“If everyone made war only according to his own convictions, there would be no war.”
Although they are two of the novel's three male leads, Prince Andrei and Pierre Bezukhov rarely have substantial interactions. One exception to this occurs at the beginning of War and Peace, when Pierre and Andrei discuss the reasons that men go to war. Prince Andrei is very frank about the fact that men often go to war as a response to personal issues. By 'convictions,' he means the feelings of nationalism and ideological passion that Pierre thinks are the best (and only) reasons to go to war. Although Prince Andrei is naïve about some aspects of war, his observation that men often go to war out of self-interest rather than nationalism is reinforced by the many soldiers who appear in Volume I, Part 2. This theory, which suggests war is fed by individual desires, also fits in with Tolstoy's philosophy of history, in that every man who fights in then responsible for making history.
“There’s nothing, nothing I would wish for, there’s nothing I would wish for, if only I were there. ... In me alone and in this sun there is so much happiness, but here . . . groans, suffering fear, and this obscurity, this hurry . . . Again they’re shouting something, and again everybody’s run back somewhere, and I’m running with them, and here it is, here it is, death, above me, around me . . . An instant, and I’ll never again see this sun, this water, this gorge . . .”
The style of Nikolai's internal monologue changes significantly when he is under the pressure of his first battle at Schöngraben. Tolstoy forgoes complete sentences for fragments, and logical thought for impressionistic images of nature – "this sun, this water, this gorge." The passage is a direct representation of Nikolai's primal panic, but it also foreshadows the stream of consciousness-style narration that would become popular during the Modernist movement, fifty years after Tolstoy published War and Peace. Nikolai's musings also resonate with Prince Andrei's attraction to the blue sky as he lies dying on the battlefield at Austerlitz. The similarity between the two men's internal monologues suggests that war has a universal potency that drives men away from civilization and back to a state of nature.
“It’s not given to people to judge what’s right or wrong. People have eternally been mistaken and will be mistaken, and in nothing more so than in what they consider right and wrong.”
After Pierre first joins the Freemasons, he and Andrei debate the merits of the Masons' views. Tolstoy does not seem to agree fully with either party. For example, Prince Andrei's agnostic view of morality conflicts with Tolstoy's strong opinions about war and capital punishment, which he expresses through his graphic depictions of those topics in the novel. However, Andrei's conviction that people will always be mistaken about morality does, in some ways, sum up the driving forces of the novel. Each character believes that they are doing what is best for their family and for society, and these beliefs move Tolstoy's characters to action even when they are mistaken. Yet again, this falls in line with his view of history - every individual follows his own mandates, and therefore feeds the fate-like push of history.
“All Moscow society, from old women to children, received Pierre like a long-awaited guest, whose place was always kept ready and vacant. For Moscow society, Pierre was the most dear, kind, intelligent, merry and magnanimous of eccentrics, absentminded and warm-hearted, a Russian squire of the old stamp. His purse was always empty, because it was open to everyone.”
Tolstoy's repetition of "Moscow society" here emphasizes that he is making a point not just about Pierre's acquaintances, but about society in general. Their reaction to Pierre as "dear, kind, [and] intelligent" contrasts with their treatment of him before he got his inheritance, when they ignored him and considered him a buffoon. Tolstoy explains their changed opinion by noting that "his purse ... was open to everyone." Although aristocratic society is characterized by its pretensions to wealth, the nobility is just as susceptible to greed and profligacy as anyone else.
“Man lives consciously for himself, but serves as an unconscious instrument for the achievement of historical, universally human goals. An action once committed is irrevocable, and its effect, coinciding in time with millions of actions of the people, acquires historical significance.”
At the beginning of Volume III, Tolstoy explains how he thinks history should be written and thought about. His views on history help explain his aesthetic sensibility in War and Peace (which, incidentally, he did not consider a novel, but rather a hybrid of history and fiction). His belief that history is controlled by "millions of actions of the people" helps to explain the juxtaposition of real, important historical figures like Napoleon Bonaparte and Tsar Alexander I with the stories of fictional aristocrats who have little direct impact on history.
“We’re not in agreement, let them devastate us! We don’t take your grain, we’re not in agreement!”
Most of War and Peace addresses the lives of the upper class. Until this point in the novel, Tolstoy has only briefly touched on the lives of those who enable his characters' opulent lifestyle. When the peasants imprison Princess Marya on her estate, Tolstoy evenhandedly presents the situation, offering us insight into Marya's good intentions and naïveté, while also presenting the peasants' grievances. Through their impassioned cry, Tolstoy concisely illustrates the muzhiks' desperation, which is so extreme that they would rather take their chances with the French than live another day under the Bolkonskys – even with more food and higher pay. The question of peasant freedom was an important one in Tolstoy's day, and by confronting the controversy in a historical setting, Tolstoy reveals that the novel does indeed have some political intentions.
“What Kutuzov said came not from clever considerations, but from the feeling that was in the soul of the commander in chief, just as it was in the soul of every Russian man.”
The narrator of War and Peace usually writes in a distant, analytical mode – a style that allows him to explain and sympathize with many different characters. Here, he allows a brief moment of sentimentality, suggesting that Russian national identity can inspire a passion that transcends normal thought. There are good and bad sides to this sort of thinking. In this scene, Tolstoy seems to admire Kutuzov's confidence and integrity. However, he portrays Nikolai Rostov's youthful fits of patriotic rapture more critically.
“The majority of the people of that time paid not attention to the general course of things, but were guided only by the personal interests of the day. And those people were the most useful figures of that time.”
This editorial comment from the narrator helps illuminate the relationship between Tolstoy's view of history and the characters of War and Peace. Tolstoy believes that insignificant individuals "guided only by the personal interests of the day" are the driving forces of history. According to him, the decisions they make determine the course of major events. In that sense, they are more 'useful' than traditional great leaders like Napoleon and Tsar Alexander.
“In captivity, in the shed, Pierre had learned, not with his mind, but with his whole being, his life, that man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfying of natural human needs, and that all unhappiness comes not from lack, but from superfluity.”
Tolstoy focuses much of War and Peace on questions of morality – that is, questions of how a person should conduct their life. Considering how often he writes prescriptively, it is perhaps surprising that Tolstoy values happiness as one of the chief priorities in life. Pierre's lifestyle isn't necessarily bad because it is indulgent or licentious; most of the other characters are profligate with their extraordinary wealth. Rather, Pierre's lifestyle is problematic because it prevents him from achieving happiness and spiritual contentment. For Pierre, these qualities are easier to find in relative poverty than they are in the world of plenty that he has grown up in.
“There was a new feature in Pierre which won him the favor of all people: this was the recognition of the possibility for each person of thinking, feeling, and looking at things in his own way; the recognition of the impossibility of changing a person’s opinions with words.”
For much of the novel, Pierre's conversations have taken the form of arguments. He cannot seem to express a political or intellectual opinion without arguing with someone, whether it's with Prince Andrei about going to war or Nikolai Rostov about the Freemasons. Further, his opinions - which reveal his deep passion but naivite about society - tend to annoy or upset people. He undergoes a spiritual transformation when he is a prisoner of war, which leaves him with a more relaxed attitude toward the people around him. He is no longer an intellectual or spiritual seeker because he has given up on the idea of absolute truth outside of God. The basic lesson seems to be that happiness comes in accepting simplicity, a lesson that nevertheless ironically requires much contemplation to arrive at.
War and Peace Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for War and Peace is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.