Review of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
By PAUL D. MILLER
War and Peace is five hundred and sixty thousand words long. It is more than twice as long as Moby Dick, almost triple the length of Jane Eyre, more than quadruple Augustine’s Confessions. It is one great pulsating mass of text, a grey rising tide of narrative. Enter War and Peace at your peril: it may swallow you whole.
If you dare the crossing and, unlike Napoleon’s Army, make it all the way back alive, you may discover the book is a delight. I was expecting a lugubrious Russian novel—Dostoevsky crossed with Turgenev, minus the profundity—at the end of which I might contemplate an icy grave with gratitude. Instead I got Pride and Prejudice on D-Day. War and Peace is the greatest Jane Austen novel ever written.
Like Austen’s novels, the book is mostly about the lives and loves of a bunch of rich 19th Century Europeans. Much of it—the “peace” of War and Peace—is focused on who goes to whose party, who is seen flirting with whom, which marriages are being arranged, and which aristocratic family is secretly going bankrupt.
Tolstoy’s minute observation of manners gives these long passages their interest: he is able to enter into people’s worlds and make them come alive, whether it is a 16-year-old girl going to her first ball, an aging patriarch overseeing his estate, or a young soldier itching to get off to battle. The sheer volume of detail makes these some of the most well-defined characters in literature. Like other fictional characters in whose lives you become deeply immersed, they become unforgettable.
Take, for example, one of my favorite passages: Tolstoy’s description of Pierre, stuck in solipsistic thought. “It was as if the main screw in his head, which held his whole life together, had become stripped. The screw would not go in, would not come out, but turned in the same groove without catching hold, and it was impossible to stop turning it.” (347)
Then come the epic battle scenes—Austerlitz, Borodino, and a few others—during which Jane Austen is shunted off-stage and replaced by something out of Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. The very loose plot follows our bunch of Russian aristocrats as the apocalypse happens around them; or, what they take to be the apocalypse, since the French invasion of Russia in 1812 threatens the existence of their comfortable world. Imagine Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightley donning a red coat and leading bloody assaults at Roark’s Drift or Saratoga in between scenes of courting Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse, and you get the flavor of War and Peace.
Tolstoy’s battle scenes manage to be both hilarious and harrowing. He switches back and forth between the soldier’s and the general’s view, giving us the grand plan as it is supposed to unfold on paper, and the random chaos and bloodshed as it happens at the front line. That Tolstoy’s battle scenes ring so true confirmed for me that the essential nature of war never changes. War is the futile attempt to make men kill each other in an orderly way.
Yet few things make men feel so alive as combat. Here is another vibrant and brilliant passage, a character’s inner monologue on the eve of battle:
“You’re afraid to cross that line [between yourself and the enemy], and would like to cross it; and you know that sooner or later you will have to cross it and find out what is there on the other side of the line, as you will inevitably find out what is there on the other side of death. And you’re strong, healthy, cheerful, and excited, and surrounded by people just as strong and excitedly animated.” So, if he does not think it, every man feels who finds himself within sight of an enemy, and this feeling gives a particular brilliance and joyful sharpness of impression to everything that happens in those moments. (143)
Of course, the book isn’t really about Napoleon’s invasion. The invasion doesn’t occur until page 603. For the first six hundred and two pages, Tolstoy is just introducing his characters. And what characters they are. War and Peace is the ultimate novel of the little guy. The story is peopled by a cast of thousands who generally fall into three camps: 1) peasants incapable of doing great things; 2) aristocrats who try to do great things and fail; and 3) great men who think they’re doing great things but aren’t. In Tolstoy’s world, we’re all little guys in a big world beyond our control, even the emperors and warlords among us.
This attitude is a direct result of Tolstoy’s idiosyncratic view of history. Interspersed between the Jane Austen and the Michael Shaara comes something out of Hegel’s Philosophy of History, the part of War and Peace that gets cut in abridged versions. Tolstoy takes a few chapters here and there—and a 50-page epilogue—to speak directly into the camera about what he thinks is going on. Here (unfortunately for those who skip these parts) is the heart of the book. Or, at least, the thesis.
According to Tolstoy, so-called great men like Napoleon have no real influence over the course of history; rather, they are simply the agents of historical forces of a mysterious nature. Tolstoy isn’t entirely clear: at some points he seems to say that the laws of history are an unknowable mystery; at others, that they are the work of Providence; and at yet other points, that they are the aggregate result of the choices of the mass of people. These ideas aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but Tolstoy seems to waver about which is the most satisfying explanation for why things happen.
He is also ambivalent about the possibility of human freedom. To say that history is guided by laws implies that human action is determined by those laws. But we feel, subjectively, free, as if we are not determined by the laws of some overarching force of history. Which is true—our feeling of freedom, or the rationally-derived laws of history?
Tolstoy reflects his theory of history in the plot and in the fate of his characters, who have no impact on the great events surrounding them at all. This is not at all what you would expect of an epic of historical fiction. So, in Shaara’s Killer Angels, the main character is Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a real historical figure whose heroics at Little Round Top turned the tide of the battle of Gettysburg, thus winning the war, thus saving the Union. The novel is fun because we get up close with the Hero who saved the Union.
Tolstoy’s characters do nothing of the sort. Prince Andrei Bolkonsky takes up a standard and begins to lead a dramatic charge at the battle of Austerlitz—where he is summarily shot down and nearly killed, and the battle is lost. Count Pierre Bezukhov loafs about in spiritual meanderings for most of the novel before suddenly deciding the fate of all Europe rests on his shoulders, so he runs off to the battle of Borodino, wanders into the very thick of the fiercest part of the battlefield … and does absolutely nothing. He literally sits around as tens of thousands are slain around him, and then wanders off back home again to have another spiritual crisis.
[MAJOR SPOILER AHEAD. Really, skip the next paragraph if you want to read War and Peace for yourself someday, because this is worth discovering for yourself.]
Prince Andrei’s fate is especially cruel. At Borodino he is killed in battle—not heroically, not in the middle of fighting, not even doing anything at all. He is literally standing around in reserve when an artillery shell happens to fall near him and explodes. Thus Tolstoy kills off his lead character on page 963. Bolkonsky’s random death is Tolstoy’s great joke on his readers; or, rather, Tolstoy’s interpretation of history’s great joke upon humanity. Our lives are insignificant—and then we die meaningless, inglorious deaths.
This insignificance perhaps is the dark truth that Pierre suspects but hides from earlier in the book:
Sometimes Pierre remembered stories he had heard about how soldiers at war, taking cover under enemy fire, when there was nothing to do, try to find some occupation for themselves so as to endure the danger more easily. And to Pierre all people seemed to be such soldiers, saving themselves from life: some with ambition, some with cards, some with drafting laws, some with women, some with playthings, some with horses, some with politics, some with hunting, some with wine, some with affairs of state. “Nothing is either trivial or important, it’s all the same; only save yourself from it as best you can!” thought Pierre. “Only not to see it, that dreadful it.” (538)
Pierre senses the smallness and insignificance of human lives seen from the perspective of the grand sweep of history. In these and other musings, Pierre comes the closest to the nihilists in Dostoevsky’s works—Raskolnikov or Ivan Karamazov, for example. He echoes, albeit faintly, the wisdom of Ecclesiastes.
But, for Christians, it is far from clear that the it Pierre fears is all that terrible. It should be liberating, not fearsome, to know that the fate of the world does not rest on our shoulders. You and I will have absolutely no impact on the course of human history. God, in his providential care, ensures that “for those who love God, all things work together for good,” (Romans 8:28). We know that, in the end, no matter the course of history, God wins. Tolstoy wrote a great book because he simply picked up a mundane reality—that none of us are world-historical figures—and told the story of these very normal lives as very abnormal things happen all around them. Tolstoy has given us a great novel about normal people.
By rejecting the thesis that Great Men of History earn the right by superior merit to guide events, Tolstoy provides an anticipatory refutation of Nietzsche: “Greatness not measurable by the measure of good and bad is only a recognition of one’s own insignificance and immeasurable littleness.” In the end, Tolstoy embeds a simple truth at the heart of War and Peace. “For us, with the measures of good and bad given us by Christ, nothing is immeasurable. And there is no greatness where there is no simplicity, goodness, and truth.” (1071)