The “large, loose, baggy” monster has a lot to teach us
War and Peace is dizzying in its breadth, but dazzling all the way through; it spans seven years, and hosts 559 characters in total. There are numerous historical cameos including one of Tolstoy’s ancestors as well as the famous Prussian military theorist Clausewitz. Moreover, Napoleon is present in multiple scenes, as is the Tsar Alexander I and the Russian general Kutozov, among others.
The book is a relay race of consciousness, with the narrative passing from mind to mind and driving the story forward; at one point, he even writes from the perspective of a wolf! Tolstoy writes in an almost cinematic way, zooming out to give us a detached view of events and then zooming in to the individuals who inhabit them.
Speaking on War and Peace, Tolstoy commented:
“It is not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less an historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wished and was able to express in the form in which it is expressed.”
The author Henry James famously believed it to be ‘big, loose, baggy monster’, and in many ways, he is right: the whole epilogue is an extended dialogue on the force that moves nations, free-will, determinism and the historical method. The book is interspersed with similar digressions which discuss the errors of contemporary historians in understanding what drives collective human action.
Whilst the scope of the novel is breathtaking, it is grounded in a central, tripartite narrative that traces the development- spiritual and romantic — of Pierre Bezukhov, Natasha Rostov, and Andrei Bolkonsky. These characters come of age during the Napoleonic wars that ravaged Europe, and amidst this chaos, discover love, experience loss, and seek meaning in the shadow of war.
Alongside these three there is a rich cast of individuals radiating outwards including Natasha’s brother Nikolai, Andrei’s sister Maria and many more. As one might expect, this book is rich with wisdom, and has much to say to the modern world on how to live, love and handle loss. In this piece, I hope to impart some lessons I took away in my first reading of this text. Without further ado, let’s dive in:
Happiness is an inside job
Pierre Bezukhov is a restless soul, and after inheriting a fortune from his father is ensnared by the social climber Helene- a society beauty and daughter of the scheming Prince Vasily. Soon after their marriage, she has an affair with his friend Dolokhov, and Pierre, enraged, challenges him to a duel. After wounding Dolokhov, Pierre falls into a deep existential despair, and begins a long, arduous search for meaning, which culminates with him being captured during the burning of Moscow and eventually marched westward with the retreating French army. After narrowly escaping death by firing squad, Pierre finds himself imprisoned in a shed with peasant soldiers. It is here that he meets Platon Karataev.
Platon Karataev is a simple soul, materially impoverished, who lives from moment to moment, comforted by an unshakeable faith in God and goodness. He recites Russian proverbs, though often forgets what he said moments later and gives half of the small rations he has to his loyal dog. He sings “like a bird”, and sleeps like a stone, praying that he should rise like a loaf of bread each morning. By all accounts, Platon’s life has been a series of misfortunes, and yet, unlike Pierre, he is content and approaches hardship with levity. Even in the hell of captivity, Platon manages to be merry, charitable and faithful.
So what’s his secret? His philosophy is simple:
“The great thing is to get on with other people”
On his captivity, he jauntily says:
“The beggar’s bowl or the prison hole, you have to take what comes”.
Furthermore, unlike Pierre, Platon never dwells too long on a problem, and through Stoic detachment is seemingly impervious to despair:
“Karataev enjoyed no attachments, no friendships, no love in any sense of these words that meant anything to Pierre, yet he loved and showed affection to every creature he came across in life, especially people, no particular people, just those who happened to be there before his eyes. He loved his dog, his comrades, the French, and he loved Pierre, his neighbor” Despite all of this, Pierre feels that “he wouldn’t suffer a moment’s sorrow if they were to part.”
Through this simple philosophy, Platon possesses the peace of mind and soul that Pierre has toiled so long to achieve. Pierre seeks answers in the Freemasons, numerology, love and bodily pleasures, but so long as he sees life as a riddle to be solved, nothing fills the hole that plagues him.
Platon becomes a spiritual mentor of sorts to Pierre, showing him that to find the peace he desires, he must think less and appreciate more. Furthermore, through his actions he shows Pierre that instead of intellectualising morality, he should simply do the right thing and be a force for good in the world.
Platon shows us that happiness comes from within, and that a man in maximum luxury can be far more despondent than a peasant soldier, conscripted against his will, who festers in a shed with shackles around his ankles.
As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus said:
“Man is affected, not by events, but by the view he takes of them”.
Pierre, until captivity, seems to view life as one large curse, and tortures himself trying to make sense of it all. Platon, on the contrary, embraces life as a blessing, renounces any sense of control over his surroundings and cherishes the small pleasures that palliate suffering. He is a Stoic response to Pierre’s book-long spiritual questioning.
Ultimately, Platon reminds us that our perception of the world could make a hell of heaven, but also, a heaven of hell. In other words, we colour the world according to how we see it.
Overthinking can paralyse us
Pierre is constantly grappling with his own mortality, the nature of truth and just about any metaphysical question one might have. This excessive thought, far from offering solace, leaves him feeling increasingly hopeless:
After his duel with Dolokhov, Pierre sits in a sled station and is lost in a whirlwind of philosophical thought:
“Whatever the direction of his thoughts he kept coming back to the same unanswerable but inescapable questions. It was as if the working of his head had stripped the main screw that held his life together. The screw wouldn’t go in or come out; it just turned without biting on anything, always in the same hole, and he couldn’t stop it turning… What’s bad and what’s good? What should we love and what should we hate? What is life for, and what am I? What is life? What is death? What kind of force is it that directs everything? He kept asking himself. And there were no answers to any of these questions, except one illogical response that didn’t answer any of them.”
Pierre never does answer these questions, not intellectually at least, but Platon and his living, breathing God capture Pierres heart and provide an answer to his spiritual questionings that plague him for years.
The cog finally stops turning, and Pierre sees that simplicity, faith, charity and kindness, discovered through experience and not thought, are what is needed to calm his restless soul. He abandons that one word which so tormented him: “Why?”, and lives according to his conscience, being a light in the world where possible and doing good for good’s sake. Previously, Pierre thought himself into despair, and then would seek distraction from this through a dissolute lifestyle. The hypocrisy of the world tormented him, and he was eager to convert people to his own way of seeing things.
The faith that Pierre adopts after his captivity is intuitive and simple; Pierre falls in love with life again, and decides to relish every moment instead of asking why that moment has been granted to him:
“Now he had learnt to see the great, the eternal and the infinite in everything… and now took pleasure in observing the ever-changing, infinitely great and unfathomable life that surrounded him.”
Furthermore, he no longer allows himself to be distressed by the contradictions others hold, but simply listens to people’s views and loves them as they are. Moreover, instead of obsessing over his moral choices, he acts according to his conscience and does the best he can everyday; Instead of ruminating on the meaning of his life, he accepts Kierkergaard’s wisdom that:
“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards”
Pierres transformation, brought about by his contact with Platon and tribulations at the hands of the French, goes to show that we can create problems that aren’t there through overthinking, and miss the beauty of life by straining to see abstract, metaphysical truths. Furthermore, obsessing over these thoughts merely begets more thoughts, leaving one deaf and dumb to the simple, ever-present joys to be had in life. This is not to say we must forsake reason, or do away with philosophy, just that we should accept the limitations of our minds and natures, and seek to better ourselves day-by-day.
Where there is love, there is life
A recurring theme throughout the novel is how love- Familial, Romantic and Platonic- energises life and nurses the broken back to the world of the living. All three characters, Andrei and Natasha in particular, are rescued from despair through the act of loving and being loved.
It may well sound sentimental, but it is true nonetheless; humans are relational creatures, and almost all of us live for someone or something bigger than ourselves. As C.S. Lewis once said of friendship, it is not something with survival value, but rather something that gives value to survival.
According to Tolstoy, love is what makes life worth living.
After witnessing Andrei’s death firsthand, Natasha becomes ghostly and distant, withdrawing from the world and losing any hopes or dreams for the future. Her grief kills ambition, and she suffers in the moment, debilitated by a spiritual wound. Her parents despair that she is a mere shadow of her old self, and enlist doctors to try and cure her interminable melancholy.
Eventually, Natasha does emerge from her hole of despair, but not on account of the medicines administered. Instead, she is slowly nursed back to life by the act of giving, and receiving, love; first by loving her mother and palliating her grief, and then by the friendship she shares with Marya. Lastly, her hunger for life returns when she falls in love with Pierre:
“Natasha’s love, patient and persistent as it was, brought no explanation or consolation, but as it enfolded the countess on all sides, with every passing second it lured her back to the land of the living… And this was how Natasha’s wound was healing. She had believed her life was over. But suddenly love for her mother had shown her that the essence of her life- love- was still alive within her. When love reawakened, life reawakened.”
Natasha’s father passes from natural causes, which sends her mother into a pit of despair; by loving her mother and nursing her spiritual wound, Natasha also finds her own wound healing. Simultaneously, the love she shares with Marya gives her strength to go onwards and to endure each day.
As many will relate, living for others gives Natasha’s life meaning, and by helping others, she helps herself also. Her convalescence from spiritual despair is complete when she realises her love for Pierre, and his love for her:
“‘Marie, do you know something?’ Said Natasha suddenly, with a mischievous smile on her face, the likes of which princess Marya hadn’t seen for a long time.”
The loss of Andrei leaves her half alive and muted, but the prospect of new love awakens a hunger for life in her, and a smile, long absent, once again animates her face when she thinks of it.
Similarly, Andrei is brought back from the brink of despair by his love for Natasha. His first wife, whom he neglects emotionally, dies in childbirth leaving him feeling penitent for his mistreatment. Grief stricken and guilty, Andrei retreats to his country home at Bald Hills, spiritually and physically away from the life of Moscow or St Petersburg. Here, he distracts himself with the running of his estate.
Whilst visiting the Rostovs household on business, he is introduced to Natasha, and later dances with her at a grand ball. He falls deeply in love, and passionately declares this to his friend Pierre:
“I’d never have believed it, if anybody had said that I could love like this…it’s nothing like what I felt before. The whole world is split in two for me now: One half is her, and it’s all happiness, hope and light; the other is not her, and it’s all misery and darkness…”
Pierre notices the spiritual change that love heralds in his friend:
“His friend was now just what he seemed to be, a new man, utterly changed. Where had his depression gone, his contempt for life, all that disillusionment?”
Once again, love- in all its forms- is shown to be a life-force that rescues broken, disillusioned souls from despair. When Andrei withdraws into himself, his spirit withers and he grows disillusioned. It is only when he emerges from this isolation, and allows himself to love and be loved, that he escapes his despair.
When we experience loss, whether that be a death or a breakup, it can be easy to withdraw into ourselves and renounce life. War and Peace shows us that no matter how deeply we hurt, and how bleak the future may appear, there is always a way back to life through love, if only we will allow ourselves to experience it.
We should use our heads, as well our hearts, when choosing a partner
A common theme in War and Peace is that the ones we are drawn to romantically are not always those who are best for us, and that in our eagerness to be loved, we can attach ourselves to those who are likely to hurt us. Continuing, we are very adept at deceiving ourselves that lust is love, and will even rewrite our history with a person to make this more believable. Take Natasha, for instance, who is swept away by the silver tongued Anatole- a notorious philanderer.
Natasha undergoes multiple vicissitudes in the novel, and is shaped by her romantic mistakes. As a child, she pledges to marry Boris, a family friend and military social climber. Later, she falls in love with Andrei, and the two are engaged, on one condition however: the wedding is to be delayed a year as per Andrei’s fathers instruction,meaning that Natasha finds herself living apart from her fiancé, eager to love and be loved.
Away from her betrothed, growing irritated by his letters and feeling that her best years are wasting away, she is taken in by Anatole’s pursuit of her, and gobbles up his declaration of love. Her closest friend Sonya finds a love letter detailing the plan to elope, and tells her it will bring destruction, yet she feels that to think in love would be blasphemous; that in affairs of the heart, one must follow their heart.
Sonya betrays Natasha’s plan to elope with Anatole to her parents and the attempt is thwarted, leaving Natasha erratic and heartbroken. Eventually, however, she comes to acknowledge that her attempted affair was a mistake and is deeply penitent for her actions.
There are a few things we can learn from this. Firstly, our moods change, our passions are fickle and we are sometimes, even often, aroused by people who we are deeply incompatible with. In fact, we often desire things purely because they are forbidden, and not because they will confer happiness or contentment. We would all do well to analyse our emotions and realistically appraise those we are drawn to.
Furthermore, there is another lesson to be extracted from Natasha’s attempted affair. Sometimes, we are so in love with the idea of being loved, or so eager to give love, that we settle for people who are no good for us:
“She felt sorry for herself, sorry that all this time was being wasted, passing by uselessly, no good to anyone, while she felt so eager to love and be loved”.
So many people fall into this trap of believing that time is running out, and as a result, jump head first into relationships or affairs which bring nothing but misery upon them. What’s more, many will often overlook red flags in their haste to find a partner, feeling that any relationship is better than none. We would all do well to evaluate our motivations when we feel drawn to a new person, and to figure out if it is love, or something far less noble that leads us to desire them.
Sometimes we must honestly ask ourselves: Are we in love with the idea of love, or in love with the person before us?
A Final Word
I implore you to take the long march and read it for yourself, instead of relying on my explication of the text. Any review or article on the book will be deficient in some sense, and one element will be emphasised at the expense of another.
Perhaps understandably, people are often intimidated by the book on account of its size and reputation- I certainly was. Any fears I had were cast aside after the first hundred pages, and a long, joyous journey followed. Cast aside your fears, set aside some time and dive into this masterful work, whatever you choose to label it.