Tolstoy pauses for a long, essayistic critique of the ‘great men’ theory of history, which says that great individuals (usually rulers) determine the course of history. Tolstoy argues that broader circumstances, caused by infinite minute decisions, are actually responsible for major historical events. He tells Napoleon’s life story and explains how its events were driven not by Napoleon, but by external circumstances.
Count Rostov dies. Nikolai inherits the estate, along with a mountain of debts. He is poor for a few years, and tries to support his mother on a soldier’s salary. Natasha marries Pierre and becomes an extremely dedicated wife and mother. Nikolai resolves his debts through a combination of hard work and marriage to Princess Marya. He becomes a very successful farmer because he cares about his peasants’ needs. Sonya lives with Nikolai and Princess Marya, and works as a kind of servant. Marya and Nikolai’s children often become sources of discord between the married couple. Pierre remains active in the Freemasons.
Tolstoy discusses the relationship between the life of a nation and the lives of individuals. He explores the question of whether people have free will if, as he argues, history is predestined. He argues that God resolves the tension between freedom and historical necessity. Individual freedom is the ultimate force that drives human history. They’re not at odds, Tolstoy says; necessity follows from freedom.
Tolstoy’s epilogue to War and Peace is notorious for its subversion of what an epilogue normally does. Instead of providing closure to the main story, this epilogue continues the main story but raises new questions rather than simply resolving old ones. When Pierre goes to Moscow on Freemason business, Tolstoy elliptically refers to the upheavals that would take place in that organization in the nineteenth century. However, he leaves the reader to guess how this might affect his characters.
In the epilogue, which takes place in 1820 (eight years after the end of Volume IV), Tolstoy offers us glimpses into two marriages – those of Natasha and Pierre, and of Nikolai and Marya. The tension in Nikolai and Marya’s relationship evokes the many small tragedies that led to it in the first place: Marya’s imprisonment by the violent muzhiks, Nikolai’s cold rejection of Sonya, Prince Andrei’s deathbed advice to his sister. In contrast, Pierre and Natasha have no such baggage. Although their marriage may come as a surprise, it is built on platonic friendship and self-sacrifice. This leads the novel’s two main characters to a loving and tranquil relationship based around a recognition of life's simplicity.
Tolstoy’s sophisticated essays in this section are some of the most challenging parts of the novel, and some translations even omit them. However, they help tie the novel’s many subplots together. War and Peace’s many vignettes of military and home life all illustrate the relationship between individual free will and historical predestination (or, as Tolstoy calls it, ‘necessity’).
According to Tolstoy, no individual can change the course of history. Since history is determined by so many minute decisions by so many people, no single person – however powerful – can bend history to his or her will. This worldview is radically democratic, and it explains the parity in the story between real historical figures like Napoleon and Kutuzov, and insignificant fictional characters like Sonya and Pyotr Rostov. If anything, the real historical characters in War and Peace lack the emotional power of the fictional ones.
However, history also affects individual lives. In some ways, this novel can be read as a treatise on the devastating toll that national conflict takes on individual people. Every character either dies or suffers a major loss in their family, and many of these tragedies are directly or indirectly caused by war. War also elevates those who sometimes do not deserve it; consider Dolokhov’s status as a war hero, or Boris Drubetskoy’s astonishing ascent into high society. The novel ends with these philosophical thoughts, which implicitly makes Tolstoy's point that what is in our power as individuals are the choices we make, and our willingness to accept the simplicity of faith. We can make others happy and attempt to make ourselves happy, we can continue to ask questions about morality rather than acting selfishly, and we can enjoy life, thankful for when it is good.