War and Peace

War and Peace Essay Questions

  1. 1

    What is Tolstoy's view of history?

    Tolstoy believes that history is caused by infinite minute decisions, and that the people we normally recognize as the great decision-makers of history, like Napoleon Bonaparte, are no more important than common servants on the home front. Because individuals cannot change history, historical events are inevitable and predestined. However, because that predestination comes from an infinity of individual choices and decisions, it has an uneasy relationship with free will. The novel takes an implicit stand at its close that we must choose to do our best to live morally while not attempting to control the larger forces of history.

  2. 2

    Discuss the misconceptions that the characters have about war at the beginning of the novel. How are they proven wrong by later events?

    Nikolai Rostov initially believes that war will be a romantic opportunity for glory. He is disillusioned in his first battle, although he renews some of his romanticism when he sees the tsar. However, he quickly loses his illusions about war again when he nearly kills a French dragoon. Prince Andrei also finds that war is not what he hoped, although his illusions were somewhat different. He wanted an easy escape from Petersburg and his unhappy family life, and instead he found a complex political landscape that was every bit as fraught and unpleasant as the one he faced in Petersburg society. Overall, the novel seems to suggest that war has a universal power to force us to confront our socially-conditioned beliefs and feelings. In its rawness and violence, it is both a part of us and something we often despise about ourselves.

  3. 3

    Explain Tolstoy’s view of morality. How does the novel’s plot illustrate his views?

    Tolstoy admires pious, ascetic people like Princess Marya Bolkonsky, but he also suggests that people should pursue worldly happiness. He seems to imply that this is a moral imperative and not just an individual priority. Marya's moral development consists not of becoming more pious, but of reconciling her piety and altruism with a healthy family life. Sonya never learns to balance her own needs with those of the people around her. Because of this, she faces a miserable, empty life at the end of the novel. Both Pierre and Andrei constantly battle against this conflict between spiritual and material life, and Pierre's final happiness comes, like Marya's does, from finding spiritual happiness within a material world he can never totally renounce.

  4. 4

    Analyze the novel's portrayal of marriage.

    For much of the novel, Tolstoy is cynical about marriage. In a telling scene, Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky advises Prince Andrei that all marriages are as unhappy as his union with Lise Meinen was. Likewise, Pierre marries Hélène impulsively for superficial reasons, and regrets it almost immediately. Tolstoy views happy marriage as an elusive goal that can only be achieved by marrying for sincere feeling rather than for money or beauty. However, even in cases like this, the war-like machinations of society can often poison our beliefs and feelings. In the end, marriage and relationships seem a source of great anxiety for Tolstoy.

  5. 5

    How does Tolstoy portray Napoleon Bonaparte? Why does he depict him this way?

    Tolstoy portrays Napoleon as charismatic but effete, as competent but not a genius. This dovetails with his criticism of the 'great men' theory of history: Napoleon is a flawed human with strengths and weaknesses just like anyone else. The perspective on the historical ruler is interesting. Sometimes he is presented with objective distance, as a force on the events to come. Other times, Tolstoy examines the man's psyche to find complications like those discussed above. Again, he is able to both present the human who influenced history, while downplaying the possibility that this one man was solely responsible for the carnage often attributed to him.

  6. 6

    How does the epilogue of War and Peace relate to the novel’s main plot?

    Volume IV ends abruptly with Natasha contemplating her marriage to Pierre. The epilogue offers some closure to the plot by portraying the characters eight years later, but more importantly, it explains the philosophy that underpins the story's plot and structure. It is important to remember that Tolstoy did not consider War and Peace a novel, and felt that he had to justify his arguments about history and explain directly how his beliefs pertained to the story. Considering that the novel was serialized, it is possible Tolstoy also wanted to make sure that his overarching purpose - which helps give cohesion to an otherwise sprawling work - was clear to readers. That is, he does not want us merely to think of it as a romance, but rather as a story of romance and more that attempts to capture the movement of history as a whole.

  7. 7

    Discuss Pierre’s moral development over the course of the novel.

    Pierre's lengthy quest for maturity and spiritual satisfaction is one of the novel's main plots. From the beginning, he is a spiritual soul who attempts to find fulfillment either in society or out of it. He seeks moral renewal from a variety of sources: pacifism, Freemasonry, poverty, glory in battle, and more. As he grows, he tries more and more to renounce the society that does not accept him, and falls more and more into these alternatives. For instance, he becomes a more devout Freemason than those who initiated him. However, he is never able to renounce the physical world, and keeps returning to his vices of women and liquor. In his imprisonment, Pierre discovers the virtue in simplicity, and from this develops a simple faith in God that neither renounces the material world nor delves into it. Through his years of contemplation and searching, he finally learns that happiness does not come from the search but instead from steadfast faith in God.

  8. 8

    Analyze Natasha’s various relationships with men. What do they show about her character?

    With each romantic relationship, Natasha shows more and more agency. Her first relationship with Boris Drubetskoy seems to be an arrangement of convenience, and she waits passively for Boris to break up with her when she realizes she is no longer interested in him. Similarly, she needs her mother's help to reject Captain Denisov's marriage proposal. By the time she meets Anatole Kuragin, she is willing to take her fate into her own hands, at least enough to elope with him (although someone else is still controlling the situation – in this case, Anatole and Dolokhov). By the end of the novel, Natasha is in full control of her relationship with Pierre; she enters it and conducts it according to her own free will.

  9. 9

    Does Tolstoy believe that individuals have free will? Why or why not?

    Although Tolstoy argues that history is predestined, he still has faith in individual free will. He reconciles these apparently contradictory viewpoints by explaining that the course of history is determined by infinite small choices, freely made. He adds that God reconciles the course of history with free will, and as long as one has faith in God, the contradiction between the two isn't a significant intellectual problem.

  10. 10

    Compare Pierre's behavior at the battle of Borodino with his behavior in occupied Moscow. How does he change? How does he stay the same?

    At both Borodino and Moscow, Pierre serves as a Don Quixote-like figure, who wanders through important events without fully realizing their significance. In doing so, he serves as a vehicle for the author's critique of the situation. At Borodino, Pierre's naïveté about the conditions of war highlights the battle's absurdity and violence. In Moscow, his privileged background again serves as a relief against which the city's deprivation is especially stark. However, in Moscow he is more mature and actively tries to help those around him, whereas at Borodino he is only concerned about glory for himself. When he is willing to so quickly abandon his glory-driven quest to kill Napoleon in favor of helping suffering people in the city, we see how suffering has led him to choose selfless morality over self-satisfactions. This step prefigures his ultimate acceptance of simple faith as the path to happiness.