War and Peace

Leo Tolstoy’s wide and glorious novel War and Peace is world-renowned for its epic length and serious subject matter. But what happens in those 1,000 plus pages? The story is set in the early 1800s, as France invades Russia. It follows a broad cast of characters: there’s the serious Andrei, his religious sister Marya, and revolutionary friend Pierre. In the Rostov family, Natasha dreams of romance while Nikolai dreams of war. As history marches forward, the families’ fates merge, characters evolve, and Tolstoy captures the human spirit in all its many intricacies.

History

Tolstoy narrates the events of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in great detail, and devotes whole chapters of War and Peace to essays on the nature of the past. It is ordinary people, he argues, who shape our understanding of history – a remarkably modern interpretation.

Love

Romance, family, friendship, passionate affairs: love takes many forms in War and Peace, and it is a mysterious and powerful force. It is also revelatory: “Everything I know, I know because of love,” says Andrei.

Russia

When Natasha visits her uncle, she picks up a local folk dance with no training and no experience. How? She is responding to “unknown feelings in her heart”; her Russian spirit cannot be suppressed. This vast, charismatic country is crucial to understanding the meaning of the novel.

War

Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, but the country’s formidable military and crushing winter helped to defeat the French Emperor. Many of the characters in War and Peace are initially idealistic about war, but Tolstoy pulls no punches when showing its chaotic, brutal outcomes.

Humanity

Tolstoy explores intricate moments of human nature – a soldier looks at an oak tree and thinks about his place in the world; a woman reflects that she has known “very little happiness”. War and Peace also paints a much broader picture of the ambitions and egos that keep humanity moving forward.