Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, June 09, 2008

TOLSTOY: War and Peace (a Summary)

Some readers consider War and Peace the greatest novel ever written. Is it? In some ways we can certainly say that it isn’t. It’s a long and sprawling story that involves so many characters that it’s hard to keep up with who’s who. The chapters seem to come and go almost at random with no unifying purpose. On the other hand, it’s a story about war and peace. How can that subject not wind up becoming a long and sprawling story involving lots of characters and possibly serving no clear purpose in the end?

Tolstoy writes well about drawing room conversations and parties and weddings and family life. This is a woman’s world and when there is peace women tend to set the tone and arrange social engagements. War is a different matter. One of the main characters of the novel is Princess Marya, and “Princess Marya looked on as women do look on war. She was apprehensive for her brother who was at the front, and was horrified, without understanding it, at the cruelty of men, that led them to kill one another.” Men may not understand it either, but some men thrive on it and prefer a life filled with battles and military camps and would rather face death than boredom. Tolstoy doesn’t say why this is so, only that for some men it’s glory that makes life worth living.

What makes this a truly great book are the questions Tolstoy confronts us with. For example, what is the nature of history? That’s one of the main themes of the book. Tolstoy goes against the tide of modern opinion. He plainly believes that history may have a purpose but that purpose is beyond human understanding. The way Tolstoy puts it: “In historical events we see more plainly than ever the law that forbids us to taste of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.” And that leads to one of Tolstoy’s other grand themes: why did the Russians defeat Napoleon? Tolstoy attributes it to the Russian spirit. When they were forced to abandon Moscow Tolstoy writes that the Russian people “calmly awaited their fate, feeling in themselves the power to find what they must do in the moment of difficulty…The sense that this would be so, and always would be so, lay, and lies at the bottom of every Russian heart…they were ashamed of going away; but still they went away, knowing that it must be so.”

This is a powerful passage and the book as a whole is powerful literature. The sweep and grandeur of the tale takes in all of Russia. And yet the focus is also on the individual human predicament. Tolstoy isn’t focusing on just any old Russian but on, say, Pierre the reluctant aristocrat. What makes Pierre happy? He doesn’t know himself. It takes the tragedy of war to show him what’s really important in life. Tolstoy writes that “In Moscow, wasted by fire and pillage, Pierre passed through the hardships almost up to the extreme limit of privation that a man can endure…And now without any thought of his own, he gained that peace and that harmony with himself simply through the horror of death, through hardships, through what he had seen in Karataev…The satisfaction of his needs – good food, cleanliness, freedom – seemed to Pierre now that he was deprived of them to be perfect happiness.”

After some 1,400 pages of war and peace the reader comes away with the same notion. The things that are really important in life are simple things: good food, a clean bed to sleep in at night, having freedom to come and go wherever we want, whenever we please. On this basic level the simple joys of life are available to everyone. Tolstoy’s message is that not even a Napoleon can hope for anything better in this world.

-- RDP


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