fascinating (and prescient). Thankfully historians have moved on and in the last hundred years much has been achieved to tell history from the point of view of the individual soldier.

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 those infinitesimals) can we hope to arrive at the laws of history… As yet not a millionth part as much mental effort has been applied in this direction by historians as has been devoted to describing the actions of various kings, commanders, and ministers and propounding reflections of their own concerning these actions.

(War and Peace, Book XI, Chapter I, pp.910-911) 

The peace Tolstoy writes about is not that which is the opposite of war, as the title implies, but rather divine peace; the peace of finding faith in God or of the peace in finding a sense of self, as is the case with Pierre and Natasha. It is on his younger characters that Tolstoy dwells for it is they who have the time to take action, to experience and to change because of those experiences. Prince Andrew finds his peace as he lies in the military hospital watching another man die; Natasha finds hers through the nursing and death of Andrew; Pierre in his observations of war and his privations as a prisoner of war.

What was Tolstoy’s intention when he set out to write War and Peace? Of course he is extremely interested in the Napoleonic wars and the parts played by key historical figures: military commanders, strategists and courtiers. To some extent he is writing a revised Russian history of those events: to right the wronged reputations of some – especially Kutúsov; to propound his feelings about the nature of war: its unstoppability, its many and varying causes; to give us a glimpse of Russian life as it was in the first quarter of the 19th century; and to show us examples of the many and various forms of faith, goodness, and what it is to lead A Good Life, a moral life, a life of decent, compassionate humanity to one’s fellow man. It is little wonder it takes 1312 pages to achieve his aims.


Tolstoy pictured in May 1908, aged 79.